Harry Maguire insists England have changed from World Cup dreamers into believers. The England centre-back says the mindset of the squad has changed from the side that came fourth in Russia four years ago and that now only returning home with the trophy will do. “The one thing I’d say that is a lot different from the 2018 squad is that I think we really believe that it is possible,” said Maguire.
“In 2018 we got to the semi-final and I think a lot of the lads were happy to be part of the semi-final. You know that whatever happened in that semi-final that you’d go home and be classed as a hero, you’d get a good reception and everyone would be patting you on the back. I think now there’s a belief that we’ve got to win this tournament. It is a good change in the mentality.
“Of course, we know how tough it is going to be. I think there are probably five or six teams with the same belief. But in 2018, we probably weren’t one of those teams that had that belief. Now there’s five or six who have that belief and we’re one of them.” However England will go into Saturday’s quarter-final against world champions France at the Al Bayt Stadium as the underdogs.
“It is a huge game,” said Maguire. “Some people say they are maybe the favourites to win the competition but these are the games we play for. These are the games growing up that you want to be involved in. They are huge pressure games but this is the pressure you want. This is where we need to deliver.”
Maguire was asked yesterday why it is that he has proved to be the master of the card game that has taken the England team by storm at this World Cup, seemingly able to read his team-mates’ minds at will. He smiled ruefully. “I’m quite good at psychology to be honest,” he said.
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“I’ve needed to be over the last year or so.” The soul-searching Maguire has indulged in after losing his place at Manchester United and being pilloried over his selection for England leading into the tournament has been deep. The Maguire resurrection in Qatar, one of the key reasons why Gareth Southgate’s side has prospered, has confounded all outside expectation.
In the heat of the desert, it is as if he has pulled himself up out of the deepest of wells. Sat in a makeshift Bedouin tent at England’s Al-Wakrah training base, three days out from a World Cup quarter-final, Maguire took stock. “The last year has been difficult, and I haven’t played as well as I’ve done in the previous five years at the top level, but I think during a career there’s only probably Lionel Messi and Cristiano who are the only two who’ve not had a dip in their careers,” he said.
“It’s a 15-year career if you’re lucky and there’s no way really, especially with all the scrutiny that’s on defences these days, that you’re not going to have dips. I’m probably going to have another one as well, but it’s how you bounce back from them. You’ve got to remain focused and keep the belief in yourself. Two years ago I was in the Euros team of the tournament so I know what I’m capable of.
“I always knew that I would find my form and regain my confidence and my focus. I’m just really happy it’s happened on the biggest stage at the biggest tournament.” To fight his way through the storm of criticism and come through the other side he clearly has a shaft of Sheffield steel running through him. Even so the Yorkshireman has needed a few arms around the shoulder along the way, not least from the one man who never lost faith in him, Gareth Southgate.
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“He’s given me confidence to go out and play and express myself and play to my attributes. He really makes me feel as though I’m valued in this team. It makes me want to go out and perform as well as I can and never let him down,” said Maguire. “I think he’s done incredibly with the team, where he’s taken us from five years ago, and the belief that we’ve got now as a group.”
From the Slabhead cult hero of Russia 2018, Maguire’s role has evolved since. The way he sets the tempo of England’s possession game with John Stones from the back is important to the control they seek to build. But it is in defence where he really earns his corn. After three clean sheets in a row England’s rearguard is about to face its most severe test of the tournament.
The Al Bayt Stadium will be no place for faint hearts but Maguire has proved at this tournament he is made of strong stuff. When he lines up on Saturday night evening for God Save The King, his chest will swell with pride.
“I am just super proud every time I sing that anthem. It is one of the proudest moments of my life. You can’t really explain the feeling. You are focused, nervous and excited. You have butterflies but for sure I’ll be ready to go,” he said. “I feel in a good place. I feel good mentally, I feel good physically, I feel fresh and I’m just looking forward to a big game on Saturday.”
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