Sheffield United: 'He's just Big H from Mosborough' - How Manchester United's Harry Maguire became the most expensive defender in football history
Tuesday April 26, 2011.
Sheffield United, a proud club in English football who were only relegated from the Premier League four years earlier, are on their way to their 26th defeat of a disastrous season which would see them go through four managers, win just 42 points and suffer a disastrous relegation, falling uncontrollably into the grasping clutches of League One.
Two years before, they had reached the Championship play-off final. A year previous, they'd finished eighth. Twelve months on, 23rd; six points adrift of neighbours Doncaster Rovers. The Blades were on their knees.
Against that tumultuous backdrop, though, one chink of hope emerged, in the shape of their youth side. The biggest crowd at Bramall Lane that season actually came in the final of the FA Youth Cup, as United’s youngsters battled bravely against a star-studded Manchester United team – featuring names like Pogba, Morrison and Lingard - before losing on aggregate.
Paul Pogba went on to become the most expensive footballer on the planet, while Jesse Lingard scored World Cup screamers for England and Ravel Morrison, in a strange quirk of fate, ended up back at Bramall Lane, as a Blade.
Some of those playing in the red and white of the Blades that evening went on to forge decent careers for themselves as professional footballers, while others dropped into non-league. Another, the shaggy-haired man-mountain at centre-half, became the most expensive defender in world football history.
Neill Collins remembers vividly the first time he ever set eyes on Harry Maguire. Collins had recently joined United, from Yorkshire rivals Leeds, and casually cast his eye over the youngsters in the Blades academy at Shirecliffe.
“I couldn’t believe he was going to be a football player, as he was just too big," laughs Collins, of the youngster he would eventually partner at centre-half. Maguire was promoted to train with the first team and, within 10 minutes, Collins knew he was something special.
“You could see he could play; he was very good with the ball at his feet, despite his build," the Scot added. "He’s also probably the strongest player I’ve ever played with."
At the time, Maguire was just 18. He had played a key role in United's run to the FA Youth Cup final, anchoring the centre of defence alongside Terry Kennedy and his colourful, tattooed arms, and amidst something of an injury crisis, made his first-team bow towards the end of United's relegation season. On April 26, against Cardiff City.
"He came off the bench and with his first touch, he absolutely smashed Craig Bellamy," remembers John Pemberton, then the head of United's 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."
Maguire had arrived. A full debut followed that next weekend, alongside Collins, and Maguire made three further appearances that season as United slid desperately in League One. The next season, he played 56 times as United narrowly failed to seal an immediate return to the Championship, losing in the play-off final on penalties. But his reputation was on the rise again.
Maguire's marauding runs forward had become a trademark of his game, a comfort on the ball which could be traced back to his early days in United's academy when Pemberton forced him to pick up the ball from his goalkeeper and use it, wisely.
There were times when it cost him, but Maguire had the intelligence to learn and adapt.
"Harry's strength was always unreal but that only gets you so far. His reading of the game makes him a formidable defender," Collins added. "He's also tremendously composed and those runs from the back are a combination of his ability on the ball, his speed and his strength.
“But for me, his ability and willingness to learn is his biggest attribute. When he came into the United team at 18, he was awesome but still had to learn aspects of defending in the professional game.“But he soaked up information and was very inquisitive on how to deal with certain problems he faced. He’s a fantastic role model for any young player coming through.”
Maguire's journey to the world's most expensive defender, following a £80m move to Old Trafford, began in the less glamorous surroundings of Plumbley Hall Road fields in Mosborough, playing football from dusk 'til dawn with brothers, Joe and Laurence. At school, he was a talented discus thrower and ran cross-country. He remembers sitting on the floor of his old primary school in 2002, watching England's World Cup exit at the hands of Brazil on a big screen.
In 2017, six months before he played in the World Cup himself as England reached the semi-finals in Russia, he returned to Immaculate Conception Catholic Primary School for a Q&A session with pupils, entirely of his own accord.
