Very few have traveled the path from south London to Manchester, then Sunderland and then the Southwest of France. Then again, few people are Josh Maja.
While Jadon Sancho and Keiran Trippier may garner most of the media attention for English players plying their trade off the British Isle, one young Englishman is poised for a breakout year in Ligue 1. Maja, who joined Bordeaux during the January transfer window in 2019, is finally healthy after a knee injury cut short his first season in France, and he’s ready to make a big impact as part of a young squad.
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The 20-year-old striker has an impressive story, overcoming the odds to not just become a professional, but also to make it to the top division in France. Maja began his career playing for St. Andrews Youth Club, its headquarters just steps away from Westminster Abbey.
He also spent time as a youngster with Crystal Palace and then Fulham, but left the club after three-and-a-half years for personal reasons. He then returned to St. Andrews, all the while going for trials across the country, trying to latch on with a team. While training with Manchester City and featuring in a friendly match against Sunderland, his fortunes suddenly changed. Sunderland liked what it saw, brought him to the northeast of England, and gave him a chance.
After working his way up the ranks from the Under-18s through the Under-23s and reserves, it was then-Sunderland manager David Moyes who gave Maja his first team debut in 2016. After working on his game for another season, Maja had a breakout year with Sunderland down in League One at the start of the 2018-2019 season.
Maja scored in Sunderland’s season opener, a 2-1 win over Charlton, and then went on to score 15 league goals in the first five months of the season, scoring with both feet and his head, and making it look easy at times.
Amazingly, Maja wasn’t even supposed to start that first game of the season. Sunderland had just signed experienced forward Charlie Wyke. But an injury to Wyke in the buildup to the game put Maja in, and he didn’t look back.
“I probably say everything was clicking,” Maja said in an interview with Pro Soccer Talk. “(Wyke) got injured in training so I had to start that game, and then I scored in the first game. From there, my confidence just went up. I think just the momentum and the confidence I had going into games was pushing me on to be successful that season.”
Suddenly, there was interest from clubs in the Championship, Premier League, and abroad. For a player who had trained at Manchester City, Fulham, and Crystal Palace, this could have been a big moment for him to make a move to a bigger club. But Maja said he didn’t see it that way.
“I just felt it was a good time for me to go abroad,” Maja said. “I didn’t feel like I was ready to take the step into the Premier League. I think signing for a PL team wouldn’t have been the right decision for my development.
“Obviously for me developing is playing games and I felt as if going abroad was going to enhance my development and get more game time. I think it was the right decision and I hope this season I can push on.”
By late January, it was done. Maja’s agent, Emeka Obasi helped Maja move from Sunderland to Ligue 1’s Bordeaux on an undisclosed fee, with Maja signing a four-and-a-half year contract. Obasi has been influential in seeing some of England’s top young talents move abroad, including Jadon Sancho’s move to Borussia Dortmund, Ademola Lookman’s move to RB Leipzig and Reiss Nelson’s loan to Hoffenheim last season.
“There was interest before the season, I knew there was a little bit there,” Maja said. “When I was scoring goals as the season was going on, the attention from them grew. My agent was the one, just because he’s got a good relationship with a lot of teams, he basically gave me confidence to listen to clubs abroad, and Bordeaux showed the biggest interest. That’s the main reason I took the opportunity to come here.”
After joining Bordeaux, Maja quickly integrated into the young squad and played in seven matches, starting three and scoring one goal. However, a torn meniscus in his left knee shut down the rest of his season for good. Instead of spending the time injured back home in London, Maja said he remained in Bordeaux to rehab, and he was ready to go at the start of the season for coach Paulo Sousa.
Following a preseason with Bordeaux, in which Maja participated in EA Sports League 1 games in Washington D.C., Maja seems primed for a big season in France. He’s come off the bench in each of the first three league matches of the season, scoring in Bordeaux’s 1-1 draw with Montpellier. Bordeaux’s young team looks to improve from a 14th-place finish last season, in which the club only earned 41 points.
“He’s very young like a lot of players on our team, but he has a lot of experience,” Maja’s Bordeaux teammate Aurelien Tchouameni said. “He played a lot of games in League One in England so he’s a very good player, a very good striker. I think he will help the team this season.”
At just 20, there’s still time for Maja to continue to improve, grow, and potentially return to England as a finished product.
“It’s a possibility,” Maja said about playing in the Premier League in the future. “I am focusing on my work in France with Bordeaux, maybe if the timing is right and the right club comes in, I’d love to take that opportunity. Right now I want to be the best I can be here.”