|“I should have been a pair of ragged claws|
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
Who or what is Maguire? Well, Jacob Harry Maguire is the most expensive defender in the history of association football. He is the third most expensive British player in history. He has played games and scored goals at the highest levels of the game. World Cups, European Championships, the Champions League, the Premier League: you name it, he’s played in it. No English player has scored more goals for the national team than Maguire, and he has achieved this feat in four years. He is, surely, undoubtedly, an icon of contemporary English football. The facts and stats speak volumes, don’t they?
But come on, really: what is Harry Maguire? Headline facts, basic macroscopic stats: they might adorn the opening paragraph to Maguire’s encyclopaedia entries. They cannot in any sense truly capture the essence of Maguire. The image of Maguire that we all recognise does not match the grandeur of those figures. A towering giant of the modern game? The defensive stalwart that relentlessly guards the England net against the giants of world football? The second-coming of Bobby Moore? Whatever Maguire is, he cannot be called these things in earnest.
So what is he? To begin to contemplate this question puzzles the mind. To watch Maguire play is to anticipate the comic. That is, everything is surprising. The marauding advances from deep on the ball towards left flank, successful or failed; the long-range switching passes to the flank that either drop to the feet of an advanced Luke Shaw or the outstretched hand of fans on the lower-tiers; the recovery runs that show an inexplicable light-footedness congratulated with shock by the England fans, or result in Maguire awkwardly trying to position both himself and his defensive partners around chasms of space. Maguire is hilarious in his success, hilarious in his errors. Everything is unexpected. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, everything is a contradiction. All actions and reactions bewilder. Harry Maguire is a comedy.
|Pictured: Manchester United captain Harry Maguire berating his defenders after conceding against twice to Brighton.|
It was as if a dramatist had concocted a comedia dell’arte archetype of the British centre-back: massive forehead topped with bristling black hair; bulking broad frame of a shot-putter; the awkward inagile gait that manages to make the slightest of turns seem deliberately manoeuvred in the fashion of a reversing delivery lorry. I look into his eyes, and there is a sense of pain. Is it shame, the embarrassment one feels in nightmares of being suddenly seen naked from the waist down? Or is it incredulity, of desperate confusion at how his career has come to this?
Of course, one is compelled to caveat any criticism of Maguire with recognition of his qualities. We may say that what redeems Maguire could be various statistics that signal towards defensive solidity. We could mildly gesture towards his set-piece presence, his physicality or the periods of relative stability in his career. There is an enigma in his rise, from dogging it out in Hull's relegation battle to the Euros final at Wembley. That enigma though is unlike the raw presence and fire of Harry Kane, unlike the maturation of sheer professionalism seen in Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker, or John Stones. Maguire's career lacks that prestige.
What redeems Maguire in all his comic contradiction is the same reasons audiences loved the Tramp: he is intensely relatable. Think back to Maguire’s nightmare at Old Trafford against Liverpool last season, or against Tottenham the season before. Imagine the bulky, outward-chested defender scrambling in the box, opening up vacuums of space for wingers to waltz into. Think back just a few days ago to England’s dead-rubber against Germany. Imagine watching your certified unit having to be taken one-on-one with the nimble-footed legs of a youngster far quicker or skillful, and being forced to just plant your foot into their shins. What we see in Maguire is the relatable shambles we see in every village football scrap, every floodlit five-a-side face-off.
“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.”
Likewise, we can look at the inexplicable moments of triumph - the long-field pass, the towering header, the massive forehead, the reduction of the game to the biggest, broadest, most aggressive winning out. What is this if not the personification of the pure, essential, prosaic idyll of British football, come to life on the biggest stages of the sport? Maguire defies the progressive forms of the technical and tactical world, the academic grace of the Phil Fodens, the Jack Grealishes, and the Jude Bellinghams of modern football. In all his actions, he contradicts, exposes, and fools the contemporary game.
One of Chaplin’s most iconic scenes as the Tramp comes in his 1936 satire Modern Times. The Tramp works the factory assembly line and, overwhelmed by the sheer colossus of the labour, gets caught within the cogs of the machine, causing the whole thing to collapse in complete disarray and meltdown. It is the image of the weak, fragile, inexplicable man unable to deal with a world far bigger and powerful than himself. This is Harry Maguire: the hapless sigh of the tragedian; the pantomime folly of the sad clown; the awkward everyman of English football.
“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”