OLIVER HOLT: As Maguire defies the mob, my admiration for him grows

OLIVER HOLT: Every time England’s Harry Maguire defies the mob, my admiration for him grows and he is one of the best defenders of the current generation despite his vilification

  • After John Stones, Maguire is the best centre half of the current generation 
  • The Man United defender is being vilified and he has become a proxy villain
  • Listen to the latest episode of Mail Sport’s podcast ‘ It’s All Kicking Off ‘ 

It was Jamie Vardy who coined the nickname for Harry Maguire. Sometime before the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Vardy referred to Maguire, affectionately, as ‘Slabhead’ and it stuck. It seemed to suit a player who was always thought of as an English yeoman; dependable, reliable and solid as an oak.

Maguire is one of the best centre halves England have had. Not the level of Bobby Moore, Jack Charlton, Rio Ferdinand, Billy Wright, Sol Campbell or John Terry. But in the next rank with superb defenders like Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Tony Adams. After John Stones, he is the best of the current generation.

He helped to lead England to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 and the final of the European Championship in 2021. He was there again at the heart of the defence last year in Qatar when England were knocked out of the World Cup by France in the quarter-finals. He has, as Gareth Southgate stressed on Tuesday night, been a ‘stalwart’ of the side.

Now that things have changed and fans, keyboard warriors and some pundits are taking a battering ram to Maguire’s reputation, those redoubtable qualities which once made Maguire so popular are being used against him. Our own Ambling Alp has fallen out of fashion and his solidity, and stolidity, are used to mock and ridicule him.

But something else is happening here, something that goes beyond the fair criticism that is visited on every player, something that goes beyond legitimate reservations about whether a man who is not playing regular first-team football for his club should be in the national team, something that has become unpleasant and vicious and destructive.

Harry Maguire’s nickname suited a player who was always thought of as an English yeoman

He helped to lead England to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 and the final of the European Championship in 2021

The truth about the vilification of Maguire, the truth about the way he is being bullied, is that he has become a proxy villain

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The truth about the vilification of Maguire, the truth about the way he is being bullied, is that he has become a proxy villain. He might be struggling at Manchester United but the way he is lampooned by fans and cowards on social media is about more than that. Maguire is a patsy. He is being used as a conduit for attacking Gareth Southgate.

Those who cannot abide Southgate because they do not like his style and what he stands for away from the pitch have almost run out of sticks to beat him with. England have just got too good and with Southgate cleverly marshalling brilliant young players like Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka, they will get even better. 

England are already enjoying their most successful period since Sir Alf Ramsey was in charge, they are unbeaten in their qualifying group for Euro 2024 and they outclassed an in-form Scotland at Hampden Park on Tuesday. It all must be galling for the manager’s detractors.

But Maguire has been identified as Southgate’s Achilles’ heel. He has been frozen out by Erik ten Hag at Old Trafford and he has turned down the chance to move to West Ham where he would have got regular first-team football.

He represents an opportunity for Southgate’s critics to question his judgment and so, even though he was one of England’s better players in Ukraine on Saturday, even though he has never let England down, Maguire has been subjected to a withering barrage of insults.

Maybe that helps to explain why Southgate launched such an impassioned defence of Maguire after the match at Hampden when the England defender was derided by Scotland fans from the moment he came on as a substitute for Marc Guehi in an accomplished 3-1 victory.

Southgate did not blame Scotland fans for their glee at Maguire’s own goal but he made it clear that he blamed some England supporters and television pundits and newspaper journalists for creating the environment that has led to Maguire being singled out like this. Southgate said: ‘The reaction tonight is a consequence of idiots, really, from our side who have created that environment. So what I think was brilliant tonight was our fans who were here recognised that they’re going to protect their own. We should be doing that.

Maguire scored an own goal as England beat Scotland 3-1 on Tuesday night at Hampden Park

Gareth Southgate launched an impassioned defence of Maguire after the match 

The England boss believes that ‘we are creating a problem for our own player’

‘We’re creating a problem for our own player. Some of the articles that were written, some of the comments that were made, were an absolute joke. He’s been a tower of strength for us through one of the most successful periods of English football.’

My own view is that most of the newspaper criticism of Maguire has been fair and measured. I would say that, I suppose. He was damned for his naivety when he became involved in a fracas in Mykonos a few years ago but it is hard to argue that that was anything other than reasonable observation.

In contrast, as my Mail Sport colleague Simon Jordan rightly pointed out yesterday, England fans booed him so lustily before a Wembley friendly against Ivory Coast last year that many of Maguire’s team-mates were disgusted by the treatment he received then and in the months that have passed since.

Some have argued that Southgate will only have worsened Maguire’s plight by speaking up for him so vigorously but that feels misguided. How exactly do you think things could get any worse for Maguire than they are now?

What is worse than being booed by your own fans? What is worse than being held up as a source of ridicule at a time when you are struggling in your professional life? What do you want the manager to do? Would you respect a manager who lets his player be victimised like this?

Would you respect someone who leaves the wounded behind? Would you respect a manager if he dropped a player because fans have decided that he is their new favourite target for a mob mentality, the new John Barnes, the new Owen Hargreaves, the new Kieron Dyer, the new Ray Wilkins, all previous targets for the boo-boys?

I was in the room at Hampden when Southgate bit on the question about Maguire and I have rarely seen him respond with such controlled but obvious anger. It is hard to blame him. Bullying someone, kicking them when they’re down, is a horrible thing and that is what is happening to Maguire.

England players have been targeted by the mob before, including Owen Hargreaves in the 2000s

Southgate responded like a man who is not worried about being diplomatic any more. No more Mr Nice Guy. Maybe he can see the finishing line of this job in sight and it feels liberating.

He looks like a manager who has grown bored with humouring critics who seem to yearn for a time when England were no-hopers and under-achievers. It’s not that long ago. The improvement in mood and in attainment since Southgate took over has been startling.

Every game Maguire plays now, every game he faces down the boo-boys and the mob, every game he stands up, every game he shows he is the personification of resilience, every game he stamps his character on, the more I admire him, the more I want him in the team.

And I’m glad Southgate stood by Maguire’s side. It is part of what makes him the best manager England have had since Ramsey.


It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football, launching with a preview show today and every week this season.

It is available on MailOnline, Mail+, YouTube , Apple Music and Spotify

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