Harry Maguire is the world’s most expensive centre-back and captain of arguably the world’s most famous football club. As ever with high-earning, high-profile individuals, the appraisals are often more extreme and miss the context they really ought to include.
To different people, Harry Maguire means different things. To England manager Gareth Southgate, he is an automatic starter in a national team that routinely challenges the latter stages of competitions.
To the passive England fan, he is the popular defender with the big head who became an internet meme by propping himself against the hoardings to talk to three women (one of whom is now his wife) during the 2018 World Cup.
To Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag, he is his captain. But he is also, at varying moments, his third-, fourth- or fifth-choice centre-half.
To Pep Guardiola, he was the player he first targeted to replace Vincent Kompany at Manchester City before United outbid their rivals.
To the Greek police, he is an English holidaymaker guilty of attempted bribery, repeated bodily harm and violence against public employees. To his lawyer, he maintains his innocence and continues to appeal the verdict.
To more forgiving Manchester United fans, he is a good lad who plays well at times, tries his best but whose limitations have been sorely exposed.
To other Manchester United fans or the worst of social media, he is reduced to a cumbersome joke, the target of relentless abuse and caricature. In other words, it’s Harry Maguire and it is complicated.
Manchester United’s £80million (now $99.7m) outlay on a defender is unsurpassed since the club’s former executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward negotiated the transfer in 2019 from Leicester City. Yet tonight, when Tottenham host Manchester United in a crucial fixture which may go a long way to deciding Champions League qualification, Maguire’s place in the starting line-up is uncertain at best.
For Maguire, four years into a six-year £190,000-a-week contract at Old Trafford (which includes an additional option to extend by a further year), it has been a humbling campaign. By now, Ten Hag’s thinking appears reasonably clear. Maguire started the season as first choice alongside Lisandro Martinez but squandered his place with poor displays in United’s opening two matches, losses against Brighton at home and Brentford away.
Since then, he has started only five of United’s subsequent 28 Premier League matches. United won all five without conceding a goal, but they were against struggling clubs West Ham, Bournemouth, Leeds, Everton and Nottingham Forest. He has not been trusted by Ten Hag to start against the ‘Big Six’ clubs or the emerging Newcastle United.
And just as Maguire might have presumed he would be the beneficiary of injuries to Raphael Varane and Martinez, a new stumbling block emerged. First, he endured a calamitous display in United’s 3-0 Europa League quarter-final exit against Sevilla, then he was suspended for the FA Cup semi-final against Brighton at Wembley.
In his absence, Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw equipped themselves competently at the heart of the defence and many United supporters now expect the pair to retain their places. Shaw, for his part, has played only five matches in his career at centre-half — all this season — but he has excelled in the role with his ability to pick a pass, take the ball under pressure and break out of defence. Ten Hag even trusted Shaw to start in the role in January’s victory over Manchester City (when Maguire was reduced to a stoppage-time substitute appearance).
Nobody can disguise that Maguire finds himself in a troubling predicament at Old Trafford. He has at least two years remaining on a highly remunerated contract and he remains the club’s captain. Those close to the player — who, like many in this piece, wish to remain anonymous to protect relationships — insist Maguire, who turned 30 in March, wants to fight for his United future and regain a starting place.
Yet United are also in a tight spot with financial fair play this summer and player sales will be required to bolster a kitty that Ten Hag needs if he wishes United to step up from being a cup team to being a force capable of competing for the Premier League. Maguire is one of those players who may command a handy fee in the transfer market but he would, almost certainly, need to take a pay cut and be persuaded that his time at Old Trafford is over.
United, for their part, are not pushing him out of the club and he is behind players, such as the currently on-loan pair Eric Bailly and Alex Telles, in the pecking order of who the club wants to get off the wage bill this summer. Yet, with Euro 2024 to come next summer and United keen to reshape their squad, complicated discussions may lie ahead.
During the 2021-22 Premier League season, The Alan Turing Institute conducted a survey in conjunction with Ofcom (the United Kingdom’s communications regulator). It focused on the first half of the campaign and provided data on the most abused footballers in the Premier League on social media.
The survey, which corresponded with a painful period for United at the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign, found that Maguire received 8,954 abusive tweets. This placed him second in the Premier League only behind Cristiano Ronaldo (12,520). Eight of the 10 most-abused players were registered to United — Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Fred, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and David De Gea were the others. A particular hotspot for Maguire emerged after United lost 2-0 at home against Manchester City (not long after a 5-0 home defeat by Liverpool), when the centre-back’s decision to apologise to supporters on social media went down badly.
