Leicester City defender Harry Maguire has been one of England’s standout performers at the World Cup – and one of his old Sheffield United team-mates is certainly not surprised.
Maguire joined Leicester in a £17million deal from Hull City last summer and has gone on to establish himself in the Gareth Southgate’s England XI.
The 25-year-old did not play top-flight football until 2015, but unlike many young English players his age, he already had a wealth of first-team experience having broken into the Sheffield United team aged just 18.
Neill Collins was at Sheffield United when Maguire broke through at Bramall Lane and quickly became the centre-back’s biggest fan.
“When I signed for Sheffield United, as with all clubs, I looked at the academy, the boys around the place, and Harry struck me straightaway purely because of his size,” Collins says.
“I couldn’t believe he was going to be a football player as he was just too big, but the first time he came to train with us, because he’d been doing so well, my opinion changed within 10 minutes.
“You could see he could play; he was very good with the ball at his feet, despite his build. He’s also probably the strongest player I’ve ever played with, and that was the same when he was 18.”
In addition to Collins, Maguire had the likes of Chris Morgan to learn from at a key time in his education as a professional footballer. Unlike some young players who believe they have already made it after breaking into the team, Maguire acted as a sponge in order to improve.
“His temperament was fantastic,” Collins says. “He came in, he listened to all the experienced players, he handled pressure really well, so he struck me as someone with a great chance and then just went on to prove me right every week.
“As a young centre-back you’re going to make mistakes but it’s about playing, playing against strikers and facing different challenges.
“One week you’re playing against a quick guy and the next against a guy who bumps you every time you go for a header and you find that difficult, but we’ve all got to learn these things.
“He’s very laid back, and I’m not very laid back, so I was on to him quite a lot about being slightly more aggressive, but I commented to my dad a lot after games that for a young lad he didn’t make many mistakes, which normal, young centre-backs make.
“He played a lot of games for Sheffield United over three or four years and that was a big thing he learned from playing games.”
Maguire made over 100 appearances in League One before exiting his teenage years, something Collins believes more players of that age should do if they want to improve.
“I think he went past a lot of lads who were at a similar level to him at 17 and he overtook them by a long way as he got that experience.
“It’s very tough for an academy product to go straight in, even into a League Two team, and play the games, which shows you how good Harry was. I would advise any young centre-back to go out and play games as it’s the best way of learning.
“There’s only so much you can learn once you’re past 18 in training and playing against lads the same age, so it’s definitely something Harry has benefitted from.
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“If you look at Michael Keane, he went out on loan and that’s where he started to go to another level, so the proof is there that it’s the best way to develop as a young defender.
“I would be playing beside him in League One and every week I would be amazed by the level of consistency.
“I played a lot of games when I was young, but not at that level, and trying to keep up with the consistency was tough, as you’re only young.
“But we went to Aston Villa in the FA Cup and he bullied Benteke, he literally got nothing out of him. Benteke is one of the top Premier League strikers and he couldn’t out muscle him, out jump him – Harry dominated him. That was the day I knew he would play in the Premier League.”
Maguire is now well-known for his ability to bring the ball out from the back, an attribute he utilised more as he matured at the heart of the Sheffield United defence, and an attribute Collins believes can benefit England.
“It’s something as he grew in confidence he did more and more,” Collins says. “When we had the run to the FA Cup semi-final (in 2013-14), he was actually one of our biggest creator of goals, surging out from the back and spraying the ball around.
“I’ve noticed he’s really taken it on again, his confidence has been up. But people always believed in him to do that. It’s a huge aspect of his game, which is probably underrated by people.
“I watched England v Scotland at Hampden and thought if someone like Harry played it would have caused a lot more problems, as he can really carry the ball up the park.
“It’s something England haven’t had in their defence for a long time since Rio Ferdinand, so I would love to see him play at that level. I don’t see why he couldn’t.
Maguire has played alongside Wes Morgan in his first league games for Leicester, but Collins is of the opinion his former colleague can play alongside anyone now he’s picked up the requisite experience.
And although Leicester is a step up for Maguire, Collins believes he can go even higher in the years to come.
“Anyone who asked me three, four, five years ago I told them he should be going to a big club. I can’t believe in this window that one of the bigger clubs – Arsenal or Liverpool – haven’t gone for him, as I think he’s better than what they’ve got.
“I think he’s developed fantastically and they’ve missed the boat, so in two years they’ll have to pay a lot more money to get him. I think he’ll end up at top-four club and thrive there as he’ll be coming into his prime as a centre-back.
“Michael Keane has done fantastically well for Burnley, but the thing that helps him is that he’s a Manchester United graduate and people put a lot of weight on that. I think with Harry people turn their noses up a bit, but I don’t think there’s much between them at all.
“I think Leicester have done a great piece of business and it’ll do great for Harry playing for a good Premier League club and it’ll give Harry the chance to move on even further.”
By Will Unwin
This article was originally published in August 2017.