When James Maddison was at Norwich he would often be seen leaving the club’s Colney training ground with Tupperware boxes full of food. Perhaps some roasted salmon, or steamed rice, or poached chicken.
A meticulous approach to the game extended to constantly picking the brains of team chef Dan Savage for advice on what best to eat to stay at peak fitness during a long season. More than once Savage sent him home with samples to try and instructions to follow.
Stuart Webber, Norwich’s sporting director, tells Sportsmail: ‘Dan has been round James’s house cooking with him and they still speak now. All these little details James is massive on. It was so he could be fresh for games, and for the recovery of his leg muscles because he does strike so many balls.
‘For us he only had one slight muscle injury, after he came back from an England Under-21s camp. He missed two days of training when he should have been out for two weeks, because he did everything to the physio’s letter.’
Behind the style that has propelled Maddison into the England reckoning is a substance that should keep him there. He has supreme confidence in his own talent but it is underpinned by years of hard work.
Webber, who was previously employed as Liverpool’s director of recruitment, adds: ‘Because of his flicky hair, tattoos, and coloured boots, people probably expect him to be lazy or big-time. But he is the guy who would park up at 9 o’clock and walk to the security guards to shake hands. He’d go to the admin lady, give her a kiss, enter the canteen, give them all a high five.
‘And he really was the last one out on the training pitch. None of the free-kicks he scored last season were a surprise to me because you’d watch him three days a week, hitting 20 balls into the top corner of the net from all different angles and distances.
‘I truly believe he’ll go and play in the Champions League, let alone the Premier League, because he has that extra bit. “Yes, I’m naturally talented but I also have an unbelievable desire to reach the top.” ‘I was fortunate in my time at Liverpool that I was around some top, top players and for me he’s up there with Raheem Sterling in terms of his quality and mentality.’
Those who coached Maddison as boy tell a similar story, although his slight frame initially raised questions. He joined local club Coventry aged seven and stayed for 13 years.
Richard Stevens, Coventry’s academy director, remembers: ‘Physically he was not as developed as some of the other boys, but he was technically and tactically far superior.
‘He was playing on the outside of the pitch, initially, and that would have been coaches’ ideas of trying to protect him. We moved him to the middle and let him have a bit of a free reign.
‘What you see now is a player who can take the ball under any circumstance. He learnt that from being slightly smaller as a young boy, because if he didn’t look after the ball back then he’d lose it.’ Stevens believes Maddison also benefitted from humble surroundings. Coventry’s academy is based at the Alan Higgs Centre, a site shared with the public.
‘I’m sure as he was getting better at 13, 14, 15 there would have been other clubs with a lot stronger facilities aware of him,’ says Stevens. ‘But it worked for him because he was always able to be the one that it was all about. Perhaps that acceleration might not have happened were there five or six players like him. The one thing about Coventry, if you’re very good at 17, 18, you’re in the team.’
Maddison made his first-team debut at 17 and that season scored a last-minute winner at Crawley on the final day that helped keep Coventry in League One.
Tottenham were admirers, with David Pleat making regular scouting missions, but it was Norwich who paid the £1.5million fee in February 2016. A loan to Aberdeen for the start of the following campaign brought his game on again.
‘Up here, clubs quickly identified him as somebody who needed to be stopped,’ manager Derek McInnes tells Sportsmail. ‘He has brilliant hips and glides around the ball, a real technician. They left some heavy challenges in on him. He didn’t get into a strop. He took the hit and got on with the game. He’s very durable when on first impressions that might not seem the case.’ Maddison scored a brilliant free-kick that won a match against Rangers late on. ‘It was a defining moment in a big game,’ says McInnes. ‘That’s what he has.
‘I remember taking a call from Dan Ashworth asking me how he was doing, because they were considering him for England Under 21s. When I spoke to James he couldn’t have been more pleased.
‘Good players have a plan for themselves. I have no doubt he won’t rest until he’s a key player in the England set up. That’s where he’s going for me.’ Maddison enjoyed a breakthrough campaign last season at Norwich, scoring 15 goals, making 11 assists, and topping the charts for passes completed and chances created.
Gareth Southgate wanted to bring Maddison into a World Cup training camp before travelling to Russia but a minor knee injury ruled him out. Maddison worked alone at Norwich’s training ground to recover more quickly.
Everton, Southampton, and Fulham all registered an interest but Leicester took an aggressive approach and agreed a deal worth £24m, a record fee for a Championship player. Michael Appleton, the former assistant, was a major advocate of signing Maddison having come up against up him while Oxford manager.
Leicester’s faith has been rewarded with Maddison scoring three Premier League goals and becoming a fulcrum of the team.
Maddison now lives in Coventry, close to parents Gary and Una, who have watched their son across the country, and younger brother Ben, who studies carpentry at college.
Maddison’s agent Lee Robinson, of Base Soccer, says: ‘Claude Puel did a great sales pitch. He told him how he would develop him.
‘We believed Leicester provided the best opportunity to play. They were looking to reshape the team with Riyad Mahrez leaving.’ Webber adds: ‘It surprised me that a Liverpool, Spurs or Arsenal didn’t come for him because I think he will play at he highest level. Eventually someone like that will have to pay a lot of money to get him.’
Maddison’s last two appearances have been from the left flank but drifting in to make an impact. They have been the type of displays that would fit into Southgate’s system of two No 10s.
Robinson says: ‘International football will suit him. He plays better with better people around him. He is confident in his own ability but respectful of what’s required in the game.’