For Maguire, it epitomised a dramatic change in public perception. This, after all, had been a player whose storybook ascension up the ladder of English football, from Sheffield United to Hull City to Leicester City, had charmed many onlookers. The peak of his popularity came at the World Cup in 2018, when “Slabhead”, as he affectionately became known, excelled under Southgate as England reached the semi-final of the competition. Maguire had attended Euro 2016 as a supporter with his friends and his transition from a fan in the stand to automatic starter resonated with the public. He enjoyed genuine cut-through. He was perceived as a down-to-earth emblem of an England team that was talented and likeable.
His early dedication had stood out to staff at Hull City. A former sport scientist at the club — who wished not to be named because he was speaking without permission — recalled receiving regular texts from Maguire after his game. “He was desperate to improve,” they said. “At the time, he was learning that running more did not always make for better performance. He came to realise you need the capacity to run, but the positioning is more important. There were many times he clocked the team’s highest speed for recovery runs from attacking corners, which showed his desire.”
After the 2018 World Cup, he became the most in-demand centre-back in English football: he was powerful in the air, firm in the tackle and his performances in a back three suggested he was capable of stepping out of defence and picking a decent pass. The following summer, Leicester received real and sustained interest in Maguire from Manchester City, as well as United. Solskjaer favoured Maguire ahead of other targets at the time, who included Toby Alderweireld, Nathan Ake and Kalidou Koulibaly.
Guardiola perceived Maguire as being capable of replacing club legend Kompany, so City floated a bid that would have been worth up to £70million, while their discussions also included offering Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala. Leicester’s demands were higher, pushing for up to £100m, but City would not go beyond £70m, which left United to come in at an eventual compromise of £80m, satisfying Leicester as it exceeded the figure Southampton had received for Virgil van Dijk in January 2018 (£75m).
It may all feel a long time ago now, but Maguire’s start to life at Old Trafford was positive. He was named man of the match on his debut in a 4-0 win over Chelsea in the Premier League. In his first season at Old Trafford, he played more minutes than any other professional player in world football for club and country, by the metrics of the stats website Transfermarkt. This included several weeks of playing through the pain barrier and with the assistance of painkilling injections.
The possibility of becoming United captain had been mentioned during negotiations over his transfer to the club, but the speed of his appointment — six months into his time at Old Trafford — did surprise him a little and perhaps said as much about the dearth of leaders in the United dressing room as it did Maguire’s suitability for the role.
Maguire sought to embrace the role, speaking to former United captains Wayne Rooney and Bryan Robson. He also visited the club’s offices to introduce himself to staff shortly after his appointment. He later won a PFA Community Champion award for his work assisting the Manchester United Foundation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Separately, a Facebook post emerged in his Yorkshire hometown of Mosborough. The town’s community forum page said: “We have been contacted by local boy Harry Maguire and we have some nice news to share. The Manchester United and England footballer has kindly offered to supply a food package of everyday essentials to the elderly in the district. Harry recognises the difficulty for some of our older residents getting out and about currently — plus the amazing friends, family and carers that have been looking after them.”
He was also among the first Premier League players to speak out about the need for social media platforms to do more to challenge discrimination.
Maguire’s star and standing were on the rise, so what happened?
His arrival at Old Trafford coincided, unfortunately for him, with a period of significant transition at Manchester United. The club announced their squad numbers for the 2019-20 season by listing 32 players and only 10 of those have appeared for the club this season. That underlines the pace and depth of change at a club which has been managed by Solskjaer, Michael Carrick, Ralf Rangnick and Ten Hag since Maguire’s arrival, while also undergoing all manner of backroom tribulations with a Super League breakaway attempt, a deeply unpopular ownership, and a change of club structure when Woodward finally departed and Richard Arnold stepped up to chief executive.
Very few people have found Old Trafford an easy place in which to survive and thrive in recent years and all of this should go into the melting pot when assessing Maguire’s travails. And that is before we even begin to assess the repercussions of the human wrecking ball, for better and worse, that was Ronaldo. One former member of staff on the football side at United concludes that Maguire was a good player in a dysfunctional environment, who he believes would have thrived at City with the stability and tactical acumen of Guardiola.
While all these mitigating factors exist, the vast majority who have observed United closely in recent years will by now have seen accident-prone individual displays from Maguire that are hard to excuse for a player who commanded that fee and wages, and who retains the armband.
The first real public manifestation of the crisis in Maguire’s career came in the summer of 2020. Maguire, along with his wife Fern, his dad Alan, brother Joe and sister Daisy, were among a cohort who headed out to the Greek island of Mykonos. A family holiday, however, descended into anarchy on a Thursday evening when Maguire was held for two nights in police cells. Maguire and his brother Joe were found guilty in a court of offences — denied to this day — which included attempted bribery, repeated bodily harm and violence against public employees.
It all began in an altercation outside a bar and the Maguire clan’s version of events claims that his sister, Daisy, had been approached by men and injected with an unknown substance and began passing in and out of consciousness.
