Ron Reid always knew Kyle Walker was destined for greatness and suspected Harry Maguire would follow in his footsteps too.
So as they prepare to help England try and lift the World Cup, the man responsible for launching their careers can relax, safe in the knowledge he was right after all.
“You could just tell, even from an early age, that they had what it takes to go a long way,” Reid, Sheffield United’s former youth team coach, says ahead of tonight’s opening game against Tunisia. “I’m not shocked at all to see them doing what they’re doing. Delighted, yes. But not surprised.”
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Walker and Maguire, two of the Steelphalt Academy’s most famous graduates, are expected to perform key roles in Russia after being named in Gareth Southgate’s squad. Together with Gary Cahill, who enjoyed a spell on loan at Bramall Lane earlier in his career, they complete a trio of ex-United players tasked with restoring national pride following the misery of Brazil four years ago. John Stones, previously of Barnsley, is also expected to feature.
Although they both progressed through the ranks at United before being sold to top-flight clubs, Reid reveals Walker and Maguire share very little in common other than their alma mater. Indeed, as he explains, coaching staff were initially alerted to their potential for different reasons.
“What stood out about Kyle was that he was totally unflappable, even at a young age. Nothing seemed to faze him. He just got on with his job and did what he had to. Always to a very high standard.
“The thing about Harry was obviously his size and stature, combined with his excellent technical ability. The way he played the game back then, well, he just brought something to the table others didn’t. He ticked all the boxes you need to be a centre-half but, as we’ve seen when he brings the ball out from the back, has got that little bit extra too.”
Nevertheless it was Walker, three years Maguire’s senior, on whom Reid was prepared to stake his reputation. Having championed the youngster’s case long before Pep Guardiola persuaded Manchester City to make him the most expensive defender in the history of the game, Reid’s off-the-record monologues about Walker being an England international in waiting became a regular feature of his interviews with journalists. It was not, he admits, a belief shared by all.
“There was actually one moment, which I think Kyle might have forgotten, when he actually told me he wanted to pack it all in,” Reid acknowledges. “I don’t think he really meant it, it was just one of those things you say when you’re feeling a bit down, but fortunately we got everything sorted. The problem was the reserve team weren’t arranging many games at that time and he was too old for the age group below. Kyle, quite understandably, just wanted to play football.
“So what we did was to play him as an over age player. Because he was too good not to play. There was a match, against Crewe, that Noel Blake, who was England under-19’s coach at the time, watched. He came straight over to me at half-time and, pointing to Kyle, asked ‘Who’s that?’ I told him but said ‘I’ll be honest, he’s an over age player.’ Noel replied he didn’t care and that he’s be picking him for the next England under-19’s squad. I told Kyle and, sure enough on the Monday, the call-up came. That, I think, was the Eureka Moment.”
Walker arrived at United following a recommendation from Luis Silva, a former professional from Chile, who now works as a coach for Football United Racism Divides.
“The moment Kyle turned-up, I very quickly told them (United) that you have to sign this player up,” Silva, who also played in Argentina and Peru, says. “Why? Because he had such enthusiasm and a desire to do well. On top of that, he also enjoyed himself. You could tell he enjoyed football. It sounds so simple but that is so important because, if you don’t enjoy something, you are never going to do well.”
“I didn’t coach Kyle for long,” Silva continues. “He came to us when he was nine and very quickly went to United. He sees the whole pitch now. He sees things right to the very end and his game is slowly changing as he learns new things. But I always remember back then, telling him to show me what he could do, what he enjoyed doing. Rather than make things complicated or difficult, it’s important for youngsters to play the way they enjoy playing. He’s still doing that, the way he plays the game, the same way now he did back then which I think has helped make him what he is.”
Maguire made his United debut two years after Walker, when Cardiff City visited South Yorkshire in 2011. He announced his arrival with a thunderous challenge on Craig Bellamy; an act of determination and defiance which earned him the respect of opponents and team mates alike. The search for reasons why Maguire is now one of the domestic game’s most sought-after centre-halves again leads back to Shirecliffe and Bramall Lane.
“Lots of people will have looked at Harry and probably thought he wasn’t quick enough,” Reid says. “True, he wasn’t the quickest back then and isn’t now but I never, ever, saw him get out-run by an opponent. He’s got, always did have in fact, that intelligence to put himself in the right position or put his body in the right place to stop that happening. Really, it was an instinct he always had. An inherent ability. His dad was a centre-half who played at a good level in non-league I believe so perhaps that’s where he got it from. You didn’t need to teach it to him and, in any case, I suspect it’s not something you can.”
Although Walker was quickly snapped-up by Tottenham Hotspur, the junior partner in a deal which also took Kyle Naughton to Bramall Lane, Maguire went onto make over 150 appearances for United before joining Hull City and then Leicester.
“Harry was a giant of a boy,” Nick Montgomery, who also featured in the team which faced City, says. “Really he was a boy in a mans body. But what stood out about Harry was his attitude and personality. He instantly won my respect and the other first team players and the saying ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ applied to him.”
