Harry Maguire: Forged in Steel
It took Harry Maguire a matter of seconds to begin building his sterling reputation at Bramall Lane.
After replacing the injured Joe Mattock as a 48th-minute substitute, with Sheffield United trailing Cardiff City by a solitary Craig Bellamy goal, the hulking 18-year-old, sporting the no.40 shirt, set about making his mark on proceedings.
“With his first touch, he absolutely smashed Bellamy,” remembers John Pemberton, then head of the Blades’ Academy. “It was a brilliant tackle. To be fair I remember Bellamy getting up and shaking his hand, saying, ‘well played’. The whole of Bramall Lane stood up and clapped.”
Though the hosts went on to lose 2-0, continuing a slide down the Championship table which would culminate in relegation to League One just three weeks later, ‘Big H’ was off and running. But, like any young debutant, there had been a long and winding journey to overnight prominence. Maguire had already been on the Blades’ books for eight years, having joined from Barnsley alongside his elder brother, Joe.
While Joe wasn’t ultimately offered a scholarship and duly moved to Scunthorpe, Harry did enough to secure a deal, thriving as a central midfielder among older age groups until a growth spurt at 16 prompted his redeployment to centre-half. He was also sufficiently emboldened by his increased stature when it came to his role of ball boy on first-team matchdays.
“I always sat behind the goal at the away end – because no-one else dared to go there,” Harry later laughed.
Under Pemberton’s stewardship, the Blades’ Under-18s thrived, reaching the 2011 FA Youth Cup final to face a United side replete with the talents of Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison, Jesse Lingard, the Keane brothers and more. Despite the mixed emotions of breaking through to senior football but enduring relegation, Maguire was thrilled to be involved against the Reds.
“It’s always in the back of your mind, especially when you’re playing against the likes of United, that you’re always trying to impress,” he recently told the Reds’official podcast. “You want to play against the best and you know that they’ve got the best players. Any tournament I went to, Manchester United were winning or getting to the final. It’s incredible, really, how strong they were at my age group. You want to impress, sure, but the bottom of it is that you go into the game wanting to win.”
A 2-2 draw at Bramall Lane in the first leg of the final preceded a 4-1 home win for the Reds at Old Trafford, in which Maguire was knocked out following a clash of heads with Morrison, curtailing his involvement inthe 50th minute. Though he was rushed to hospital immediately, some consolation arrived over the following days, as Sir Alex Ferguson posted a signed United shirt to the teenager.
“It was a nice gesture and shows what a classy club it is,” Harry smiled. In the space of less than two months, Maguire had racked up a wealth of wide-ranging experiences. In addition to his debut, relegation and the Youth Cup final, another four senior outings had contained a red card – for conceding a penalty as last man in a home win over Bristol City – and a slip against Barnsley which cost a crucial goal in the 2-2 draw which sealed demotion to League One.
Manager Micky Adams departed at the end of the campaign, replaced by Danny Wilson, but both men showed unyielding faith in Maguire’s ability to cope with the rigours of first-team football.
“I was a young boy coming through and I had great faith and confidence given to me by the manager,” he recalled.
“There were times when I was playing and made a couple of mistakes, and some other managers might have gone, ‘right, get rid of the young one – let’s get an experienced bloke in,’ but to be fair to Danny Wilson, who was there for two or three years when I was there, he played me every game. I could make a mistake, play a backpass short to the keeper, they’d score and we’d lose the game, but I’d play the next game whereas some managers might have thought differently and gone with experience. That was a massive part of my development. Plus playing in League One, at 18 and 19 years old, meant I was playing against loads of experienced, old-fashioned strikers who probably brought out the physical attributes in me.”
Maguire immediately showed he was up to the challenge of third-tier football, heading the first goal of his career in the Blades’ 2011/12 opening-day win over Oldham Athletic and ending August 2011 as the Football League’s Young Player of the Month.
His manager was quick to salute the youngster’s attitude, admitting: “I have been very impressed with him, not just with his ability but with his all-round professionalism. What I really like about him is his calmness. It is very impressive to see such a calm head on young shoulders. His all-round game is good and although we all know that he still has a lot to learn, he is continuing to get better and better.” The Blades moved quickly in reaction to Maguire’s rising stock, handing the teenager an improved, four-year deal less than two months into his first full season as a senior player.
“I was always going to sign,” he said at the time. “This deal means all I needto think about is my performances – I don’t want anything to change off the field. I am desperate to keep playing well and hopefully I can play every minute of this season and help the team win promotion.”
He came close on both fronts, remaining an ever-present until he picked up a red card against Oldham in March, then watching on in agony as the Blades lost to Huddersfield Town on penalties in the play-off final. Harry, having kept a clean sheet before converting his spot-kick, could have done no more to help haul his side back to the Championship, as evidenced by a spot in the League One Team of the Season.
The following term, 2012/13, bore striking similarities. Over 50 appearances once again, an ill-fated play-offs campaign – this time curtailed in the semi-finals by Yeovil Town – and another berth in the division’s all-star team.
Within his individual game, Harry was more imposing, picking up five goals, 11 bookings and a solitary red card, and his development continued alongside experiencedScottish centre-back Neill Collins and under the watchful eye of skipper-turned-coach Chris Morgan.
Looking back, Harry admitted: “I had two big influences at Sheffield United. I always enjoyed watching Chris Morgan play, but he had a nasty injury and ended up on the coaching team when I was breaking through. He had a big influence on the defensive part of my game. I always played with Neill Collins, who was massive for my development. He told me when I did anything wrong. I got an earful every now and then, but he was great. They’re a big part of where I am now.”
There were, of course, two more stepping stones on Harry’s way to becoming the Reds’ current club captain, the first of which materialised at the end of the 2013/14 season.
A nightmarish start to the campaign took promotion off the table early on, but the mid-season managerial arrival of Nigel Clough prompted an unlikely FA Cup run which took Maguire and his team-mates to the semi-finals, and back to Wembley for the second time in three seasons.
A host of admirers higher up the football pyramid had already started regularly monitoring the youngster’s commanding displays. Among them was Hull City manager Steve Bruce, whose Premier League side were paired with the Blades at Wembley for the last-four encounter.
Bruce’s son Alex, an unused substitute on the Tigers’ bench that afternoon as Hull won 5-3, later recalled: “Dad had been watching him anyway, and after the way he performed at Wembley, Dad came away from the stadium and said: ‘I’m taking him next season.’ Harry was very good. Dad didn’t mess about; he went and signed him not long after that game. Then he was with us in time for the next season. He had so much presence, even though he was just a young lad who had made the big jump from League One. We knew that, for a young lad, he’d played a lot of games. We could all soon tell that he was going to be an exceptional defender.”
Over the next five years, via Hull and a two-term stint with Leicester City, Harry played his way into international regularity and a world-record move to Old Trafford. His skills may have been sharpened with each passing year, but Manchester United’s club captain was first forged as a Blade.