England boss Gareth Southgate retains faith in ‘cult hero’ Harry Maguire

Southgate is planning widespread changes for Tuesday’s friendly against Ivory Coast at Wembley as the Three Lions continue World Cup preparations.

Gareth Southgate retains faith in Harry Maguire (Mike Egerton/PA)

By Simon Peach, PA Chief Football Writer

Gareth Southgate retains faith in “cult hero” Harry Maguire’s ability to compete at the highest level as the under-fire Manchester United captain prepares to line up in Tuesday’s friendly against Ivory Coast.

The Three Lions kicked off World Cup preparations with a hard-fought 2-1 comeback win in Saturday’s friendly against Switzerland at Wembley, where they return to take on non-European opposition for the first time since 2018.

Southgate is planning widespread changes as England and Ivory Coast meet in a senior international for the first time, with Maguire among those set to start under the arch.

The 29-year-old has struggled for form during a difficult season as a collective at United but the Three Lions boss has always kept faith with the centre-back.

“I hope we have an environment that all the players feel they can be the best versions of themselves,” Southgate said. “A lot of that is credit to the environment they have created.

“We have got super characters. I am looking at the young players coming in, the older players are all sitting with them at meal times, making them feel relaxed and at ease.

“Then there’s clarity on your job, on the pitch, what’s expected of you. I think they are things we have to achieve to let people perform at the best level.

“In terms of selection, that’s always a difficult conundrum because we’ve got players who we know have performed well in an England shirt.

Harry Maguire has struggled for form during a difficult season as a collective at Manchester United (Martin Rickett/PA)

“There’s got to be some level of scrutiny on how people are playing with their clubs because that has got to be a factor in it.

“Then, not so for this week, who is the opponent, who is best suited to playing against the opponent, so it is a complicated thing.

“I know everybody has a view on who we should and shouldn’t be picking.

“In the end we need the best players possible, playing at their best level to give ourselves the best chance of winning.”

Maguire helped England reach the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup (Adam Davy/PA)

Pushed on Maguire in particular, Southgate said: “Well, he has got us to a World Cup semi-final and a European Championship final, so there’s no doubt he is more than capable of playing at the highest level.

“He was very good for us in the autumn and, yeah, the club are in a difficult moment. There could be any number of reasons for that.

“That doesn’t mean that players can be poor for a couple of years and then still find their way in and sometimes it depends on competition for positions.

“We’ve obviously left some forward players out, who haven’t been in good form, but there’s direct replacements, experienced replacements, for those players. As I say, it is a complicated decision.“

He's been a cult hero for England and he's been a critical part of us getting to a World Cup semi-final and the European Championship final in a tournament in which he was one of the players of the tournament and named in the team of the tournament

Gareth Southgate on Harry Maguire

Southgate says he has not gone out of his way to speak to heavily scrutinised Maguire during the international camp, saying he had “complete trust in him” heading into the Ivory Coast encounter.

“I think my experience of Harry Maguire with England has been our fans singing their song about him drinking whatever,” he told talkSPORT.

“He’s been a cult hero for England and he’s been a critical part of us getting to a World Cup semi-final and the European Championship final in a tournament in which he was one of the players of the tournament and named in the team of the tournament.

“So, of course, one of the difficulties of playing for England is you’ve got club rivalry and it’s tribal and people will jump on things. I recognise that his own club, he’s perhaps not feeling that full support of the fans at the moment.

“But I never think that is going to help a player perform at his very best, so we’ve got a player here who has been exceptional for England and has almost, with John (Stones), changed the type of football we’ve been able to play from the back over a period of time.”

Harry Kane (left) is keen to add to his tally of 49 international goals (Adam Davy/PA)

All 24 remaining players practiced at Tottenham’s training ground on the eve of the friendly, but John Stones later left the squad and returned to Manchester City as a precaution.

It remains to be seen whether Emile Smith Rowe is able to start after missing the Switzerland encounter on Saturday.

Harry Kane’s match-winning spot-kick sealed victory over the Swiss and took him level with Sir Bobby Charlton on 49 international goals, putting him four behind England’s all-time top scorer Wayne Rooney.

It seems unlikely that the skipper will get the chance to add to that tally from the start on Tuesday but Southgate says his enthusiasm is infectious.

“If he had his way he’d play 90 minutes of every fixture, which is a brilliant quality to have because if your captain wants to be at every camp and playing every minute of every game then that sets the tone for everything else,” he said.

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“The fact is we’ve got a good squad. We want to keep people involved and give people opportunities.

“We need to see certain things across the week to see how people can play at the level, so we’ll make those decisions on when he plays and doesn’t play.

“But I repeat, it is a good quality to have and that’s why he has got the number of caps he has (68).

“I always used to talk about the Gerrards, the Lampards and the Ashley Coles. They got the number of caps they have because they committed every time they came to England and that is what you want.”

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