James Maddison has insisted that the England Under-21 team he was part of last summer wasn’t over confident, despite their terrible showing at the European Championships in Italy, which led to criticism of the players from England manager Gareth Southgate and FA technical director Les Reed.
The Leicester attacking player was one of the senior members of a squad which had huge promise, featuring Phil Foden, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Mason Mount and Ryan Sessegnon and were among the tournament favourites.
But they failed to win a game and were eliminated after just two games, losing 2-1 to France and 4-2 to Romania.
James Maddison was part of the England side that suffered early Euro Under-21 elimination
The England Under-21 team, Manager Aidy Bothroyd bore the brunt of criticism for resting Foden in the second game to save him for the latter stages and failing to use Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham from the start. Yet it is the players at whom Southgate and Reed have pointed the finger.
Southgate has said that the players involved needed to show more ‘humility’ after goalkeeper Dean Henderson had said immediately after their exit that they would be capable of beating the eventual winners.
Reed said that while you wanted teams to be confident, ‘it doesn’t need to border on arrogance.’
Under-21 manager Aidy Boothroyd attracted criticism after the disappointing campaign
It amounted to a very public clipping of fledgling wings though it hasn’t stopped Southgate promoting Maddison, Mount and Wan-Bissaka, who has since had to withdraw, to the senior team for the current round of international games.
And while Maddison accepts some of the criticisms, he insists that the team were only driven by an appropriate and deep-seated belief and desire that they could win the tournament.
‘Maybe when we look back we might think we were overconfident,’ he said. ‘It didn’t seem like that at the time. We were so motivated to do well and we worked so hard.
‘I can tell you categorically that [over confidence] wasn’t the case, because if there was any of that, me and the other senior lads would have pulled people up, because we were so determined to do well.
‘Looking back maybe we did think we were one of the best teams in the tournament and with the talent we had I don’t think we were stupid saying that. But we lost to Romania in a must-win game. I don’t think we took it for granted but it’s something we’ve got to learn from.
‘The way I felt after the Romania game was… I’ve never felt that, to be honest. We were obviously out after two games and we went into the tournament trying to win it.
‘We worked so hard. If you had seen the training camps in the month building up to the Euros, how hard we were working here… and when we got to Italy as well.’
His impressive form this season saw Maddison earn a call-up to the senior squad
Asked what he had learnt from the failure, Maddison said: ‘Maybe game management [England had Hamza Choudury sent off in a 2-1 defeat to France and conceded a last-minute own goal]; probably learn how to see the game out, because we conceded two late goals.
‘Put in that position again, I think the whole 23-man squad, every player, whether involved or not, will have learned an awful lot about how to deal with certain situations in tournament football.
‘That was my first experience of tournament football. And it’s different. If you ask me what I learned, I learned so much that I haven’t got time to tell you….’
Maddison, who was called up last autumn to Southgate’s senior squad but then not asked back again for the rest of the season, may yet make his England debut against Kosovo on Tuesday.
He concedes that after the summer’s showing, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Southgate had ignored the Under-21s. Yet fine starts to their club season by Maddison, Mount and Wan-Bissaka prompted the England manager to bring them in.
‘If you spoke to me, Mason, Aaron, none of us expected to be called up at all. The feeling you probably get is: “Wow, I’m in” rather than “I expected to be in because of the pathway.”
‘It’s a massive achievement to get called up and just because we were in the 21s we don’t expect to be put in. It would be naive to think that.’
Since securing a £20million move to Leicester in 2018, Maddison has thrived in midfield
Yet, however he summer panned out, the natural exuberance, creativity and personality in Maddison will not be subdued any time soon. He is not shy in engaging with critics, as TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson discovered.
Clarkson, a Chelsea fan, tweeted at Maddison during their clash with Leicester: ‘Too long at the barber’s. Not enough time practicing football.’
To which Maddison responded: ‘Can count on one hand how many trims you’ve got left. #Thin.’
‘I wasn’t narked, to be honest,’ said Maddison. ‘It was just a light-hearted joke. ‘I used to watch Jeremy Clarkson on TV and he made a comment about my hair. I think my hair is alright to be honest.
‘It’s important to show personality, I think I have a good connection with the Leicester fans and England fans. Everyone’s got their own personality, but I’m not going to hide it. People can have opinion or make assumptions about me but everyone does that with everyone in the world. I will just be myself.’
Maddison has worked his way up the leagues after starring during a loan spell at Aberdeen
His extrovert nature also belies the down-to-earth nature of his development. Raised at local team Coventry, sold to Norwich just as they were getting relegated, he then struggled to find his place, had a loan spell at Aberdeen before shining under Daniel Farke in the Championship, which earned him his move to Leicester.
As for questioning his commitment to practice, Clarkson misfired. Among his youth team coaches at Coventry, Maddison was renowned for doing extra work after training, even as a child.
‘My life is football. I live and breathe football. If anything I sometimes need to take a step away from football. Brendan [Rodgers] still has to come and get me off the training ground as I’m out there till 1pm when training finishes at half eleven. I’ve done that since a young age and it’s stood me in good stead and got me to where I am now.
‘I want to get the most out of what I’ve got. I like to think I’ve got quite a solid head screwed on, with the decision I’ve made in terms of transfers in the past. I played in League One, Scotland, the Championship, the Premier League, so I’ve worked my way up.
‘And my ability will get me to where I want to be and that’s the top level. I’m playing in the best league in the world at the minute so I’m not going to take that for granted. I’m at fantastic club at Leicester City. [I want to go] wherever my ability will take me and hopefully that’s as high as possible.’