JUST one week ago, James Maddison was preparing for heartbreak and planning a family holiday during the World Cup.
Yet here Maddison is, in Qatar, as a wide-eyed tournament rookie, admitting he still feels like a little kid, his face painted in the flag of St George, infected with World Cup fever.
Maddison, 25, still has to compete with Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount, Phil Foden and last year’s people’s champion Jack Grealish for one place in Southgate’s starting line-up — provided the England manager sticks with his favoured back five.
But there is a feeling that Maddison is the kind of self-confident fantasy footballer capable of conjuring a game-changing moment here.
And that is a far brighter prospect than Maddison was facing up to at Leicester’s training ground on the day Southgate announced his 26-man squad.
Maddison, who has played just half an hour of senior international football, said: “I was in Brendan’s office having a chat and he asked me if I had heard anything [from Southgate], and I hadn’t at that point.
“He was just being a good man-manager and putting his arm around me, if I didn’t get the call, and how it would look and how to stay motivated for Saturday’s game [at West Ham] and then enjoy the break.
“But I went back down to the changing room afterwards and had a missed call from Gareth Southgate . . . so the heart starts beating.
“I still had Gareth’s number saved. I called him back, he gave me the good news and it was all a blur.
“I was braced for both — hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. I hadn’t been in a squad for three years and I’m not naive. But I also had that hope, that I was in good goalscoring form.
“I was going to go on holiday. The hope was obviously to be at the World Cup but, if not, it would have been a mid-season break and a chance for me to go on holiday and recharge the batteries for the second half of the season.
“I would have gone and put my feet up on holiday with my son and family.
“But after Gareth told me I was in, it was a head-against-the-wall moment, big deep breath, and I called my parents.
“My dad actually cried — and I don’t think I have seen him cry for years!
“They were happy tears, of course. Your family . . . they are on this journey with you.
“When, in previous years, I have been left out of squads after thinking I might have had a chance and had that disappointment, it is spread across the family. Now it’s the opposite.
“On the day of the announcement, I wanted to go back and see my parents in Coventry and give my mum a big hug.
“I had dinner at home with my mum and dad, my little boy and my partner. That’s a moment I will cherish forever.”
On the day of his selection, Maddison posted a social-media image of himself as a young England fan in face paint, with a David Beckham-style shaven head.
And Maddison who, unlike most elite footballers, is an obsessive and knowledgeable watcher of the game, says he feels like an overgrown kid in Qatar.
Maddison said: “I’m not sure I had the Beckham hair shave.
“The barbers were quite expensive and mum and dad probably couldn’t afford it.
“How many times have we watched that Beckham free-kick [against Greece in 2001] that sent us to a major tournament? They are moments you literally dream of. Big moments that get replayed for years, so to get one would be absolutely unbelievable. That would be the real pinnacle.
“But every moment right now is like a ‘pinch me, I’m dreaming’ moment.
“My house is football-mad. My girlfriend goes crazy because I watch so much. During lockdown, when there were four games a day on, I had them all on.
“In my head I’m still that little boy kicking the ball around the garden or with face paint on.”
A World Cup call felt unlikely when Maddison was embroiled in controversy in October 2019.
The Leicester man had withdrawn from Southgate’s squad through illness, only to be photographed in a casino while England were being beaten by the Czech Republic in a Euros qualifier.
Maddison did, though, earn his only cap as a sub in a 7-0 drubbing of Montenegro the following month.
He said: “I thought that might get brought up and I’m actually glad you asked.
“People forget that I was actually capped by Gareth Southgate and called up after the casino incident and it wasn’t a big deal for Gareth. It got blown out of proportion and some of it was ridiculous.
“I think people are just making up an excuse, as to why I haven’t been in the squad. We had already spoken about it and put it to bed.
“At no point did I think it was a closed door and the opportunity had gone. It was just about staying hungry and using the rejection of not getting called up in previous camps as motivation to force my way back in.
“There was no bitterness. Gareth is the England manager and he’s got a lot of talent at his disposal. It was just keeping that mindset of staying hungry, scoring, assisting, affecting games and showing I can be an asset for him.
“There were definitely times where you question, ‘What am I doing that’s not getting me in the England squad?’
“When you feel like you’re playing well, and you might be deserving a call and you don’t get it, you’ve got to tell yourself, ‘How can I do better to get in?’ Instead of having the arrogance of, ‘I should be in’.”
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