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.

You can’t handle the truth

“It’s a marathon not a sprint.” “We all need to look in the mirror.” “It’s a six pointer today.” “We gave 110%.”

Football clichés, we hear them every week after every game from players, managers and pundits. I’d be lying if I tried to suggest I didn’t throw in the odd cliché myself every now and again. Sometimes we really are just taking it one game at a time.

The media coverage and scrutiny that players receive now is phenomenal. Whether it be Sky Sports News, local radio or the clubs very own TV channel or internet service, there is a constant demand for players and managers to answer questions. If I am being honest, after games or during highlights shows I don’t pay much attention to interviews with players. They are so bland and boring. Once you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. I could literally reel off what a player might say once I hear the question. After years of doing interviews myself and listening to them as a fan, you realise there literally is only so many ways you can answer, “Are you pleased with the win today?” I really don’t think people understand how tough it can be for players to constantly have to face the media when they are handcuffed with what they can and can’t say.

The best way to describe doing an interview as a player is the equivalent of speaking to your wife while she’s trying on a new pair of jeans. “Honey, does my bum look big in these?” she asks. We all know the real answer will see us sent to the spare room for the season, so instead we opt for the diplomatic answer that sees us live to fight another day.

Imagine coming off the back of a run of bad results when the first question a journalist asks after another demoralising defeat is, “How is the mood in the camp?” It would be great to be able to respond with the unadulterated truth, “Well, confidence is at rock bottom. The fans are slaughtering us. There is a split in the dressing room and the manager has pressed the panic button. Apart from that, it’s just excellent.” Instead we have to patronise the fans and everyone else listening by spouting out lines like, “We are all pulling in the same direction. The team spirit is good and we are not far off turning it round.” Of course as a professional you always have to be optimistic and ready for the challenge, but there is being philosophical and then there is bare faced bullshit. Unfortunately, more often than not, we have to give the version that, while not the truth, spares us a lonely night in the spare room.

I noticed recently my ex-teammate and fantastic professional Dave Edwards come under fire from certain Wolves fans on social media for having the audacity to face journalists after a fifth-consecutive defeat at Reading. People may or may not be aware that players are contractually obliged to deal with the media. Clubs have certain media commitments to fulfill and it is always in their best interest to have a healthy working relationship with the local journalists. With Wolves in the middle of a mini crisis, the last thing Edwards would want to do is speak to the press, but these guys have column inches to fill and as players we are happy to wax lyrical about everything and everybody when things are going well so we have to take our medicine when things are not quite so hunky dory. Unfortunately, in these situations it can be the same group of players that get put forward and the fans can easily get fed up seeing the same player repeat the same empty platitudes they did weeks before. They want action on the park, not empty promises.

In my six years at Sheffield United, I was quite often wheeled out to face the music after particularly bad results as the club would always rather an experienced player deal with the tough questions than a young pup who was more likely to say the wrong thing. While I never refused a request from our press team, there were times I wanted to just board the bus and keep my head down. I knew the Blades’ long suffering fans would be fed up hearing or reading about me or any other player trying to pacify them. I was at risk of offending their intelligence when really deep down, I could understand their frustration and was hurting and just as angry as them.

Managers also have to face an incredible amount of scrutiny, but being the boss gives them the opportunity to say what they like. Managers can be much more open with the press and they can quite easily lay the blame at the players, directors, referees or even physio’s door in some cases, although ultimately it is them that will pay the biggest price if results don’t improve quickly. How often have you heard the following? “We worked on set pieces all week but the players didn’t take it on to the pitch,” or “The players won’t be here if they keep performances like that up?” One of the most common for a struggling manager is, “I can’t legislate for schoolboy errors like we seen today?” Can you imagine a player came out and said, “No surprises with the result today training has been poor all week and the Gaffer only turned up to the training ground on Thursday?” While it may be true, the player would be vilified.

As players we always have to toe the party line and certainly can’t be seen to question the hierarchy. I am not for one second suggesting that players should start berating their boss in public or start sharing dressing room secrets, but I am trying to make the point that the next time you hear a player get asked if they are behind their under-fire manager, take their answer with a pinch of salt as I’ve not to this day heard someone say live on talkSPORT, “Nah, it’s time for him to go.”

There is the odd occasion when a player does decide to stick his head above the parapet and tell everyone how they really feel, only to quickly retract everything once the shit hits the fan. They are usually never slow to say everything was taken out of context once their agent reminds them that their lucrative contract may be at risk.

The media has such a big part to play in the modern game, but if done correctly it can be used in a positive manner for managers and players. Alex Ferguson was fantastic at using the media to his and his clubs’ advantage. He was a master at using the press to get under opposing managers’ skin. Who can forget Keegan losing the plot and Rafa Benitez literally unraveling in a press conference? They could have handed Manchester United the Premier League title there and then. Sir Alex had a penchant for using the media to create a siege mentality amongst his players. He made the players think the world was against them and this helped forge a great determination amongst the troops to prove everyone wrong and this brought great success not only at Manchester United but also at Aberdeen.

