Manchester United's Harry Maguire (right) makes contact with Nottingham Forest's Taiwo Awoniyi during the Premier League match at the City Ground, Nottingham. Picture date: Sunday April 16, 2023.

Harry Maguire put the clown makeup on someone else — & Man Utd immediately scored

For the first 15 minutes of Manchester United’s trip to Nottingham Forest, it looked like Harry Maguire was having another one of those days.

Within three minutes, the skipper was in the book after rugby tackling Taiwo Awoniyi, giving Forest a chance to bully the out-of-form defender and tease him into a second yellow.

And then 10 minutes later the City Ground gave its biggest cheer of the afternoon when Maguire jogged steadfastly into the Forest half before hitting a simple pass straight out of play.

The crowd’s verdict? “Leicester reject… Leicester reject…

But despite the shaky start, despite the booking, despite the glee from the Forest fans and the palpable terror from those in United colours, Maguire eventually began to cobble a performance together.

Towering header was followed by robust clearance, and as the game went on it looked as though Maguire’s years playing alongside Victor Lindelof might actually be a helpful thing, not a shared trauma they were now being forced to relive.

By half time, United were ahead and the captain looked assured. Or as close to it as you could reasonably expect.

It was only after about 70 minutes that the nerves started to kick in for the United fans.

After all, it had only been three days since Maguire cost United their Europa League advantage by failing to jump for a challenge against Youssef En-Nesyri, instead letting the ball cannon into his head and then into United’s goal.

If there’s one thing those fans know, it’s that a blunder could come at any moment until the final whistle blows. 

But today wasn’t going to be like Thursday.

Because while those around him were getting nervous going into the home stretch, Maguire dug into his admirable (if sometimes confounding) reserves of confidence.

It’s that same bullishness that caused the Yorkshireman to back himself to the media during the recent international break. “I shouldn’t really need to prove myself at this level,” he said. “I’ve made over 50 caps. I’m England’s top-scoring defender.”

Of course, when that confidence manifests itself as footballing actions, it can go either way.

In the 76th minute against Forest, it produced one of the moments of the match — a small bit of redemption for the heavily memed 30-year-old which also went some way to settling the result of the match.

With the ball bouncing into United’s half and Maguire the last man back, Forest sub Sam Surridge saw an opportunity to press the burly defender into making an error.

Had it been Christian Eriksen or Bruno Fernandes collecting the ball, you can be sure that Surridge wouldn’t have had the belief to try and win it. But a mentally bruised, yellow-carded Maguire? The Forest striker’s eyes would have lit up.

So Surridge charged at the United defender, ready to pinch the ball and set his team up for a dramatic equaliser.

Instead, Maguire saw the approaching danger, dummied a pass down the line, then sat Surridge down on the City Ground turf with a frankly elegant (no, really) shimmy in the other direction.

Now Maguire’s detractors might say that Surridge simply slipped, that Maguire’s piece of trickery was actually a display of very basic technique and common sense that you would expect even from a League Two goalkeeper.

But for a player who seems as cursed as much as he is technically limited these days, this was an immensely satisfying demonstration of control and composure. You might think, ‘Well, I could do that blindfolded’, but you haven’t been known as England’s chief clown for the last four years, have you?

There was more to Maguire’s feint than just embarrassing Sam Surridge, however.

When the striker hit the deck and Maguire drifted away like a 14-stone ballet dancer, all the pressure on United was released. The team understood that everything was going to be just fine, that there was no reason to panic, that they were playing against a side in 18th, not 8th.

Just 20 seconds after Maguire’s star turn, Diogo Dalot put the ball in the net to make it 2–0 and kill the game.

The assist went to Antony, but it was the captain (whom Antony had earlier meme-invitingly snubbed; cry-laugh face) who laid the foundations.

So what does Maguire’s solid performance and silky skill mean in the grand scheme of things?

In terms of his United career, probably very little.

It’s no secret that Maguire is in the starting XI out of necessity, and although he made more clearances than anyone else on the pitch on Sunday, it would take performances much better than this — without a third-minute rugby tackle, for instance — to convince Erik ten Hag of the captain’s long-term value to the club.

In terms of the banter brigade though? If Maguire puts in a few more performances like this before he leaves, the memers will continue to meme, but they’ll be more ‘smiling-mask-over-crying-face’ than ‘Leonardo-DiCaprio-with-glass-of-liquor’.

And that has to mean something.

By Benedict O’Neill

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