Laurence is now on the books of Chesterfield, while Joe plays non-league. “They were all down to earth," remembers the school's headmistress, Mary Emmot. "No arrogance about them at all.”
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Maguire spent two further seasons at Bramall Lane and was a virtual ever-present for a succession of managers, but vultures inevitably began to circle. After a remarkable 2013/14 season - United were bottom of the table after a disastrous start but eventually finished seventh, reaching the FA Cup semi-final in the process - United fended off interest from Wolves, before accepting a bid from Premier League side Hull.
“As a young lad being in that environment, it’s always tough to stand out and make your mark but I’ll always be very grateful to Sheffield United for giving me that chance," he said.
“I made some mistakes but they kept the faith in me - a lot of managers now might not be so forgiving and go for someone with more experience.
“I’ve played with some fantastic and experienced players but Neill Collins and Chris Morgan really helped me in the younger days and when I first broke in they were a huge inspiration to me.
“It was so hard to leave Sheffield United - It’s all I’d ever known. I was loved by all the fans and I’ll never forget their backing. Ideally, it would’ve been very different but Hull came calling in a higher league and I wanted to challenge myself and in terms of my career it was the right decision.”
Maguire moved over to East Yorkshire in a £2.5m deal and made them a tidy profit when he moved on, in a £17m switch to Leicester following Hull's relegation from the top-flight in 2017.
Tottenham Hotspur were also keen on securing his signature, but Maguire plumped for Leicester - ensuring he was able to remain living close to his family home in Sheffield, surrounded by his family and friends.
Maguire's humility saw him hit the headlines when he turned up for England training with his belongings in a bin bag and, earlier this year, became a father when his partner Fern gave birth to a daughter named Lillie Saint.
“I was the new lad and I asked about what we did with boots and shin pads that we have to bring, because everyone brings them in differently," Maguire said.
"I asked Jamie Vardy what he brought his boots in and he was the one who said a bin bag. So I took his word. Luckily enough for him, he was about three metres behind me and snuck past.
“There were about 10 of us who walked in with a bin bag - I was the one who got caught on camera and everyone else got off lightly!"
“It’s incredible,” Maguire said, after completing his move to Old Trafford. “A really proud moment for myself, to join such a big club, one that I’m really looking forward to. My first game of last season was at Old Trafford and it’s a fixture I always look for when I’ve been playing in the Premier League. Old Trafford away, and it’s now my home.
”I tend to get my head down - I’ve worked hard and done every session and I've played every game for Leicester, so I feel my fitness is there. That was big for me because, if I ended up getting the move that I wanted, I would have been fit and in contention to play the first game. I feel like I'm ready to go, but obviously it’s the gaffer’s decision.”
Maguire’s £80m move broke the world record for a defender, dating back to last year when Liverpool paid Southampton £75m for Virgil van Dijk.
But those who remain close to him insist his new-found status won't go to his head, and insist the defender is as grounded now as he has ever been during his rapid rise to stardom.
His cousin, Sheffield Star journalist George Torr, said: "It's incredible to see the journey he's been on. From putting Craig Bellamy on his backside on a cold Tuesday night at Bramall Lane to playing in a World Cup semi-final is nothing short of amazing.
"A lot has been said about big money moves and the mentality of players but this won't change him one bit. If he was anymore laid back, he'd be on the floor and just likes the 'normal things' like spending time with family and friends - that's paramount for him.
"He's just Big H from Mosborough who loved nothing more as a kid than playing football with his brothers Joe and Laurence on the green outside his family home or up on the fields off Plumbley Hall Road."
Collins, now living in America as head coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, remains in contact with his former teammate and predicted, before the World Cup in 2018, that it would take a lot of money to prise Maguire away from the King Power Stadium.
“I couldn’t believe one of the top four or five Premier League clubs didn’t pick him up from Hull,” he said. “I think now the big clubs are going to have to pay the real big money. People are sitting up and taking notice of Harry Maguire.”