Sunday 16 December 2018

Maguire an unlikely hero on the biggest stage

Harry Maguire holds up a flag designed by supporters of his former club Sheffield United after England’s victory over Colombia. Photo: PA
Harry Maguire holds up a flag designed by supporters of his former club Sheffield United after England’s victory over Colombia. Photo: PA

John Percy

From standing with his mates at Euro 2016 to playing in a World Cup quarter-final, Harry Maguire is a man emboldened by having Three Lions on his shirt.

Emerging as one of England's most reliable defenders, Maguire has admirers at the Premier League's top table yet still possesses the air of a man who has won a cereal-packet competition to play for his country. Last week, he was interviewed for the English FA's YouTube channel and gave a word-perfect rendition of 'We're On Our Way', the England soundtrack.

If the Leicester centre-half was not playing against Sweden today, he would probably be in Samara watching from the terraces with his parents, brothers Laurence and Joe, sister Daisy, girlfriend Fern and his mates. Maguire epitomises the new era of "good tourists" flourishing under Gareth Southgate and personifies the change in mentality that is winning hearts and minds.

Craig Shakespeare, his former manager at Leicester and the man who signed him from Hull City, recalls a story from last summer which perfectly captures Maguire's grounded personality.

"He was identified as our main transfer target and shortly after the end of the season he was on a city break in Majorca with his family and I went out to meet him," Shakespeare said.

"We had lunch and I told him the club's plans, what I thought of him and how he could improve. I knew Leicester was the right club for him in terms of his personality. He really grew on me in the meeting, with all the questions he was asking about the style of play and the club.

"I thought this kid could go far, so I was really pleased we could seal the deal because there were other clubs chasing him. He could have gone to Spurs but chose Leicester."

He was signed for £17 million by Leicester, and his performances at the World Cup continue the remarkable journey for the 25-year-old from those early days with the Sheffield United academy. He supported city rivals Wednesday as a lad but joined United's youth system. With that familiar towering build and range of passing, Maguire led United's academy side to the FA Youth final in 2011.

Micky Adams gave him his debut at the age of 18, as a substitute on a Tuesday night against Cardiff, handed the thankless task of marking Craig Bellamy. Adams remembers an inauspicious start.

"It was at a time when a lot of senior pros had gone Awol and I was under a lot of pressure to play the kids," he said. "In the first couple of minutes, the ball got switched across the back four and Harry fell over. It nearly cost us a goal but it didn't affect his performance. He was always very comfortable on the ball. There were doubts about his mobility, because of his size, but he didn't get caught out too many times. He was always going to be a player, it was just a case of what level he was going to get to. Am I surprised to see him doing so well? Possibly, but then again he's a Yorkshireman like me and half the England team, and we always have good temperament!"

Maguire won three player of the year awards in a row at United, eventually earning a £2.5m move to Hull City in 2014. It proved a capricious experience in east Yorkshire, from Premier League relegation to victory in the Championship play-off final and then a second relegation.

Spurs and Stoke both pursued Maguire last summer - Spurs even agreed a fee with Hull - but it was Leicester, and Shakespeare, who convinced him to choose a move to the East Midlands. He instantly became a favourite in the dressing room, and the presence of another Sheffielder, Jamie Vardy, in both the Leicester and England squads, has been instructive for Maguire.

He has been nicknamed 'Slab-Head' by Vardy, and earlier in the tournament an interview with the written press was gatecrashed by his team-mate. Vardy announced "Hi, this is Jamie Vardy from Vardy News - what is the diameter of your head?" to send Maguire into fits of laughter. Now, two weeks later, he stands on the brink of reaching a World Cup semi-final.

"To sign him for £17m or so, and then seeing him play for England the way he did against Colombia, proves he was a bargain," says Shakespeare. "I was really impressed with the way he brought the ball out and stepped in positionally. Because of his background and upbringing, he's one of those players who has still got the potential to improve."

© Daily Telegraph, London

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