It was only seconds into his Sheffield United debut when you first sensed Harry Maguire was destined for the top.
Eighteen years of age and with the South Yorkshire club battling for survival, the centre-half was summoned from the bench during a game against Cardiff City and promptly put Craig Bellamy on the seat of his pants.
Seven seasons later, Maguire, now of Leicester City, is preparing to return to Bramall Lane in the Carabao Cup. Speaking ahead of tonight’s second round tie, Chris Wilder has challenged his players to make a similarly explosive impact.
“We’ll be making some changes,” the United manager admitted. “But a good performance in this game means they can start in another, we have to have people pushing those in the team. I want them to give me absolutely massive headaches, that’s what I’ve always wanted. The key for them is to make it clear they’re not getting shifted.”
United enter their meeting with Craig Shakespeare’s side 10th in the Championship table and, after beating Barnsley last weekend, hoping to stretch their unbeaten run at home to 12 games. Despite that record and suspicions City are also preparing to rotate their squad, Wilder described his squad as “huge underdogs” during yesterday’s media conference at the Steelphalt Academy. It was a statement rooted in fact - the visitors lifted the Premier League title only 15 months ago - but also one designed to provoke a reaction from the likes of John Lundstram, David Brooks and Ched Evans who are all scheduled to start the match.
“I want all the head players to take things head on, not be victims,” Wilder said. “Not be someone who thinks it is someone else’s fault if they don’t play well. We need people pushing the 11 in the team and, the higher up you go, you need people pushing them as well. If you have that mentality, then it’s the sign of a very healthy club. This is an opportunity for them to tell us ‘you can’t leave me out.’ And, believe me, we will be taking notice.”
For all his claims that United’s main focus this season “has to be” the league, visitors to Wilder’s pre-match briefing were left in no doubt that, deep down, he also fancies a run in one of England’s two major domestic knockout competitions. A lifelong United supporter, Wilder watched from the stands as they reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 2014 before qualifying for the last four of this tournament a year later.
“I’ve never really done a great deal in the cups as a manager,” Wilder, who led Northampton Town to promotion the season before repeating the trick with United, continued. “When I started out at Alfreton, we won the Northern Counties East League Cup, the Presidents Cup and the Derbyshire Senior Cup but that’s it really. I don’t think anyone other than myself and the people involved in them will still be talking about those, though.
“We’re in the early rounds, and everybody understands the priority is the league. But it’s a game of football, they’ll be a crowd there and TV is screening it. It’s an opportunity to play well and I’ve drummed that into the players. We come in as underdogs but there’s been plenty of occasions in the past where we’ve come in as underdogs and turned that situation around. We have an opportunity to do that again on Tuesday.”
George Baldock, the former MK Dons full-back, is expected to make his debut against City after recovering from the foot injury he sustained during United’s trip to Spain earlier this summer. Shakespeare, who took charge on a permanent basis in June after previously serving as Claudio Ranieri’s assistant, has confirmed Jamie Vardy could feature despite limping-out of City’s win over Brighton and Hove Albion. Maguire, a summer signing from Hull City, is also set to be named in the squad for the trip to his former club. Now aged 24, he moved to the KCOM Stadium at the start of the 2015/16 campaign after making over 160 appearances for United.
“I still see them being together, having that same spirit they had when they achieved what they did.” Wilder said. “Craig has done fantastically well and has been fully rewarded. You saw the first game of the season at Arsenal, they really took it to them and we unfortunate not to get a result.
“The manager has been involved in a team that’s won the Premier League so his credentials are outstanding. They are bringing in players, like us, to challenge the group. They are bringing in players to challenge players who have won the Premier League.”