World Cup 2018: How 'Slab Head' Harry Maguire rose above everyone to reach a World Cup semi-final
From red card villain at Sheffield, to hero in red for England. Nick Miller charts the rise of Harry Maguire.
The path to the top of the game is rarely a straight line. Those marked for stardom often fizzle out well before they get there, those who eventually make it were barely looked at twice in the beginning. In 2011 Harry Maguire, England’s new hero with the cannonball forehead, got himself sent off in his second start for Sheffield United. You can probably file him in the latter category.
Harry Maguire of England celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's first goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Quarter Final match between Sweden and England at Samara Arena on July 7, 2018 in Samara, RussiaGetty Images
The circumstances were not ideal. United were heading for relegation from the Championship having lost their previous four games. The atmosphere in the stands was mutinous and some of the senior players were not exactly putting the finest shift in. Micky Adams therefore threw in the 18-year-old Maguire, and just after half-time of their six-pointer against Bristol City, Maguire let a pass bobble under his foot and, in a desperate attempt to salvage the situation, heaved Jon Stead to the ground. Penalty, red card.
But it perhaps tells you plenty about the young Maguire that, after serving a one-match suspension, he was straight back into the team for the following match, against Barnsley. Playing right-back for the Tykes that day was one Kieran Trippier, another young hopeful trying to keep his head above the surface in the primordial soup of English football.
And from there he’s barely looked back. Maguire has played seven full seasons since then, and in five of them he’s won a player of the year award of some description, including in all of his three full seasons in Sheffield. It’s also easy to forget he’s essentially only played two seasons in the top flight, one of which was for a chaotic Hull City. Now he’s one of the most important players at the World Cup.
Last November though, he made his debut for England, and it was significant for more than just the personal joy of someone playing for the team he travelled to Euro 2016 to watch as a fan. That was the first time Gareth Southgate used the three-man defence that has been so successful in Russia. A dead rubber against Lithuania, at the time it looked like an experiment, but it later emerged that Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland had been cooking up the plan since the previous summer.
And Maguire was the perfect man to play in it. He’d caught the eye in a similar system under Marco Silva at Hull, his comfort on the ball combined with a willingness to plough forwards catching many midfields unawares. Indeed, Maguire used to be one of those midfielders, before a growth spurt at the age of about 15 convinced Sheffield United Academy manager John Pemberton to move him into defence.
It may have been his ability with his feet that caught Southgate’s eye, but it’s his head - or, to use Jamie Vardy’s characterisation ‘Slab Head’ - that has been most eye-catching in Russia. At a tournament where set pieces have been England’s biggest weapon, Maguire is their most notable threat from them.
In a similar way to how Raheem Sterling has caused problems to opposition defences with his other work, creating opportunities while not yet scoring himself, Maguire’s presence at corners wrought havoc before he got his moment of personal glory against Sweden. “He’s getting his bonce on everything, isn’t he?” said Southgate. “We’ve scored set-play goals because of him up to this point and today he’s got the one he deserved.”
In many respects Maguire sums up the appeal of this England squad, a likeable bunch of anti-stars who have exceeded expectations. He has an everyman air to him, the look of a bloke who spends his days tilling a field and evenings sipping ale from a tankard. Or, as someone one Twitter put it last year, a ‘big student flatmate who gets two meals for himself down the local pub when it’s ‘two mains for £10’ and wears shorts and his rugby hoody in the middle of winter.’
Listening to those who have worked and played with him, a theme emerges. “He’s a really down to earth, normal guy,” said Wes Morgan, current Leicester team-mate. “A level-headed lad…He’s got a lot of friends because of his attitude,” said Danny Wilson, who managed him at Sheffield United. “Everyone at Hull would tell you he is one of those lads who got on with everyone,” said Andy Robertson, former colleague on Humberside.
He’s always been like that, too. Described as a “proper Sheffield lad”, ‘Slabhead’ was simply known as ‘Big H’ in the early days at United, and the character described by those who worked with him later is pretty much the one that emerged aged 18 into that Blades team. When Leicester played Sheffield United in the EFL Cup last season, Maguire made a point of seeking out some old friends at Bramall Lane: he was exactly the same lad as the one that left three years earlier.
Probably a big reason that Maguire became a meme, the picture of him leaning over a barrier talking to his girlfriend Fern having spawned a million captions, is that he just seems so normal. Before you watch him play, really the only outwardly remarkable things about him are his thighs. Colossal, impressive thighs, one of those sights that, like the Grand Canyon, you have to see for yourself up close to really appreciate.
Maguire and his thighs are now key parts of the most successful England team in over a quarter of a century. “I was certain this was a stage he could play at,” said Southgate after the Sweden game. “I am not sure he’s always believed that.” He believes it now.