Gareth Southgate has emphasised that Harry Maguire retains his full support but knows he cannot give the beleaguered defender any guarantees over a starting place in his England team at the World Cup later this year.
Maguire had hoped the international break would offer him the chance to reset after his torrid period at Manchester United. During the 29-year-old’s last game for United, the Champions League last-16 exit at home to Atlético Madrid, the Old Trafford crowd cheered his withdrawal six minutes from time.
However, when Southgate started him in England’s second game of the break – the 3-0 win over Ivory Coast on Tuesday – home supporters booed when Maguire’s name was announced before kick-off. There were further boos when he took his first touches.
Maguire has excelled for England under Southgate, playing a key role in the runs to the 2018 World Cup semi-final and the Euro 2020 final. There is the feeling in some quarters that his credit in the bank is so extensive that he is certain to start at the World Cup in Qatar, which kicks off in late November, especially as Southgate’s experienced options in central defence do not run particularly deep.
The manager, though, made it clear that was not the case. “I’m not going to give any of them that because they’ve got competition for places,” Southgate said. “This week, we’ve seen Marc Guéhi and Ben White play extremely well. I think Tyrone Mings’s record of clean sheets with England is outstanding. We weren’t able to get John Stones on the pitch [because of injury].
“Yes, Harry has been in our No 1 pairing through those tournaments and has my full backing and support. But equally I’m not going to say to anybody in the middle of March that they are a guaranteed starter in the World Cup team. That’s not the environment I’m looking to create and not the competition we are going to need.”
Though Southgate is looking forward to Friday’s World Cup draw in Doha, when England will be in the top pot of seeds, the shockwaves from Maguire’s treatment by the fans continue to reverberate and the manager is painfully aware the incident threatens to destroy one of the foundation stones of his tenure.
He has been able to rebuild the connection between the team and the support, and players want to report for international duty these days, which was not always the case in the past. However, Southgate warned after the Ivory Coast game that there could be a regression in the relationship.
“Don’t think for one minute the other players are not looking at that and thinking: ‘That could be me one day,’” Southgate said. “That has been one of the problems of playing for England.”
He did not pull his punches at Wembley, calling the booing of Maguire an “absolute joke” and questioning what had gone through the minds of those who had done it – if anything. “I would imagine if you were to ask people why they were doing that they wouldn’t be able to answer,” he said. “It becomes a mob mentality.”
It is rare to hear a manager criticising the fans of his own team, although Southgate was quick to absolve the proper supporters of any blame; the “hardcore”, as he called them, who were “trying to get Maguire’s name sung”. Yet if Southgate’s comments came from a position of strength, they also betrayed the depth of his anger.