As a staunch and passionate Scotsman, for the first and only time in my life I was eagerly anticipating the announcement of the latest England squad. Not because I was particularly interested in what route new manager Gareth Southgate was going to pursue in an effort to change England’s fortunes or to see if Wayne Rooney could add to his cap collection, but because I was hoping and expecting my ex-centre back partner and friend Harry Maguire, currently of Hull City, to receive his first full international call-up.
Harry’s form for the Tigers has been nothing short of immense, particularly since the arrival of new manager Marco Silva. Hull’s upturn in form has coincided with Maguire becoming a mainstay in the heart of their defence. This isn’t just my opinion. Defenders and experts with a far higher pedigree than myself have given him some glowing praise recently, including Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher and ex-Arsenal stopper Martin Keown. On Match of the Day, Danny Murphy described big Harry’s performance at Stamford Bridge as the best centre back performance of the season. This was after he comfortably dealt with Diego Costa, one of the best strikers in world football.
Costa is renowned for his strength and ability to bully even the most physical of centre backs, but big Harry proved more than a match for him. Constantly shrugging Costa off the ball or nipping in front to intercept a pass with his reading of the game, Harry delivered a masterclass in how to nullify the Spaniard. Costa shouldn’t feel too bad as Big H did exactly the same to the evergreen Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Old Trafford. I can’t recall the United talisman being outmuscled too often this season or becoming flustered, Mings stamp apart, but during a frustrating 0-0 draw at Old Trafford he endured a tough evening against the hulking frame of Maguire. At one point, as Harry effortlessly held him off, he pushed Maguire into his own keeper nearly causing a serious injury. Not often will the mighty Zlatan come up against strength to match his own.
As someone that got the opportunity to experience Maguire’s rise firsthand, I can’t say I am surprised. The first time I laid eyes on him at Sheffield United’s Redtooth Academy, I thought he looked more suited to the Lions front row than the Blades defence, but after his promotion to the first team I quickly realised he was more than just a big lumbering monster.
In the English football league, every young centre back has to go through a rite of passage. Mistakes have to be made and lessons have to be learned against battle-hardened experienced pros who can teach you a thing or two that you can’t learn playing in academy football. I remember quite vividly some of the bruising encounters I had as a teenager against seasoned professionals like Roddy Grant and Paul Tosh in the lower leagues in Scotland. Thankfully, I learned quickly and these lessons stood me in great stead as I made the step up the ladder to the English Championship. Without this schooling, I fear the English game would have chewed me up and spat me out.
In his first couple of years in professional football, like any young centre back, Harry was prone to the odd error but I quite quickly realised he wasn’t your typical young defender. His consistency for an 18-year old belied his years and his physical prowess could leave me aghast. No matter how big, strong, nasty or experienced the strikers were, Harry quite casually would hold them off as he let the ball roll out for a goal kick. He treated experienced target men like rag dolls.
The true sign of just how dominant he could be was on show the day we beat Villa 2-1 at Villa Park in the FA Cup third round. Christian Benteke, who quite regularly dominated seasoned Premiership defenders, didn’t win a header all afternoon.
For anyone reading that thinks Harry is just a big clogger, think again. One of his biggest attributes is his ability to play out from the back and carry the ball out of defence. His marauding runs forward have made him a fan favourite at the Kcom Stadium. It is a great sight watching a center back striding through the midfield with the ball and one we rarely get to enjoy these days, but Harry can do it effortlessly, starting attacks and quite often creating chances with his surging runs. His passing is excellent, and, as usual, underestimated purely down to his size and appearance.
With England appointing a new manager and surely starting to look to the future, it seemed to me like the perfect timing for Harry to receive his first call up.
The squad was announced a couple of weeks ago and I was disappointed but not surprised to see Harry had been overlooked. Phil Jones, Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling were all included and are certainties while they are playing regularly for top four clubs. Michael Keane was a new addition and wasn’t too much of a surprise choice after his great form for Burnley this year.
Like Harry, Keane has been mooted for a big transfer with a number of clubs rumored to be monitoring the situation. I can’t for a second suggest Keane didn’t deserve his call up, but I don’t believe he has been selected ahead of Harry because he is a better player or in better form. I think there are other factors that made it safer for Southgate to pick Keane, as I think if he was selecting on the basis of performances this season, Harry would win.
