Harry for England

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.

Rooney could have ended my career

Wayne Rooney: All-time England record goal scorer and leading goal scorer for Manchester United. His name now sits above legends like Law, Charlton and Best. There is no question he will go down as one of England and Manchester United’s greats. That is not even up for debate. Though Wayne is a couple of years younger than me, our careers began around the same time due to his freakish physique for a young teenage boy. He was built like a boxer and had the speed of a greyhound and was physically miles ahead of other teenage boys. If he hadn’t been born in England, we would have been asking to check his passport. Whenever I watch him play, it reminds me of a decision I made at 18 that changed the course of my career.

I was 18 years old and starting to make my way in a man’s game. The previous season, I had played over 30 first team games for Queens Park in Scotland and was now looking to improve and try to make a step up the footballing ladder into full-time football. I had a very inconsistent first season, not unusual for a young center back still developing physically but had come back preseason bigger, stronger and ready to prove myself.

Despite being an amateur club and competing in the lower divisions, we played our home matches at Hampden, Scotland’s national stadium. This was the best of many little perks we enjoyed compared to other players at our level. We didn’t get paid but it was a fantastic club to play for and a great place for a young player to learn the game.

One of the advantages we enjoyed was a glamorous preseason fixture list. The bigger teams were more than happy to come and play us at Hampden instead of going to some ramshackle stadium to play on a pitch that resembled a car park. Our first game back was against Hibs at home and a great chance for me to test myself against a 
full-time outfit. My confidence was up after a good preseason and I played well, catching the eye of the Hibs coaching staff and others watching. The following week, we played Dumbarton at a neutral venue before the one I was really looking forward to — Everton at Hampden Park, a chance to not only play against a full-time team, but top internationals from the Premiership. It was every young footballers’ dream.

After playing a stormer against Dumbarton, the coaches were so impressed they moved quickly to secure my signature and within a few days I had left the Spiders for pastures new. It was an opportunity to play alongside better players and enhance my career. The move was only tinged with a hint of disappointment that I would miss playing against the famous Toffees.

After my first training session at the Sons, I was heading home when I received a call from a local reporter to discuss my new club. After a short conversation he mentioned that I would be glad I hadn’t been playing for Queens Park that night as they had been royally humped by Everton and to make matters worse, a 16-year old had scored a hat-trick. I remember thinking, “wow I am delighted I wasn’t involved in that debacle.”

Imagine getting destroyed by someone not even old enough to drive. I could just picture getting in the car with my Dad after a schoolboy had just ran rings round me. “You let him bully you. You need to be stronger than that, son, if you want to make a living out this game.”

I had a cold sweat thinking about it. A night like that is enough to destroy your self-confidence and self-belief in one go. It was fragile enough after my first season where I had been “old manned” by some lower league journeyman striker. The last thing I needed was someone old enough to still be reading the Beano giving me the run around.

Roll on four months and I am sitting at home watching Match of the Day and a just-turned-16 Wayne Rooney hit a last minute winner past David Seaman. Oh, so that was the “kid” that hit three past Queens Park in preseason. Now it didn’t look quite the embarrassment I thought at the time. His phenomenal winner against Arsenal was just the start. Over the coming months I watched this young boy run rampant over some of the best center backs in the world. He was awesome. Look back at any old clips on Youtube. He was a dynamo, tearing about the pitch, barging past defenders with his power and speed. I often try to imagine how I might have fared against him had I played that night all the way back in 2002. If I’m being honest with myself, I probably wouldn’t have fared very well. While two years older than Rooney, I was still a boy. There was more meat on a butchers pencil, whereas Rooney was a mix of Mike Tyson and Linford Christie along with his supreme footballing ability. No doubt he would have thrown me around like a wet tracksuit. If he was doing it to experienced Premiership players, what chance would I have had? I am just glad that my confidence and ego didn’t have to take the bashing or the roasting from my Dad.

Rooney took English football by storm for the next decade and more, winning trophies and breaking records along the way. I managed to stay out of his way through my time in England, our paths never crossing until last year when Sheffield United were drawn to play at Old Trafford in the third round of the FA Cup.

I have never been so happy with the FA Cup draw. My first love is Kilmarnock FC and I have a great affinity with Sheffield United after playing with them for many years but I am also an avid follower of Manchester United. Denis Law was my dad’s hero growing up, along with Bobby Charlton. As is usually the case, my dad regaled great stories about their past which made me a supporter as well. We have both made many trips to the Theatre of Dreams as fans, but this was going to be my first as a player.

I was desperate to face Rooney and the rest of the United first team. I wanted to test myself against the best they had to offer, not some second string. I might not have been ready for Rooney all those years ago, but now I felt I had the experience and nous to test myself, along with the fact that I had put on a few pounds and wouldn’t get blown away in the wind.