One of the best examples of his experience at how to handle the media was after David Beckham’s wonder goal from the halfway line at Wimbledon. Immediately after the game, he insisted Becks got on the bus without speaking to anyone from the media. No Match of the Day interview, no radio interviews, just head down and mouth shut. This was his way of protecting a young player from the media spotlight so he could concentrate on his football. He let everyone else eulogise about what they had just witnessed and let Beckham concentrate on his on-field duties.

It is a pity no one at Bournemouth took a leaf out of Fergie’s book after their game against Manchester United earlier this month. I was amazed to see Tyrone Mings in front of the Sky camer’s immediately after the game talking about his altercation with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Surely this was an occasion where the club should not only have protected the player, but protected the club itself. I quite frankly found it painful to watch him try and explain his actions. If someone had the foresight to foresee this, they could have saved an embarrassing situation.

It isn’t just TV, radio and written press that players have to worry about these days but the ever-growing social media platforms, too. Thanks to the growth in social media, the appetite for constant updates and up-to-the-minute news is insatiable. What is considered news now is also so far ranging it is farcical. Twenty years ago, who would have been bothered with a picture of a manager standing in a kebab shop? Nowadays, for anyone in the public eye, you are always in front of a camera. Effectively, everyone with a phone is a journalist. Twitter and fans forums give everyone, no matter how young or old, knowledgeable or ignorant, a platform to air their views on football. I agree with one of my ex managers when they famously said, “Everyone has an arsehole but it doesn’t mean they should all be aired in public.”

Poor Steve Bruce can’t order a doner kebab and a side of cheesy chips these days without it going viral and being seen around the world. Let’s be honest, I don’t need video evidence to know the ex-Manchester United legend and current Villa manager likes a takeaway now and again, but why would anyone be interested when he’s doing something Joe Soap does every week?

Only last week someone posted a picture on twitter of Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths sitting with his family having a meal in TGI’s. The Daily Record online even ran a full page story about it. Is it any wonder that players are so guarded when it comes to dealing with the press? I sometimes hear people complain about how the relationship between fans and players is growing ever wider, yet some players can’t even eat out with their family in peace without someone trying to take a sneaky photo. Is it any wonder watching some interviews are as excruciating as a trip to the dentist? Modern day players at the very top have had to learn to put barriers up from the general public to protect themselves from unwanted attention and unwarranted controversy. For every genuine football fan wanting a selfie there is someone waiting to stitch you up.

I quite often hear football fans complain about the disconnect between themselves and modern day players compared to previous eras. Unfortunately, at a time where more people than ever before are able to connect and converse online, it is almost impossible for these high-profile people to show their true character and personality for the fear of being abused and constantly judged. Paul Pogba has been derided as much for his social media posts as he has for his poor performances on the pitch.

I have seen players post on Twitter that they are off for a “cheeky Nando’s,” only for their Twitter feed to go into overdrive from outraged fans. “How dare you enjoy a meal out with your mates after we lost at the weekend?,” or, “Don’t you care about the club?,” along with much more abuse. It is such a vicious circle that players find themselves in if they decide to be visible online. I am only new to Twitter myself and am amazed by the number of generic posts from various players I see after games on a Saturday afternoon like, “Tough result today lads. On to the next one. Great support from the fans.” On one hand they are trying to connect with the punters, but instead of being their self, they end being a caricature of themselves so afraid to say the wrong thing at the risk of upsetting people that they end up getting trolled and abused anyway.

I am currently at a club in the USA, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which makes fantastic use of social media to promote the club and its current fight to gain entry in to MLS. They also provide our fans a fantastic behind the scenes look at training and off-the-field activities. Instead of boring interviews, they produce interesting videos that show the players are not robots but normal people who can laugh at themselves and the fans can relate to. I have included a link at the bottom of this post to a video of me and a few other team mates taking part in a “Rowdies Spelling Bee.” It doesn’t do anything for the stereotype about footballers being intellectually challenged, but it should give you a good laugh.

Talking about having a laugh with the media, during my spell on loan at Hartlepool, the lads came up with a game to make dull interviews slightly more exciting by trying to include specific words. After a few successful attempts they decided to get a bit more adventurous and the word of the week was “gangsters”. After a great one-nil win away from home, it was young left back John Brackstone’s turn to face the press. That week we all waited on the local paper with eager anticipation to see if he had somehow slipped in our word of choice. When the local paper came out we were not disappointed. “It was a great result and although we came under some pressure at the end, the boys defended the goal like gangsters protecting their turf.” Now that certainly wasn’t a cliché many will have heard before.