Harry Maguire is not Manchester United’s perfect defender but he’s handled himself well

Harry Maguire has played more games than any other central defender for Manchester United this season. That is not a sentence anyone could have envisaged writing at the start of the season when he was considered United’s fourth or fifth choice for the position.

Maguire’s 2,310 minutes of first-team action are more than Raphael Varane’s 2,099, Victor Lindelof’s 1,955, Jonny Evans’ 1,290, Luke Shaw’s 1,180, Lisandro Martinez’s 761 and Willy Kambwala’s 326.

Not only that, Maguire has played well in a team that often hasn’t. He’s been kept very busy in a side which gives up too many chances, yet he’s one of the three nominees for United’s April Player of the Month alongside Bruno Fernandes and Alejandro Garnacho. The excessive criticism which saw him become a meme favourite for online haters and real-world Ghanaian Members of Parliament has melted away.

Maguire’s view is that he’s only ever a few games away from that criticism returning, so he keeps his head down and does what he does best: playing football. The 30-year-old has refused dozens of offers for interviews and only done what he’s contracted to do, which is far less than when he was United captain up to last season. That has also helped him since he’s not seen as the face of another United defeat, trying to explain away the impossible to angry fans.

Now Maguire does the odd interview for club media or rights holders — an example being after the recent FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. Leaving the dressing room to speak to the media meant he had to walk past six Coventry City players who were waiting outside the United dressing room to hopefully swap shirts with players. Maguire stood in among them and spoke to them for 20 minutes, far more at ease than when he’d last been at the stadium with United for the 2023 FA Cup final when he didn’t get off the bench.

Now, he can concentrate on his football and maintain a low profile. He gets wind of what’s written about him but seldom responds. His mum did, though, in September 2023, after her son was booed during England’s win at Scotland, saying: “As a mum, seeing the level of negative and abusive comments which my son is receiving from some fans, pundits and the media is disgraceful and totally unacceptable to any walk of life, never mind someone who works his socks off for club and country,” she said. It was from the heart. But how had it come to this?

Maguire’s football career was ticking along nicely until the summer of 2021 when several things happened. First, he was injured that May at Aston Villa. He’d been one of the best players that season and was about to break Gary Pallister’s record of the longest number of games without being substituted (71). Instead, an ankle injury ended his season. One of United’s coaches told him he was the player they needed most.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the manager who signed him, retains an unwavering faith in him. He felt Maguire gave his side a significant boost and raised levels in training when he arrived for £80million ($100m at current rates) in 2019. A few months ago, The Athletic watched United back at Villa alongside Solskjaer in a game Maguire started.

“Harry, always first to the header,” said Solskjaer. “Watch, every single time. Team first, Harry second.” It’s clear how highly the Norwegian rates his former player.

Maguire has performed admirably this season (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Maybe their lives would have been different had Maguire been fit to play in the 2021 Europa League final in Gdansk against Villarreal. He travelled anyway, as did all his family who hoped he’d lift a first trophy for United, but a 23-goal penalty shoot-out went against United. A few months later, he was fit enough to play for England at Euro 2020, performing well as Gareth Southgate’s side progressed to the final — which was decided by another shoot-out. When he tucked England’s second penalty away, they led 2-1. Others didn’t score and were racially abused — and Maguire would get plenty of abuse himself.

When he came back for United, Cristiano Ronaldo soon joined, Solskjaer lost his job. Within 18 months, Ronaldo left and Maguire lost his place, then his captaincy, under Erik ten Hag. He went from playing 55 and 52 times in his first two seasons for United to playing 37 and 31 in seasons three and four. His confidence dipped, his performances too, but he never once pleaded pity and even when he was barely starting, chosing to compliment others. After a game at Real Betis last season when his stock was low, he told The Athletic: “You’ve known me since I’ve joined this club and know I always want to be on that pitch and leading the team out.

“I want to strive to play every game for this club, but I also understand that the lads playing are playing really well. They’re top-quality centre-backs who are in good form. And that’s football. We also know that things can change quickly in football. We have four international centre-backs at this club — and for good international sides. That’s a lot of competition and I believe that any four of us could play week in and week out at a top Premier League club. Everyone is pushing each other and that’s good for Manchester United.”

If he was angry at not being selected, he channelled it into what he called “really intense training sessions, especially the day after a game. There will be lads unhappy because they’ve not played or sat on the bench”.

But he was right; things can change quickly. If he starts as expected at Crystal Palace on Monday, it’ll be his 32nd United game this season. He’s never bettered the four goals he’s scored this season either while at Old Trafford or elsewhere.

Maguire has survived a storm. He was mentally strong — he had to be to reach this level — but he was battered, mostly online, for a couple of years. While past United players who’ve been abused by England fans have always found support from United fans, it was less clear-cut with Maguire. His former manager Brendan Rodgers said: “He’s obviously a top-class player. The focus and noise that’s been around him, sadly, has probably been created more by his own club’s supporters, and that’s spilt out to other supporters.”

If he came to a United game, Rodgers would have seen that in the stadium the fans are supportive of Maguire. There have been the odd moments when United fans have booed him, usually in pre-season games such as in Melbourne in July 2022 and Dublin in 2023, but even then, the jeers were outnumbered by the cheers.

Either way, it’s been a tough few years for the defender and there are some close to Maguire who think that events in Mykonos, Greece in 2020 will weigh heavier on him than any football injury. He was arrested after an incident with the police and later convicted in his absence, but the events took him from the back pages to the front, and a headline story on Britain’s evening television news. Maguire appealed and maintains his innocence. He will fight it and feels fully supported by United and the Football Association, who have seen the evidence against him.

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Maguire’s best friend in football is Everton’s Pickford (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Maguire is popular in United’s dressing room. His best friend in football is Everton’s Jordan Pickford, while at United he’s close to Scott McTominay, Jonny Evans and Diogo Dalot. His best mates are the lads he grew up with in Mosborough, near Sheffield, some of them Sheffield Wednesday fans, some Sheffield United. The one Leeds fan was the subject of a Maguire joke when he superimposed his head in the crowd at Elland Road after Maguire captained United to victory there.

Maguire’s parents, Zoe and Alan, go to every single game he plays, be it Galatasaray away with United, or with England. His wife Fern is working as a florist. His brothers Joe and Loz play football, Joe most recently as a central defender for semi-pro Goole (tier nine), Loz as a central defender for Crawley Town who grabbed the last League Two play-off spot last weekend.

His future at Old Trafford, like that of almost every player under INEOS, is uncertain, but Evans’ age (36) and the shorter contracts held by Varane and Lindelof mean he’s not seen as a player on the way out as he was for much of last summer.

At the start of this season, Ten Hag would not have stopped him leaving and there were talks with West Ham United, but he got very mixed messages from different people at Old Trafford. West Ham wanted a quick answer, United wouldn’t give one until they’d found a replacement. United looked at Benjamin Pavard. It didn’t happen — nor did Maguire’s move to London.

Maguire would have considered going on loan to West Ham, but Ten Hag then said he wanted to keep him. Galatasaray, Besiktas, Everton and Fulham were all interested in taking Maguire on loan, too. United didn’t give permission to talk. Did United really want to sell him? In the end, Ten Hag would have been even more flummoxed without him, given the number of defensive injuries.

Maguire isn’t revered like former defensive greats, but then he’s not playing in a great side either. He’s still never started for a United or England side that have won a trophy, but he’d be expected to start in the FA Cup final and for England in the European Championship.

He’s still fighting, still giving it all. It might not be enough in this struggling United side, but he will never stop.

(Top photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

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