I was not kidding myself that this was Rooney in his pomp. As a United fan, I was well aware that he had dropped off from his previous standards, but he was still the countries’ leading goal scorer and an icon of the last decade. When the team sheets arrived on the day of the game, I was not disappointed. “Rooney 10” was on the team sheet and he was playing up front.

As always when up against players of such a high caliber, I decided to get right in their face from minute one. Bumping into them when the ball is nowhere to be seen just to let them know I’m there. I did this to Rooney and he turned round and asked me quite abruptly what I thought I was doing. Not to be put off, the next opportunity I did it again. Now it’s a common perception that Rooney plays his best when he’s angry. Well, if that really is true, I should have been worried as he started charging round like raging bull. As fate would have it, a ball got played in the channel and we both chased after it. I knew he was coming for me, but I not only managed to win the tackle, but come away with the ball and play a neat one-two round one of my heroes to cheers from the huge Blades traveling support. If Rooney wasn’t already seeing the red mist, he was now, but my confidence was sky high and I proceeded along with the rest of my teammates to blunt any attacking threat from Rooney for the next 89 minutes or so. While it might not have been the biggest game on Rooney’s fixture calendar, he still possessed an incredible will to win, but just couldn’t muster the same magic or threat that had been his trademark throughout his career. It confirmed my own suspicions that as an out -and-out striker for the biggest club in England, he was nearing the end. Nearing it, but not there just yet.

With the score tied in the 92nd minute and heading for a well-deserved replay, Dean Hammond upended Memphis Depay to concede a penalty. Rooney coolly stepped up and slotted it away in front of the Stretford End to ensure his name would be on the back pages the following day despite his insipid performance. The following week, he proceeded to score a double at St James’ Park on the Wednesday night and scored the winner at Anfield that Sunday after another below par performance. I suppose that’s what the greats do — they produce the goods when they are not at their best. They step up for the big moments when their team needs them. His all-around performances were far removed from the swashbuckling days we love to remember, but he could still find the back of the net.

Fast forward to the present, when on Saturday morning I settled down to watch Stoke v Manchester United. One of the perks of living in the States is getting access to watch all the Premiership matches, even those that kick off at 3pm back home. After losing an unfortunate opening goal to a deflection, United proceeded to pummel Stoke, creating chance after chance. With 25 minutes to go, their talisman for so many years was brought off the bench when Rooney replaced Mata in an attempt to rescue the match.

United continued to probe, but to no avail. For years, Rooney was the first name on the team sheet. The only time he may have been required from the bench would be if the understudies didn’t manage to get the job done during a game he was allowed to rest. Under Mourinho, he’s had to accept this role, though I struggle to think of a game he’s came off the bench and made a significant impact the way Rashford does with his exhilarating pace.

Saturday was no different and with only three minutes left to play and United heading to defeat, I Facetimed my Dad to dissect the game and primarily discuss another ineffective substitute appearance performance by Rooney. I was greeted by a huge grin, which threw me, as my Dad is more of a glass half empty person in the immediate aftermath of a Manchester United defeat.

“What about Rooney’s goal?,” my dad asked. Now I was really thrown out my stride, as I sat and watched the clock tick down with the score at 1-0. “He’s broken the record.” With games being beamed from the U.K., there is normally a slight delay, but in this case, there was around a two-minute lag. Just as I began to believe my Dad was telling the truth, I notice Rooney standing over a free kick on the corner of the box. The rest, they say, is history.

Over the past couple of years as a United fan, I would be lying if I didn’t say that Rooney has frustrated me. He’s been a shadow of his former self and playing against him confirmed my suspicions, but as I watched him whip in that world class free kick to break one of the most sought-after records in world football and then sprint to get the ball to try and get the winner, I realised why he truly is a United great.

No one could have begrudged him an exuberant celebration after scoring a last minute equaliser to break a 40-year old record, but that’s not Rooney. He’s a winner. Darren Fletcher said it best when he said, “most strikers are selfish but Rooney is selfless.” Never has a truer word been spoken. He’s broken these goal scoring records and still been a team man. If he was my teammate, I would run through a brick wall for him and I suspect that’s why so many of his ex-teammates have protected him in the media while he’s not been at his best. It’s exactly what I would do for someone that had put his body on the line for the team while still grabbing vital goals.

Left midfield, right midfield, center midfield he’s played everywhere. Even at his best, he did the graveyard shift to accommodate other luxury players. Did he like it? Probably not, but he did it for the good of the team. Not many superstars do that. I’ve played out of position and never batted an eye lid because I knew if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in the team. Guys like Wayne Rooney didn’t need to worry about that, but still did it with no complaints.

So whether it’s as a United fan, England fan, opposition fan or as a fellow professional footballer, we should all recognise his fantastic achievements and how he embodies all the values that fans and players in our country love. I will be forever grateful I made my move to Dumbarton and missed out on the opportunity of playing against Everton. While I know for sure I wouldn’t have made a dent on a young Wayne Rooney’s confidence if I had matched up against him, I also know he could have severely damaged mine and who knows where my career would have gone.