Wednesday 19 December 2018

Paul Hayward: Maguire’s values help English fans unite behind their team after years of disconnect

'Around the time of his debut against Lithuania in a qualifier, Maguire needed reassurance from Gareth Southgate that he belonged at this level' Photo: Getty
'Around the time of his debut against Lithuania in a qualifier, Maguire needed reassurance from Gareth Southgate that he belonged at this level' Photo: Getty

Paul Hayward

For a long time there has been unease about the growing disconnect between fans and remote multi-millionaire players. The solution might now be summarised as: Harry Maguire.

English football is flash. But this England team are un-flash, anti-flash, even though some will be sucked back into Premier League preening when they go home. A few will need grounding again after their exploits here in Russia. "You're not at the World Cup now, son. We've got a Carabao Cup game this week - and you're playing."

But this run to the semi-finals has come at the right time for the English game, where fans are squeezed for cash until their pips squeak, players are brands and not-so-super agents move big names around on the chessboard of the big Champions League clubs.

This sense of football as an extension of international finance - a carve-up by the few - has gnawed away at the soul of the game. Fans have been converted into customers; consumers. The arms race of transfer spending has become a battle not between cities but countries.

In the middle of all this, Maguire catches the eye carrying the ball out of defence in the Premier League for Hull City and popping up in the penalty box as a wannabe striker. He grabs our attention defending well, with his meaty, 1950s frame.

Yorkshire lad. Keen all-round sportsman with an urge to express himself with the ball at his feet. Passes out from the back. Might go higher than Hull. Spurs agreed a fee for him but he moved instead to Leicester City for a bargain £17m, an intermediary stage, perhaps, on the road to the very top.

The good news for the England is that Maguire's global graduation has come not in a Premier League club jersey but in a Three Lions shirt. Michael Owen had been the last England player to score in a World Cup quarter-final, in 2002, and he, too, was a sensation at international level right from the off.

In youth, Owen's confidence was always high; but, around the time of his debut against Lithuania in a qualifier, Maguire needed reassurance from Gareth Southgate that he belonged at this level.

After the 2-0 win over Sweden, he said: "With Gareth's man management he speaks to every player individually after every game. It's incredible. Really good and really confidence-building. So we had a little chat after my debut - you feel the pressure, you feel the nerves. He's helped settle them."

No nerves are apparent in his constructive passing from the back: a skill he shares with John Stones. This ability to start moves from the rear, retain possession under pressure and join set-piece plays up the pitch has established Maguire rapidly as a vital component in Southgate's plan.

His rumbling runs into the opposition penalty box and mighty headers were bound to capture the affections of England's followers, especially as Maguire is recognisable as a player from the old heartlands of the English game, rather than its perimeter-fenced, luxury academies.

Seven years on from his Sheffield United debut (yet again, Sheffield comes up with the sporting goods), and two years after he attended Euro 2016 with a group of fellow lads, Maguire sounds like a comic-strip hero.

"It means so much to us all, we're really proud and honoured to wear the shirt and to reach a semi-final," he says. "We're still not done."

His first England goal settled England down at a point where Sweden were trying to drag them away from Southgate's favoured style of play, and his relish for weaving into the penalty area will trouble Croatia in Moscow on Wednesday.

"Yeah, definitely, since I've come into the England camp Gareth has shown great faith in me, great trust and given me great confidence to go out and play," Maguire says.

"Regarding set-plays, the deliveries have been brilliant at this World Cup, the best I've worked with definitely, with (Kieran) Trippier and (Ashley) Young always hitting the point we've been working on, the target area as they call it. We work tirelessly on set-plays, we know they're a big part, and we've executed them really well."

The "slab-head" label attached to Maguire by Jamie Vardy is bound to follow him now, as the English love to disguise compliments in unflattering language, but Maguire is a long way from being an industrial implement.

Southgate is comparing him to the best centre-backs at this tournament, though Luka Modric's Croatia will test him more than Sweden were able to in Samara. Maguire says: "The World Cup's the biggest stage of them all, so for him to be comparing me to the best of the centre-backs in the world means a lot. It's very nice to hear."

This coming of age is gratifying on footballing and cultural levels, as the bond is remade between team and supporters.

"I can't speak about previous guys because I wasn't in the squad, but I know this squad, I know they're really passionate, proud and honoured to wear the badge," Maguire says. "It means so much to us all and we're singing the chants, we know the chants and we're going along with them."

Harry Maguire: man of the people. England: the people's team again, which, when you think about it, is not too much to ask. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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