The Sheffield United player and Fulham striker with starring roles in one of football's great soap operas
Jack Rodwell was the first to get the full ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ treatment, being cast as the villain of the docu-series’ opening season.
Then, when its makers returned to the Stadium of Light, Josh Maja found himself portrayed as the type of rapacious scoundrel shows like this need to generate interest.
Tomorrow, injury permitting on Rodwell’s part, the two men will get the chance to enjoy a brief catch-up. Maja, who joined Sheffield United’s opponents Fulham during the transfer window last month, was still establishing himself on Wearside while his former colleague found himself in the unusual position of being criticised for honouring a contract. Two years later, as Rodwell began the process of trying to establish himself at Bramall Lane, it was Maja’s turn to play the role of the greed-money grabbing footballer. His agent, whose motives were publicly questioned by owner Stewart Donald, also came under fire. The crime? Deciding that Ligue 1, not League One, would be better for his client and brokering a move to French outfit Bordeaux.
Footballers are often guilty of making themselves easy targets. Neither situation was handled well by the parties involved. But the production company responsible is in the entertainment business. It would be fascinating and, as Rodwell and Maja might agree if they do cross paths at Craven Cottage, revealing to view what was discarded on the cutting room floor.
Chris Wilder, who was being courted by Donald soon after his arrival in the North-East, said as much following Rodwell’s move to United midway through last term; insisting he “knew exactly what went on” and that “there’s more to it than some might like or want to think” during a robust defence of the player’s character.
“I know what type of person Jack is,” the United manager continued, implying that if Rodwell was all about the money he wouldn’t have joined Blackburn Rovers following his acrimonious departure from Sunderland. “There’s two parts to that story. There’s been a lot of nonsense talked about Jack.”
Having confessed he “always knew” he was going to be painted as “the bad guy” during a recent interview with a national newspaper, Maja is certain to sympathise with Rodwell’s situation. But on the banks of the Thames, and with their respective clubs both clubs battling for Premier League survival, any feeling of compassion will be put to one side.
Now aged 22, Maja is expected to spearhead Fulham’s attack during a match they can ill-afford to lose and United simply must win in order to retain even the slimmest chance of staying up. Signed on loan from Jean-Louis Gasset’s side, the youngster celebrated his first start for the Londoners by scoring twice during last weekend’s victory over Everton - a result which saw them remain 18th but stretch their lead over United, who are bottom, to seven points.
“This is a night I have been dreaming about for a long time,” he admitted afterwards. “I had a feeling it was coming and pleased it became a reality.”
Maja’s performance at Goodison Park suggests Aleksandar Mitrovic’s absence following a positive test for Covid-19 might not be the blessing United first thought. Despite fuelling their climb out of the Championship last season, netting 26 times in only 40 outings, Wilder’s opposite number Scott Parker has struggled to find a role for the Serb since Fulham’s return to the top-flight. Despite largely relying on the same 4-2-3-1 system they employed during August’s play-off final against Brentford, Fulham found themselves being accused of being overly reliant on Mitrovic at the beginning of the campaign. There are suspicions that Maja, a much less domineering presence, is better suited to Parker’s possession-based approach; providing the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Bobby Decordova-Reid and Ademola Lookman, who produced a brilliant solo effort when Fulham drew 1-1 at United in October, with more room to breathe.
A heatmap of Maja’s touches this term, which includes his 18 matches for Bordeaux, confirms he prefers to drift around the pitch rather than plant himself on the edge of the six yard box; Mitrovic’s preferred position. This could prove a test of a United defence set to be without the injured John Egan and also a midfield which, interpreting some of his selections midway through the campaign, Wilder feels can lack mobility and athleticism. After John Fleck was taken ill before kick-off, this weakness was ruthlessly exposed by West Ham during United’s defeat by West Ham on Monday evening.
With teenager Frankie Maguire the only recognised midfielder on the bench in east London, Wilder’s room for manoeuvre as he seeks to combat the threat posed by Maja is limited. Rodwell, who could provide cover for Fleck despite being signed as a centre-half, has yet to play a game since his deal was extended following United’s ninth placed finish last season. Explaining this is down to a series of unconnected fitness issues not attitude - “We don’t bring in terrorists” - Wilder said: “Jack’s been really unfortunate. He was coming back, then had a fall at the training ground. But he’s been working hard.”
Although they are nowhere near as serious as United's, Fulham have fitness concerns of their own. Speaking before the trip to Turf Moor, Parker conceded Maja had to be eased rather than thrust into action after completing only 74 minutes of football for Bordeaux since Christmas.
“Maybe, maybe, we will have to manage him,” Parker said. “That might be the case but he seems a very fit boy.”