At 2pm last Monday, the doorbell sounded. I wasn’t in, instead sat at the library working on both a dissertation and an article for this very website. My housemate was, however, and he knew exactly what had arrived.
In a rush of blood, the week before, he had impetuously decided to bid for James Maddison’s signed and match-worn shirt; a garment adorned with a poppy in the name of Remembrance Sunday and one that probably still possessed the odour of a young man who gives nothing other than his all whenever he pulls it on.
My housemate’s excitement was if anything bizarrely palpable, resembling a young child arriving at his first match. However, in a late frenzy and following the emergence of some unaffordable prices, he lost what had unfolded into a fierce bidding war.
But he wasn’t finished. Instead, he sought to obtain Maddison’s match-issued shirt, an item of yellow and green cloth that had not been worn but had nevertheless been signed by our young starlet. It would function as a belated birthday present from his parents, he informed me. Regardless, a few minutes and £150 later he had got what he wanted. Maddison’s shirt was his.
A few days later, he answered that doorbell, receiving his beloved gift and bombarding me with a barrage of snapchats and text messages. While I would struggle to justify investing such a sum on a football shirt, I could understand his elation. It was only a few days since Maddison had conjured up that magic at Griffin Park, nutmegging Brentford’s Ryan Woods before sumptuously curling into the top corner, perhaps intoxicating my friend with that moment of genius.
Maddison is a special talent. Those present at the iPro at the weekend would have had the privilege of watching his most recent performance as City’s protagonist, jinking and turning round players in that idiosyncratic manner that has marked him out as one of the Championship’s top prospects.
As we have all become so acutely aware, Maddison relentlessly creates. For those of us at the Riverside, Portman Road, Ashton Gate or Griffin Park, Maddison – usually spectacularly – scores. However, what renders him one of my favourite City players throughout the past decade is not necessarily football related whatsoever.
Well, sort of. What makes Maddison so likeable is not his ability to score screamers, to humiliate defenders or to execute killer passes. It is not even how aesthetically-pleasing and fluent he is to watch. Instead, it is his Machiavellian ability to wind up his opponents and other sets of fans, simultaneously serving to enhance his reputation in Norfolk as a player we collectively adore.
Obviously the two go hand in hand. Of course, Maddison would not possess this humorous, provocative and devious ability to engender such resentment from his opponents without his superior technical ability. But it is the way in which he has appropriated this ability as a means of casting himself as the pantomime villain; winning fouls, running down the clock and winding up those on the terraces in a manner he evidently thrives off.
At Bramall Lane, his time-wasting antics in the second-half were preceded by an animated jump into the South Yorkshire air in front of the home fans. Maddison hadn’t even scored the goal himself, yet took a strangely endearing pleasure from prompting anger from what surely has to be one of the most deplorable sets of fans in the country.
At Portman Road, he followed his unerring strike with a nonchalant ‘shh’ sign to those behind the goal. At Griffin Park, he once again celebrated purposefully in front of the home fans. All incidents, dare I say it, that successfully served to intensify my love of a man who is a mere week and half older than me.
And then there was the iPro. That terrific away point in the East Midlands, a day that City fans may reflect back on nostalgically after that polished second-half performance, and one that Derby supporters may instead interpret as a game characterised by Maddison’s duplicity and their own side’s inability to create. At full-time, they were fuming.
Once again, Maddison was superb. And, once again, his performance went further than his mere footballing performance. He successfully manufactured contact with Scott Carson to win us a – albeit irrelevant – first-half penalty, infuriating the 26,000 home fans present and prompting a series of deafening boos whenever he touched the ball.
When his moment finally came 45 minutes later, he held his nerve from the spot. Then there was that celebration, fist-pumping in front of those sat in the North Stand and intensifying their aversion towards our now pervasively resented talisman.
Put simply, Maddison gets it. He understands what fans love to see; a magical player who graces the pitch with confidence yet a subtle touch of both attitude and arrogance. He thrives off the way in which he is so capable of frustrating his opponents; in his post-match interview he simply laughed off oppositions’ increasing tendency to resort to tactics more suited to a rugby field. More rudimentarily, he loves to play football.
His talents extend further than merely what he does on the pitch. Indeed, Maddison is also both intelligent and articulate. He spoke so well with Chris Goreham following his antics on Saturday afternoon, appearing so grounded and grateful for the opportunity Daniel Farke has provided him.
His subsequent tweets were also telling, delineating the way in which he felt an obligation to prove to his followers – and the Derby County community – that he did not dive. Naturally, his tweet prompted some hostile responses. He won’t care. His openness and transparency with fans was refreshing to see.
Maddison will go a long way. His plethora of attributes including not only his footballing prowess but also his attitude, awareness, intelligence and eloquence, which will only serve to combine into a potent synthesis that will propel his career path even further upwards.
As he made explicit on Saturday evening by referring to Norwich as a ‘platform’, he will not be with us for much longer. We must treasure his brilliance while it lasts. Wherever our artful young magician goes next, at least my mate will always have his shirt.