Before Josh Maja’s career had even truly begun, shifting between academies as a teenager, unsigned and stagnated by growing pains, it might have been easier to succumb to football's cruelty. When after spells at Crystal Palace, Fulham and Manchester City, training amounted to one-on-one sessions late into the night or, failing that, a trip to the local cage in Lewisham with his older brother. Hopeful weeks bled into persevering months, trials into disconsolate trips home as he attempted to “prove himself over and over again” until finally, two-and-a-half years later, Maja signed his first professional contract with Sunderland.
Now Bordeaux’s leading striker and a Nigeria international, those memories may sometimes feel lost to the past, but they have always been the linchpin for the success that’s followed; the fuel to always “work harder and harder and make people regret their decision” to turn him away. It was what spurred Maja’s eye-catching breakthrough, scoring 15 goals in 23 league games for Sunderland - many of which came while he was still a teenager. More recently, that layer of resolve he was forced to build acted like a suit of armour against the torrent of abuse that overshadowed his move to France in January 2019.
The Sunderland saga, at least for now, is synonymous with Maja’s reputation, especially after its theatric depiction in Netflix’s behind the scenes documentary. Some of those close to him were worried about the strain it might cause; the disingenuous nature - and perhaps underlying stigma - of how his exit was presented. But those years of toil and sacrifice, acceptance and rejection, had already provided Maja with blinkers to the periphery. In his eyes, it was just another "part of the game” that he’d been forced to accustom to at an early age.
“I always knew they were going to portray it like that, to make it look like I’m the bad guy,” he says. “But that’s life. It’s easy to get caught up in the messages, what people are saying about you, but it’s just about staying focused and being true to yourself. I’ve never been the type to focus on what other people think. Not to be arrogant, but people are always going to have opinions. I’ve never been one to let that affect me. I just have to remember who I am and be true to myself.
“It was a good watch, though,” he adds, breaking off into laughter. “When I look back on my time at Sunderland, it will always be bittersweet [after what happened]. It was obviously a difficult decision to leave, but it was about recognising that it was time to take the next step. I’ll always be grateful to everyone there. It wasn’t easy when I first arrived, and I got a lot of support. I’ll always be thankful for that.”
Out of the spotlight, even out of sight to an extent, too, Maja admits it took a while for him to settle in Ligue 1. A skilful and instinctive striker, still bearing strong resemblances to his cage football grounding, the culture and language were foreign, and the manager’s public admission that the transfer was a “gamble” provided little comfort.
Last season, though, he steadily began to find his feet. A first professional hat-trick was cathartic, even if first-team opportunities were still limited, and now, already under his third manager at Bordeaux, Jean-Louis Gasset, Maja is beginning to find a balance on and off the pitch, starting four of the club’s six games so far this season.
“I definitely think I wasn’t ready to start when I arrived,” he says. “But my quality was always there. I’ve developed technically and tactically, but the biggest difference is my mindset. I’ve had to be patient and focus and just listen to everything the coaches say and pick up lots of little things which can help me to make a big difference. This season, I want to showcase what I’m capable of, to start more games and score more goals.
“Being in the spotlight can have its ups and downs,” he adds. “Here, I just get to enjoy my football every day, that’s not something I take for granted”
Raised in South London, home still inevitably pulls at the heartstrings. After the French season was curtailed by the pandemic in March, Maja was able to spend an expended period with his family for the first time since moving to Sunderland almost five years ago. He retraced old footsteps, played football with his brother, and savoured his mum’s homemade cooking. “Those are the precious moments that make the sacrifice of living alone in France worth it,” he says. “Just to enjoy time with them. My brother was the one who used to take me to training at Crystal Palace. My mum sacrificed so we could have a bed, clothes and keep us under a roof.”
By leaving home, Maja was able to repay them, and he doesn’t have to veil his desire to one day return to England, be closer to his family and play in the Premier League - “the best in the world”. But after enduring so much in a short space of time, he is in no rush. At Bordeaux, he has found a corner of peace off the beaten track, and before leaving Ligue 1, he wants to make his mark. If these past years have taught him anything, it’s that the ups and downs are as unavoidable as they are inevitable. So whatever happens from now on, he says, “I’m just going to continue enjoying it as long as it lasts".