Young striker Maja leaves England to try his luck in France
PARIS (AP) — Josh Maja's journey from England to France is the opposite of the path commonly taken, as it's normally young French talents who flock to wealthy Premier League clubs.
Anthony Martial, for example, became soccer's most expensive teenager when Manchester United signed the forward from Monaco at age 19. Countless young prospects left long before Martial did in 2015, and many more will do so because the French academies are among the best in Europe at developing young players.
Premier League clubs also invest hugely on proven stars, thus making it even more difficult for young English players like Maja to break through.
Therefore, the 20-year-old forward decided to try his luck with Bordeaux in the French first division.
"I just felt I'd get more opportunity abroad, that's the main reason I left. Play in France with Bordeaux, get an opportunity to make a name for myself and go from there," Maja said. "It's a difference experience; I don't think a lot of English players will ever get an opportunity like this."
Germany has become a more common destination for those few England youngsters who do go abroad, but Maja is hoping he can have similar success in France. He'll be looking to emulate 18-year-old Jadon Sancho, who is emerging as a star at Borussia Dortmund after joining the club two years ago from Manchester City's youth teams. Sancho is already an England international and has eight goals this season for table-topping Dortmund. His 19-year-old friend Reiss Nelson has netted six Bundesliga goals for Hoffenheim, having joined on loan from Arsenal.
As arguably the best striker in England's third-tier league this season, Maja netted 15 goals in 24 league games for Sunderland and caught Bordeaux's eye. With his Sunderland contract expiring in June, he joined Bordeaux in January for a reported fee of 4 million euros ($4.5 million).
"Obviously it's one of the top five leagues in the world," Maja said of the French league. "If I do half of what I did for Sunderland, I think people will take notice."
He encourages other English players to take the same gamble.
"There's a lot of English talent out there and they're not being seen because everyone's staying in the Premier League for too long; they're maybe not getting that opportunity," said Maja, who was speaking after Bordeaux's game at Paris Saint-Germain last weekend. "I think for young players, going abroad is a good opportunity. I've got four-and-a-half years here, all that time to settle in and develop and improve as a player. I'm pleased to be here."
Like Sancho and Nelson, Maja grew up in London.
He played for Crystal Palace and Fulham's youth teams before joining northeastern club Sunderland on a two-year scholarship and signing a professional contract in 2016.
Sunderland was struggling in England's second-tier when Maja made his league debut against Fulham in December 2017, aged 18. Four minutes after coming off the bench, he scored the winner.
However, Sunderland ended up relegated to the third tier. The failed battle against relegation was filmed by Netflix, whose cameras captured the anger and frustration of an exasperated crowd turning on its players.
"That experience was obviously not one you want," Maja said. "But I think for a young player it's very good to through a difficult stage of your career so early on. For my future that will put me in a good place."
The fact Sunderland is challenging strongly for promotion this season is largely down to the goals Maja scored before he left. He averaged one every 118 minutes, the best ratio of any player with 10 or more goals in that league. Also, his shots-on-target ratio of 61 percent was the highest among the top eight scorers.
Although he has yet to make his Bordeaux debut, his ability stands out in training.
"He's very mobile and formidable in front of goal. At some point he will bring us goals and win us points," Bordeaux's veteran forward Jimmy Briand said. "We can't wait to see him on the pitch."
His debut might come in Sunday's home game against local rival Toulouse — known as the Garonne derby because both cities are along that river.
Maja is two-footed, though stronger on his right, and turns quickly when he has his back to goal. He is a calm finisher as well as being technically assured.
Those attributes appear to make him well prepared for the technical French league.
"It's well suited to my game," Maja said. "Hopefully I can showcase that."