Harry Maguire is is facing a fight for his future after being jeered by England fans
English international has become the easy scapegoat for a catalogue of problems at Old Trafford
Harry Maguire faces the greatest challenge of his career. For club and country, the perception of Maguire has turned extremely negative incredibly quickly.
The sympathy of team-mates and his managers does not alter the fact that Maguire has to fight for his future. Only one person can change the situation. Maguire has to show he has the talent and strength of character to stay at Manchester United beyond this season, and remain the lynchpin of England’s defence at the World Cup.
The treatment he received from some England fans at Wembley on Tuesday night was baffling. Maguire has been outstanding in an England shirt.
Before last summer’s European Championships, Gary Neville and I were asked on Monday Night Football, “who is England’s most important player?” I picked Harry Kane. Gary picked Maguire. We did not argue with each other’s selection. It was a coin toss between the duo.
Maguire’s performances when he came back into the England line-up vindicated the idea that his fitness was as vital to Southgate as Kane’s.
He was in the team of the Euros alongside Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci, England conceding only five goals in Maguire’s last 19 internationals.
Maguire is not as good as John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. None of the current crop of England centre-backs are. But Maguire has eclipsed them at international level, pivotal to the country reaching a World Cup semi-final and Euros final.
When covering the Nations League finals three years ago, it was obvious how much England fans loved Maguire.
“He is one of our own,” many of them sang, recalling how Maguire had gone from following his country as a supporter to representing those fans on the pitch.
It seemed England had a genuine cult hero, and his performances justified it.
If a selection of England supporters are jumping on a bandwagon to criticise him now, they have been given momentum by the incessant criticism Maguire has received for his Manchester United performances.
I stand by the opinion that Maguire was very good for United prior to this season.
From the moment he signed for £80 million, there was an expectation Maguire would be to United what Virgil van Dijk is to Liverpool. That did not help. United overpaid to get the deal done, signing an international-class defender rather than a world class one. Now, murmurs of dissatisfaction have turned into anger whenever United lose.
Maguire’s difficulty in turning it around at Old Trafford is his lack of authority in the United dressing-room. Since last summer, Maguire has been looking over his shoulder amid a debate as to whether he or Cristiano Ronaldo should be captain. Rather than reassert his leadership, he has fallen short. That has affected his performances.
Add to that specific demands on the modern centre-half, and he has struggled. Elite coaches are determined to play a high-line defence. Whoever takes over at Old Trafford this summer will do likewise. That does not suit Maguire, especially as there is so much malfunctioning in the United team he is regularly exposed.
This will be a problem for him going forward. It is easier for a centre-back to hide their weakness in a team that defends deep.
At the highest level, that is tougher and Maguire has become the easy scapegoat for a catalogue of United problems. Before the international break, Maguire took to social media to post an image of three lions. Reading between the lines, it seemed like he saw joining up with England as a chance to escape. It will hurt that the Old Trafford criticism has spread to Wembley.
England players have often taken abuse from their own crowd – including some of the greatest their country has ever produced. John Barnes, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney are among those who suffered for different reasons.
The difference with them is the more criticism they took playing for their country, the more their club supporters loved them.
There is a partisanship among England fans which means players of certain clubs are seen as fair game. Barnes, Beckham and Rooney found sanctuary at their club and made the critics look foolish with world-class performances. There is no such comfort for Maguire.
Only a strong character can recover from this but such challenges are common during the course of a career.
Many of us who have played at the highest level have encountered moments where it feels we are at a crossroads, knowing we must change opinions about the kind of player we are and can become. Maguire is not the first to suffer a negative reaction in his own stadium. He won’t be the last.
By the time I retired at Liverpool, people spoke fondly about The Kop singing, wishing they had “a team of Carraghers”. I assure you, that came much later in my career.
Ten years earlier, one of my lowest points came at Anfield in a game against Fulham. The club had been linked with Steve Finnan for six months. He was seen by the supporters as the attacking full-back Liverpool needed – or more specifically an upgrade on me as I was moved from left-back to right-back. When Finnan ran to the Kop end to take a throw-in, a corner of the stadium stood up and applauded him. It felt like some of my supporters were sending a message they wanted him in the team and me out.
Criticising the fans is never an option. They pay their money, sit through every game and are entitled to their opinion, no matter how much it hurts. As players we must learn to accept the applause and the jeers.
There are always two options in that situation; accept defeat and go somewhere where you might feel more appreciated, or fight on to get the supporters back on side.
Finnan signed the next summer and I eventually moved to centre-back. It is one of the many personal battles I take most pleasure from winning.
Maguire has it all to do to make the last few months a bump in the road. I am sure that by the end of his career he will reflect on this tough experience as a critical point.
How he deals with it right now will determine whether that revival for club and country can happen as a Manchester United player.
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