It is exactly one year ago that Harry Maguire was confirmed as Manchester United‘s new captain.
His first game was a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool that left United 30 points behind their historic rivals. On Sunday they return to Anfield top of the Premier League with their celebrated defender an essential part of the rebuild, overcoming tribulations along the way.
There are similarities with Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s title-winning skipper. Like his England colleague, Maguire has more gifted team-mates around him, but nobody as motivational or reliable.
Harry Maguire’s (right) first match as captain came in a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool one year ago
Manchester United return to Anfield now sitting one point clear at the top of the table
It’s no coincidence he has played more minutes in the past 12 months than any outfield player in Europe. He is also the first United skipper to face Liverpool as league leaders since Nemanja Vidic in 2013.
‘I’ve learned so much as captain of this club,’ says Maguire, whose career was built in the lower leagues at Sheffield United before an upgrade to Leicester and the 2018 World Cup.
‘It’s a massive honour but I am here to win games and trophies. That’s my character.
‘I played in League One, learning about heading, blocking, tackling and the rest in a really tough environment. It teaches you to be tough. The main thing isn’t about stepping out from the back and knocking long diagonal balls to people — it’s about keeping the ball out of your own net.’
Like all the Premier League big-hitters, United’s team is made up of glittering overseas stars and youngsters educated at the best academies in Europe.
But Maguire has shown there is still room for old school and he is guided by United’s finest traditions.
‘I’ve always followed United, even as a boy, and I’ve looked into the history of the club,’ says the £80million defender, who was handed the armband after only six months at Old Trafford when Ashley Young departed.
‘I went and met all the staff in different departments to get an understanding of how big this place is, what a massive business it is. You see Robbo (United’s former Captain Marvel Bryan Robson) knocking about and he’s told me loads.
The centre back has played an integral part to manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rebuild
‘At the same time I am my own man with my way of being captain. I’m always here for any of the lads to talk to.’
Given the eight-year gap since United were last champions, neutrals seem glad to have them back, particularly with the flair of Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford MBE in their ranks. Yet despite United being three points ahead of Liverpool, bookmakers still rate Manchester City and Jurgen Klopp’s side as likelier to win the title.
Can United benefit from the underdog tag? Maguire, 27, scoffs at the suggestion.
‘Playing for Manchester United and playing with no pressure don’t come in the same sentence,’ he asserts.
‘We’re the biggest club in the world and whatever anyone says, we go into every game expected and expecting to win.
‘That’s the mentality in this dressing room, winning at all costs. It’s something we have changed and made our environment.
Maguire has formed a formidable partnership with Frenchman Eric Bailly in recent weeks
‘We put bigger pressure on ourselves than anyone else to win things. We finished third last year and got to semi-finals — we want to go further this time. Any victory breeds confidence but away to Liverpool, even more so. We don’t need to hype it up.
‘There is definitely a feeling we can go anywhere and beat anyone. We didn’t start the season great, we know that, but got a couple of scrappy wins. Now we have found that mentality again.’
United started the campaign with defeat at home by Crystal Palace. Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put it down to a delayed pre-season but Maguire’s arrest on holiday in Greece didn’t help. He is due a retrial after his conviction following a brawl in Mykonos was successfully appealed.
The distractions continued when he was sent off for England against Denmark in October. United stuck by him as captain and Maguire has responded emphatically. He is the only United player to start every Premier League game this season and has more interceptions in the league than anyone bar Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante.
United have won every away game this season except a 2-2 draw at Leicester. They have conceded only once in their last three league games. Liverpool, in Klopp’s 200th game as manager, will be the ultimate challenge.
Maguire and Co will have to keep Liverpool’s fabled front three quiet if they are to win
Maguire and Eric Bailly have been celebrating blocks like goals recently, an attitude they will need facing Mo Salah and Sadio Mane on Sunday.
The United skipper says Solskjaer’s personality can be misunderstood. ‘There’s a perception of Ole as this nice guy but he knows when to be ruthless,’ says Maguire. ‘When he needs to motivate someone he can have a pop, believe me.
‘We’ve not been giving away silly goals. We’ve shown we can hang in when we’ve had to fight. The number of games when we’ve come from behind shows a lot of character even though as a defender I’d sooner not be going behind.
‘It will be about mentality at Anfield. We are Manchester United. We know we can win any game whoever we play.’