Millwall away must have been tough. 2-0 defeat, two men sent off, a mere 8,494 crowd and a long slog back to the north contemplating being seven points from safety in the Championship. Derby at home, after which the manager was sacked, was no fun either. Defeats by Brentford, Charlton, Cardiff, Middlesbrough, Watford equally grim.
This was 2015, and Harry Maguire was a 22-year-old centre-half, on loan at Wigan having failed to establish himself in the Premier League at Hull City. Three years later he was scoring in a World Cup quarter-final. Football’s a ladder, says Harry. Believe and keep climbing step by step.
There’s a reason why the square-jawed, square-shouldered, squarely normal Sheffielder has been club player of the year in five of his past seven seasons, for three different teams, and is loved by terracing and dressing room alike. It’s not just that he’s a very good player. It’s that others see the groundedness yet the ascent.
Maguire became the darling of England supporters at the World Cup last summer and, a perceptive type (with seven A or A* GCSEs), he understands his appeal well. It’s “probably my journey of coming in and playing games in League One and building my way up the ladder,” he says. “And the way I want to play the game.”
It’s easy to forget that England’s opening match in Russia was only Maguire’s second competitive international. Before long he was such a national treasure that a picture of him talking to a pretty fan after that Sweden quarter-final became — and remains — a ubiquitous social media meme.
Harry is so ordinary that the jokes (including a famous tweet by Kyle Walker) were based around him using England celebrity as a chat-up line, as any lad might. When really the supposed groupie was his fiancée, Fern, a first-class honours grad and his partner since they were teens.
“The funny thing was, people thought I was speaking to a random girl in the crowd,” Maguire smiles. “[Fern] is not happy that it keeps getting passed around because she’d just been soaked in beer. But it’s great, it’s fun, I keep seeing it flying around Twitter all the time.”
The interesting thing is that even in those dog days at Wigan, Maguire had conviction he could rise to England stardom. He dreamt this even at the start of his career, playing three full seasons for Sheffield United in League One. His loan period at Wigan happened because, having joined Hull before the start of the 2014-15 season, Maguire reached mid-February without starting a Premier League game. That conviction made him take action.
“I was knocking on the manager’s [Steve Bruce’s] door every other week asking, ‘what’s happening, why aren’t I in the squad?’ He was saying, ‘be patient’ and I kept saying, ‘I want to go on loan’. Eventually he gave in to me. I wanted to go out and play games, I was used to playing games,” Maguire recalls.
“I didn’t [doubt myself]. Michael Dawson always said, ‘be patient, I have great belief you’re going to the very top’.” In League One, “you always vision it. You feel you can do it. It seems a long, long way away but ask any young player playing in the lower leagues, they always dream of playing for England.”
Hard climb: Maguire made 172 appearences in the Football League before his first Premier League startDARREN STAPLES
The key is remembering the ladder. “I can’t be sent on loan and thinking I’m going to play for England. It doesn’t work like that. I get sent to Wigan and my next step is do well at Wigan. Get in the Hull team. Stay in the Hull team and play week in, week out. And then you see where it goes from there. It’s step by step.”
Maguire made 172 Football League appearances before finally starting in the Premier League, in October 2016. In fact, 20 of England’s World Cup 23 were developed or played on loan in the EFL, where youth development funding has risen almost one-third over five years — 36% of starting appearances in the Championship this season were made by under-21s who are eligible to play for England.
Maguire symbolises the opportunities on offer there and the scope to build character outside the pampered top flight. He describes his first professional goal — a header from a corner against Oldham — with the clarity of yesterday. He remarks, “every game in League One made me a better player”.
And he is still wedded to the EFL as a fan, attending Sheffield United games when possible. He was in the home end at Bramall Lane for the Sheffield derby last season and last went when United were beaten 2-1 by West Brom in December. He and James Maddison struck a charity bet: whether United or Norwich (Maddison’s former club) will finish higher this season.
Leicester suits him, still a grounded club. A new £100m training ground is coming but, for now, the players still practise at Belvoir Drive, small fields bordered by modest streets, and there are rituals that remain from the days before Leicester won the Premier League. Like Jamie Vardy’s game of lurking in the dressing room, possibly hiding in the bath, to jump out and chuck wet socks at the unsuspecting who enter. “I wouldn’t say he’s grown out of it, no,” Maguire reports. “Vards is always up to some sort of prank. If you walk in the changing room, just be aware. And maybe put a shield on sometimes.”
What of Leicester’s season? They are in 11th place, having recorded wins against Chelsea and Manchester City. Yet defeats by Cardiff City and Newport County (in the FA Cup) and a great performance at Liverpool (where Maguire scored in a 1-1 draw) have come amid a run of four defeats in five.
Manager Claude Puel’s position is under consideration. Maguire’s verdict: “We’ve been too inconsistent. Our highs have been really high and our lows have not been good enough. So when we’re playing against the teams we’re expected to beat at home and we’re not performing, you understand the fans not being happy. It’s something we need to work on.”
After Leicester rebuffed interest from Manchester United, Maguire extended his contract in September. “Leicester gave me a great platform to go and play at a World Cup, reach the semi-final of a World Cup. If it weren’t for Leicester maybe I wouldn’t have done that. So repaying them is important. There was no doubt in my mind I was going to be loyal and start the season off with Leicester.”
They are, he says, “a great club, a club that’s on a ladder and still rising. I still feel it can go places.” Even after winning a title? He nods. “I see it as Leicester, three or four years ago, were trying to stay in the Premier League year in, year out. Where now I feel we’re totally different to that. We’re pushing for a top-half finish but there’s still a level we can go, that we can really hit. We can aim for the top eight, the top seven, and then obviously we’ve got to start being competitive in cup competitions as well. Start getting to finals and maybe win some silverware — I think that’s where we have to aim.”
The difficult question. He’s now 25, wants to taste the Champions League, wants to win medals — so can he fulfil his ambitions at the King Power? “Every young player wants to play at the top level,” says Maguire. “At the moment I take everything step by step and concentrate game by game and see where it takes me.
“Like I said, Leicester are a club on the up and we’ll see where they go and we’ll see where I go.”
Keep climbing those rungs.