Keane is an alumnus of the Manchester United academy, so therefore has a certain pedigree that people associate with anyone that has that type of education and football upbringing. Completely understandable when you think of the number of players that have graduated from United’s academy either to their first team or at other teams around England and Europe. I can’t help but think if Harry had been at Man United instead of the less glamorous Sheffield United in his younger days, he might be viewed differently.
A close look through youth international teams shows the biggest clubs will always be heavily represented. You would like to think that coaches and managers will always pick the best players regardless of clubs, but this is far from the case. In Scotland, the minute you sign for Rangers or Celtic, your chances of playing in the dark blue shoot through the roof. It is not too dissimilar in England if you are at one of the big six clubs. Nowadays, you don’t even have to be a regular to get picked.
Becoming an international can be akin to receiving a life sentence. I am not for a second insinuating it is a disappointment to be called up. In fact, it is the highlight of your career, but like in jail, once you’re in, it’s impossible to get out. Certain players, whether they are playing or on the bench, in good form or have no form, will still see their name on that 23-man list come what may.
Keane performed admirably on his debut in Germany and justified his selection, though I can’t help but think Harry would have thrived while playing on the right hand side of a three at the back, a position that he occupies regularly for Hull. His forays forward would give England a different string to their bow and his aerial ability on set pieces would be invaluable. The only thing Harry area wouldn’t be able to help England improve on are penalties. His record in shoot outs is pretty appaling for someone with such a fantastic right foot.
While Harry would barely give a second thought to his omission, as he is such a laid back person that will just concentrate on doing his best for Hull City, I couldn’t help but be disappointed for him when Ben Gibson was called up for the Slovenia match after Chris Smalling went back to Manchester United with an injury. The difference between Keane and Harry could be considered negligible, but the selection of Gibson strikes a different chord with me.
Ben Gibson is having an excellent season in a struggling Middlesbrough team and has been linked with a move away from Teeside. I first came across Ben when he was on loan at Tranmere Rovers in League One. I could tell from playing against him he was a rugged defender who enjoyed defending. Being left-sided gives him an added edge as left-sided defenders are always hard to come by, but despite all his strengths, I don’t think he can match the performances or attributes that Harry can point to. So why would Southgate select him ahead of Maguire?
Southgate wouldn’t favour a Middlesbrough player over a Hull City player would he? Southgate has played and captained Middlesbrough for many years before graduating to the managers’ role. I think it is safe to assume he enjoys a good relationship with Steve Gibson, the Chairman of Middlesbrough, who just happens to be Ben Gibson’s uncle. Some people will decry this theory and defend Southgate, but I have been in football long enough to know this is the way it goes. Sometimes it works for you and sometimes it works against you. In this case, Harry has drew the short straw.
The statistics don’t help Southgate’s case. Between them, Gibson and Keane have twenty-six U21 caps. Harry has one. When you delve deeper, that doesn’t make sense. Harry has almost 100 more club appearances than Keane. Ninety five to be exact and fifty more than Gibson. Harry has reached two hundred and fifty career appearances at the tender age of 24. The other two have impressive appearance records as well for young centre backs, but not as impressive as Harry’s. A lot of those two hundred and fifty appearances were in League One, you might say. They may have been, but in each of those years, Harry was named to Team of the Year by his peers and he picked up countless Player of the Year awards. He was an integral part of the Sheffield United team that broke long-standing clean sheet records with twenty one in a season and eight consecutive clean sheets during another season. He proved himself against Premier League opposition on numerous occasions during our run to the FA Cup semifinal. Like Keane and Gibson he has a promotion from the Championship on his CV. Does that sound like someone who should have earned one England U21 cap compared to Keane and Gibson’s cap haul?
I understand Southgate may have known more about players he worked with during his U21 tenure, just like I know Harry better having played beside him in more than one hundred and fifty matches, but the fact he is still going under the radar despite his imperious performances astounds me. Steve Bruce pulled off a master stroke when he signed him for Hull City. At the time, I couldn’t believe one of the so-called bigger clubs did not sign him. Many people asked me my opinion on the big man and I say the same now as I said then: he is destined for the top.
I have raved about him to anyone that will listen. I told Joe Cole to keep an eye on him, and, after watching him dominate on a trip to watch his old club West Ham, he came back eulogising about the big man. Ask anyone that has seen him up close in training and they will say the same.
Harry might not have made this squad, but it won’t be long and he will make made another step up the football league ladder with a number of high profile clubs ready to pounce (sorry Hull City fans) and then maybe Southgate will have to pick him. One way or another, this boy will play for England. It just might take longer than expected through no fault of his own.