James Maddison savours ‘pinch-me moments’ after getting England call

James Maddison reached down to touch the white line before pointing his index fingers skyward and tilting his gaze in the same direction. It was a moment in time for the Leicester playmaker, one he feared might not come – his entrance into England’s opening World Cup training session in Qatar – and he wanted to savour it.

Then again, there have been quite a few like that of late, beginning with his call-up into the squad by Gareth Southgate last Thursday – a shock after three years out of the picture – and rolling into him being selected as the player for England’s welcome media conference here.

“Every one at the minute is almost like a pinch-me moment,” Maddison says, all easy confidence and warmth. “It’s surreal.”

Maddison finds himself as a spokesman of sorts for the squad despite his inexperience and absolutely because of his self‑assurance and star quality, taking questions on pretty much everything including England’s chances of glory. After reaching the semi-finals of the last World Cup and the final at Euro 2020, he feels they are poised to make the decisive step. “You have to go into a tournament like this with the belief you can win it,” he says.

“If you have any sort of doubt then you probably will come across a hiccup along the way. Our belief is fully there, we are invested. Hopefully we can go that one step further.”

Really, though, it was impossible to ignore the drama of Maddison’s personal story; how he nipped in at the very last to Southgate’s travelling party after presenting an irresistible case with his club form over the calendar year. He says he had never given up hope of playing for England again, even when he thought he deserved a chance previously only to be overlooked, but there was no doubt that a part of him was ready for disappointment.

“I was kind of braced for both,” Maddison says. “I think it was the saying of hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. I hadn’t been in a squad for three years and I’m not naive. I understand how it works. But I also had that hope.”

Maddison had been in the office of the Leicester manager, Brendan Rodgers, last Thursday morning and he had not heard anything from Southgate. “He [Rodgers] was just being a good man‑manager and putting his arm around me if I didn’t get the call, and how to stay motivated for the game at West Ham on Saturday and how to enjoy the break.”

Then Maddison went into the changing room and saw that he had missed a call from Southgate, who had not selected him since the fixtures in November 2019 – when he gave him his debut and only cap as a 56th-minute substitute against Montenegro.

“So the heart starts beating,” Maddison says. “I had his number saved still! I called him back, he gave me the good news and it was all a bit of a blur. I couldn’t tell you what Gareth said. After the call finished, it was a bit of a head‑on‑the-wall moment, a big deep breath and a call to my parents.

“My dad actually cried and he is not a crier. I don’t think I’ve seen him cry for years. I had dinner that night at home in Coventry with my mum and dad – and my little boy and my partner. I wanted to see my parents. It’s a moment I will cherish forever.”

Maddison uploaded a photograph to social media of himself as a kid in an England shirt, his face painted with a St George’s cross. “It hasn’t sunk in,” he wrote. “I’m going to the World Cup. Dreams really do come true.”

Has it sunk in now? It remains unclear. Maddison was asked about his cropped haircut in the picture and whether it was a tribute to David Beckham, whose free-kick prowess and ability to deliver at the big moments he has tried to emulate.

“Firstly, I’m not sure I had the Beckham hair shave,” he says. “The barbers were quite expensive and mum and dad probably couldn’t afford it. My mum used to get the clippers out every couple of weeks and it was No 2 all over!”

Maddison was deadly serious about his intention to seize any opportunity that comes his way at the World Cup, even if it is only a single one. He is not expected to start as Southgate looks ahead to England’s first game against Iran on Monday. But even if he comes off the bench in the 89th minute, Maddison will be ready to create memories, to sprinkle his magic.

“Beckham and set-pieces,” Maddison says. “How many times have we watched that free-kick against Greece that sent us to a major tournament? They are the moments you literally dream of. Big moments in tournaments are the ones that get replayed for years and years so to get one would be absolutely unbelievable. That would be the real pinnacle.”

Maddison, who still considers himself to be the “little boy who is kicking a ball around in his garden with the face paint on”, wanted to put something to bed: the fallout from his visit to a casino in October 2019. Maddison had withdrawn from the England squad citing illness and was then pictured playing poker as his teammates slumped to defeat against the Czech Republic in Prague.

The point that is often overlooked, he says, is that Southgate called him up for the next England squad and gave him his debut. “It wasn’t a big deal for Gareth at the time,” he says. “That was never a concern, it was more outside noise.”

There is sure to be plenty more of that in the coming weeks but Maddison wanted to focus on what he can influence, including his recovery from the slight knee problem which forced him off against West Ham.

He emerged to train with all 25 of his teammates at 4.30pm local time, the call to prayer reverberating shortly afterwards to provide an atmospheric backdrop. Kyle Walker was out there as he worked his way back from groin surgery and it was pushing 30C – another challenge England must overcome. The match against Iran is a 4pm kick-off.

“The mood is brilliant,” Maddison says. “We have got an absolutely fantastic hotel and the setup is second to none. It’s the finer things like going into my room and seeing there are pictures of my boy, my family and my mum and dad. There is a lot of excitement and we cannot wait to get going.”