“Centre-back in England is a tough position for a young player but Harry took the challenge and grew very quickly as a defender,” Montgomery, who now works in Australia, adds. “I’m so proud to see him playing in the Premier League and for his country. I always keep in touch with him and knew he would go on to have a great career.”
Cahill took a different route to United, arriving on a temporary deal to further his development. Despite being born in Dronfield, he entered Aston Villa’s youth system and, after completing an earlier placement with Burnley, was dispatched to South Yorkshire. United, who had just been relegated from the Premier League, were managed by Bryan Robson at the time. Chris Morgan, their former captain, suspects Robson viewed the youngster as his potential replacement and quickly realised there was “something good” about him.
“Gary had a bit of swagger,” Morgan remembers. “Not in a bad way but there was real confidence there. My missus always reckons she can tell a footballer a mile off because of the way they walk and, if she spots one at an airport or wherever, she’s usually right. Gary had that air about him but not in a bad way at all. It was just an inner-drive to be the best he could be and that will have helped him achieve what he has.”
Cahill, now aged 32, has since represented Bolton Wanderers in the top-flight and won six major honours, including the Champions League, with Chelsea.
Brian Gould, the scout who recommended him to Villa, says: “I’d been aware of Gary for a long time. I was working for them and so took him to Villa Park. His first (junior) game was against Birmingham City, he scored, and they signed him pretty much straight away.”
Morgan, drawing comparisons between Cahill and Walker, believes their personalities are key.
“Gary would work hard, damn hard in fact,” Morgan, who played alongside Walker when the latter made his United debut, says. “Whenever a young player comes in to the first team dressing room, the senior pro’s always think ‘Go on then, show me why you’re here.’ He was comfortable with that.”
“Kyle was too,” Morgan adds. “He was quite quiet back then but he had a real focus. The thing I always remember is him always talking about how much his mum had helped him and how much he wanted to be able to pay her back for that. Lots of youngsters come through with ability but the attitude is so important. If they’re a bit cocksure and think they’ve made it, they’ll get knocked down at some point. But if they’ve got that and real ability, or if they just approach the profession the right way, the other lads will help and support them. Kyle and Gary definitely fell into that category.”
Reid also believes a player’s brain is as important as their feet and, reflecting upon his experiences with Walker and Maguire, knows both are capable of acquitting themselves well in Russia. Even if, as many have predicted, England reach the knockout stages of the tournament.
“Those two lads never let anything get on top of them,” Reid says. “You can be the most promising player in the world coming through but, if you can’t perform on the big stage in front of a big crowd, then you won’t go very far. They were always happy doing that. In fact, I think they enjoyed it even more.”
HOW GARETH SOUTHGATE NEARLY CAME TO SOUTH YORKSHIRE TOO:
Tonight, before England begin their World Cup campaign with a potentially awkward tie against Tunisia, Gareth Southgate will probably take a moment to reflect upon his journey from youth team player with Crystal Palace to Three Lions manager.
But had he chosen a different path, the former defender could have found himself over 4,000 miles away at Bramall Lane rather than inside the Volgograd Arena’s technical area.
Five summers ago, in 2013, Southgate was offered the chance to take charge of Sheffield United following talks with the club’s hierarchy. Still searching for work after parting company with Middlesbrough four years earlier, he emerged as Kevin McCabe’s preferred candidate to revive the team’s fortunes following a gut-wrenching defeat in the League One play-off semi-finals.
It was an invitation Southgate seriously considered accepting before, after seven days of soul-searching, politely declining the offer. The catalyst for his decision was surprising. United’s version of events is at odds with those reported by the national media. But it also reveals why, six seasons later, he cuts such a purposeful figure.
“We spoke to each other, Gareth was certainly in the frame,” a source close to the negotiation process said. “He was interested and, for a while, it looked as if something would be done. After really giving it real consideration, though, Gareth decided he perhaps wasn’t the right person for the job. He told us his knowledge of the division we were in at the time wasn’t really up to scratch, his career had been at a higher level and that was where his understanding was. The honesty was impressive so, after admitting that might be a weakness, he stepped away from the discussions with everyone’s best wishes.”
United went on to appoint David Weir, Southgate became England’s under-21 coach and the rest, as they say, is history. Weir, among the most decorated Scottish players of his generation, was quickly sacked after failing to get to grips with third tier football and it was not until Chris Wilder’s arrival in 2016 that United, at the sixth time of asking, finally dragged themselves back into the Championship. Wilder was still settling into the role when Southgate was unveiled as Sam Allardyce’s successor.
“Even back then, Gareth was obviously someone who was very self-aware,” the source added. “He knew what his strengths were but he also recognised his weaknesses and that’s clearly a good quality to have.”
THEIR STORIES IN STATISTICS:
Clubs: Sheffield United, Northampton Town (loan), Tottenham Hotspur, United (loan), QPR (loan), Aston Villa (loan), Manchester City
United Appearances: 37
United Debut: 2009
Clubs: Sheffield United, Hull City, Wigan Athletic (loan), Leicester City
United Appearances: 166
United Debut: 2011
Clubs: Aston Villa, Burnley (loan), Sheffield United (loan), Bolton Wanderers, Chelsea
United Appearances: 16
United Debut: 2007