Sorry... what? Maja for England?!
Obviously, I’m biased. I’m a Sunderland supporter and, as such, I’ve watched our players closer than perhaps anyone outside of the Sunderland bubble has so far this season - so my opinion of Josh Maja and why he deserving of international recognition perhaps isn’t one that is shared by those that handle squad selections each time a round of fixtures comes around.
The Lewisham-born forward wasn’t named today in Paul Simpson’s U20s squad which will take on Switzerland and the Netherlands next week - and I think that he can feel hard done by the fact he’s been overlooked.
For a long time I was far from convinced by Maja. He looked superb during pre-season last year under Simon Grayson but then got injured before the first game of the season, and that undoubtedly impacted his ability. The team bombed in the Championship and, as a result, he barely figured as we slumped into the third tier without a fight.
But, with a full pre-season under his belt and no real competition for his place in the side, he’s thrived. He’s playing well, scoring goals and looks like a real class forward at this level.
He’s scored four goals in five league games this season and won Sunderland’s player of the month award for August at a time when you could have easily argued the case for any of about six players to win such the accolade.
That sort of form suggests that he not only has the ability to score goals at this level now, but at an even higher one in the future should his progress continue as it is.
Who is keeping him out?
The four very talented young men Simpson chose to select as his forward options instead are Lukas Nmecha of Manchester City (currently on loan at Preston North End), Eddie Nketiah of Arsenal (who has an incredibly impressive scoring record at England youth level), George Hirst of OH Leuven (a young man that many Premier League sides battled to sign before he opted to head to Belgium) and Ben Brereton of Nottingham Forest (who, despite being loaned out to Blackburn Rovers, has played a lot of first team football in the Championship despite his young age).
Brereton and Hirst were part of the U19s squad that struggled at the European Championships in the summer, whilst Nmecha and Nketiah have caps for the U21s side and hail from two of the best academies in the country.
I can understand that things aren’t as simple as just selecting the players that are most in form, particularly at international level.
The way things tend to work is that players are identified at a very young age and, as such, they are carried through the system even if they aren’t playing regularly for their clubs - perhaps the best example of this when relating to Sunderland is the fact that Elliot Embleton earned himself a call-up to Paul Simpson’s squad having barely kicked a ball for our first team since arriving on the scene a couple of years ago.
I’d be foolish to suggest that Maja is more deserving than any of them for this round of selections - after all, they’re all very good players in their own right and undoubtedly have bright futures ahead - but I can’t help but hide my disappointment that his fantastic start to life as a first-team player has been overlooked on this occasion.
If not England... Nigeria?
Despite the fact he was born and raised in London, Maja hails from a Nigerian family and qualifies to play for the African nation should he choose to do so.
Maja has already trained with the Nigerian senior side and, in early 2017, he was due to play a game for the Super Eagles in a friendly with Burkina Faso which was unfortunately cancelled when the opposing side couldn’t put a squad together for the fixture.
If we’re being honest, his chances of gaining senior caps later in his career are far greater if he does indeed choose to play for Nigeria. He won’t be the first English player to do so and most certainly won’t be the last - Ola Aina and Semi Ajayi, two English-born players from London, were both in the Nigeria squad that took part in the World Cup in the summer for example.
It’ll be interesting to see whether or not Maja is actually currently on the radar of either nation, and we can only hope that his fine form continues throughout September, maneuvering himself into a position where he simply cannot be ignored.
I am originally from London but my family is from Nigeria.
I grew up with my three brothers and my mom and sister.
How does Maja gaining recognition benefit us?
Another Sunderland youngster gaining international recognition would not only aid the reputation of the club itself but also the Academy of Light, which has managed to churn out an impressive amount of youth internationals in recent years.
Unlike the four players picked ahead of him, Maja is playing week in, week out for a big club in front of big crowds in a team going for promotion - and that should count for a lot.
So whilst I’m feeling somewhat disappointed on behalf of Maja, I hope that the door isn’t entirely shut on him with regards to England - or Nigeria - youth-level selection. Should his good form for our first team continue over the coming weeks it’ll become almost impossible to ignore him from the perspective of the national team’s selection committee.
If he’s not deemed worthy, England’s loss could most certainly be Nigeria’s gain.