Ashden Morley, a friend of Maguire present on the night, supported this account as a defence witness. Morley explained in court that Maguire’s fiancee, Fern, had spotted Daisy’s eyes rolling back and the group had suspected she had been injected with a “rape drug”. The court also heard that Maguire hired a driver and minibus for the duration of the trip. This had been recommended to him by the residence where Maguire was staying. As tension rose and concerns grew for Daisy, Maguire instructed his driver to take her back to the villa or to a local hospital to seek medical attention. They said plain-clothed police officers then began talking to Maguire’s minibus driver in Greek and ordered the driver to attend the police station.
The station was described by the Maguire brothers and their friend and fellow defendant Chris Sharman as an unusual-looking building and the defence said he feared he was being kidnapped. This fear was heightened, they claim, when eight Greek men, also plain-clothed, abused Maguire at the station, shouting “Your career is over” while kicking his legs. A subsequent medical examination seen by the defence was said to show bruising that supported this account, but Maguire’s legal team said they had insufficient time to incorporate forensic evidence into his case.
The three Englishmen said they did not know at this point that the eight men were policemen and therefore resisted being arrested, fearing they were being robbed. They were subsequently arrested and detained.
The Greek police initially claimed in a statement their officers had attempted to defuse a row between two groups of people outside a bar in Mykonos and that the three men were detained after verbally abusing and assaulting an officer. The statement further alleged that at the police station, the three men “strongly resisted, pushing and hitting three police officers” and “one detainee tried to offer money so that the trial against them would not be completed”. A file was opened, including allegations of “violence against officials, disobedience, bodily harm, insult and attempted bribery of an official”. Maguire and his two alleged accomplices denied all these claims.
The police disputed Maguire’s version. A policeman told the court he did not personally see men striking the English trio. Maguire’s lawyer then asked how the policeman would therefore explain injuries present on the defendants. A second policeman supported his colleague’s account.
One police officer alleged in court that as he attempted to handcuff Maguire, the United defender pushed him over and the officer injured his leg, requiring a painkilling injection and the following day off work. An officer also alleged that, at the police station, Maguire said to him: “Please, let me go, I am very rich, I can pay, I am the leader of Manchester United.” The prosecuting lawyers claimed the officers attempted to defuse the situation, but one of the defendants instead said “Fuck, fuck the police” and one defendant punched an officer.
Maguire received a 21-month-and-10-days prison sentence. This was suspended as it was a first offence and the charges were misdemeanours. Maguire said after the verdict that he had instructed his legal team “with immediate effect to inform the courts we will be appealing”. He added: “I remain strong and confident regarding our innocence in this matter — if anything, myself, family and friends are the victims.”
United stood by Maguire, dispatching legal support to Mykonos and retaining him as captain. His appeal remains ongoing, almost two years on. Maguire did not take personal security on the vacation, unlike other footballers who sometimes do. His view was that he had enjoyed holidays even after appearing in a World Cup without any issue.
Maguire’s experience in Mykonos appeared to impact his on-field performance. He started the 2020-21 season poorly, culpable in United home defeats against Crystal Palace and Tottenham which brought Solskjaer perilously close to the brink as manager. He was then sent off for two bookable offences inside 31 minutes while playing for England against Denmark. He told Gary Neville’s Overlap channel that he spoke to Ian Mitchell, the English Football Association’s Head of Performance Psychology, to try to come to terms with the summer’s events.
Maguire’s performances for United improved and the club finished second in the Premier League. He was among the United players who mobilised — albeit not the most vocal — when news of the Super League plan broke in April 2021. When Maguire suffered an injury that ruled him out of the Europa League final against Villarreal in Gdansk, it was regarded by many as a major blow to United’s chances. Solskjaer’s team lost on penalties. Maguire regained his fitness and excelled at Euro 2020, where England lost the final against Italy, also on penalties. Yet Maguire’s rollercoaster ride was now heading for a major descent.
Manchester United were confident ahead of the 2021-22 season. Jadon Sancho finally joined the club from Borussia Dortmund, Ronaldo rejoined from Juventus and a world-class partner for Maguire had signed: Varane from Real Madrid. The optimism was brutally misguided. United’s collective form and Maguire’s individual form fell off a cliff during a dismal five-week period in October and November, as United lost against Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City and Watford, conceding 15 goals across the four games, with Maguire also sent off in the 4-1 defeat by Watford, which was Solskjaer’s final match in charge.
His standing and confidence at Old Trafford have never felt the same since. A fortnight after that red card, he celebrated a goal against Albania for England by appearing to cup his hands over his ears. Pundit and former United captain Roy Keane said: “I think he puts his hands to his ears like he’s shut the critics up, but I think that’s embarrassing.”
Nobody around Old Trafford disputes the impact of Ronaldo’s return and sometimes in football things are really as obvious as they appear on the surface. Several sources close to the situation say Ronaldo’s personality overwhelmed many of those who had previously been growing in prominence at United.
This can be seen in two ways: some would argue Ronaldo’s demands (most notably his desire to win, his wish to enhance facilities at the club’s training ground and his exasperation with the club’s logistics) ought to have raised the standards of those around him. Nobody disputes that his personal preparation was anything short of exemplary. Yet it is also clear that United players first felt in awe of Ronaldo and then grew to cower a little in his presence.
The authority and power base of those such as Solskjaer and Maguire ebbed away. At one stage, the club’s video analysts sought to find an explanation as to why an attacking United player was struggling for form and they concluded the player was spending every attack trying to pass the ball to Ronaldo in order to receive praise from the Portuguese icon. The Athletic has previously reported how, at one point during Rangnick’s reign, Ronaldo made clear to the German during an impromptu crisis meeting that he would prefer the team did not include Maguire.
Maguire retained his place in the side until the 4-0 humiliation United endured at Anfield, after which he was dropped until United lost 4-0 at Brighton, which led to him being restored. When Ten Hag arrived in the summer, the Dutchman made a point of affording many players a clean slate. This included retaining Maguire as captain, even though some players felt Bruno Fernandes might be better suited to the captaincy.
Yet Maguire soon lost his place and, when he was playing, was asked to adapt to a slightly different role on the right side of the central defence because Ten Hag likes to have a left-footed player on the left. It is why Shaw was preferred to Maguire in the position earlier in the season, leaving Maguire essentially fifth choice at centre-back.
In his first nine appearances under Ten Hag, Maguire received yellow cards in five of those games, then bookings in FA Cup matches against West Ham and Fulham ruled him out of the FA Cup semi-final. Varane, his direct competitor for the right-sided central defensive berth, has received three yellow cards since arriving at Old Trafford last summer. After a reasonable World Cup for England, Ten Hag challenged Maguire publicly to bring the “confidence” he exhibits for his national team to United.
For those at United who grew reasonably fond of Maguire or worked closely with him, it has at times been a difficult and uncomfortable watch. Even his greatest advocates concede he is not the most rousing communicator, yet he felt obliged to front up and give post-match interviews last season after dreadful United displays or offer an apology on social media. It all left him feeling as though he was between a rock and a hard place, criticised for not finding the correct words in interviews or criticised for not turning out in front of the cameras as captain.
One former United colleague said: “Once a pile-on starts at Manchester United, particularly as an expensive purchase, it would be difficult for anyone to cope with the caricaturing that ensues. How would you or I cope if the entire internet was waiting for that one imperfect moment in our daily work to go ballistic at you? It would not be human to be unaffected by the constant criticism and abuse. None of this is to say he is the best in the world or there are no shortcomings in his game, but he is singled out for brutal criticism which is not always entirely warranted.”
There are some at United who now view Maguire more as a club captain than a team captain. At Wembley last week, where Maguire was suspended, he was present around the group during extra time, but Fernandes was doing the geeing up from the touchline. Maguire, meanwhile, consoled Brighton’s Solly March after he missed the decisive penalty. That is no criticism, but rather examples of the difference in the two men’s personalities.
Only recently, Maguire stepped in to welcome pupils from partner schools of the United Foundation where two other players had made excuses to say they were unable to attend. He has also spent time via the foundation with children at a local school that specialises in assisting children with severe learning difficulties.
Ten Hag maintains a positive view, certainly in public. Last Friday, after the defeat in Seville, Ten Hag was asked what Maguire offers: “He has an important role: he is the captain, he leads, he communicates with the manager, he motivates the team, he’s the example on the training pitch. He always has good (training) sessions.”
There is little reason to doubt Ten Hag’s sincerity, but the Dutchman will also not be naive to the fact it is wise to talk up any asset that may be sold in the summer. For a club that has rarely sold efficiently, it will be an intriguing test to see whether United are able to recoup a decent transfer fee or relieve their wage bill when the player would appear most likely destined for a club outside the established order if he is to remain in England. Ten Hag’s priority this summer is to improve the depth of quality at his disposal, but he will only keep players who he believes are truly determined to fight for their place at Old Trafford.
For England, Maguire remains a Southgate favourite and Maguire was defensive — or assertive, depending on your view — when speaking about his role in March. “I’m 30 years old and I shouldn’t really need to prove myself at this level. I have over 50 caps. I’m England’s top-scoring defender.”
Of his international record, it was a fair defence. For his club, however, uncertainty lingers.
(Top image: Designed by Samuel Richardson; photo by Michael Regan via Getty Images)
Leave a Reply