Leave or be a cheerleader

Harry Maguire looks on – Harry Maguire’s Man Utd dilemma: Leave or be a cheerleader – Getty Images/Andrew Kearns

Harry Maguire’s obvious and genuine delight at “leading” Manchester United to victory at Wembley could not conceal one uncomfortable truth: the £80 million England defender has a career-defining decision to make. United’s club captain played the last two minutes of the League Cup final win over Newcastle, a game that served as a reminder of how far he has fallen in the club’s defensive hierarchy.

Not that a player who, by most exchange-rate interpretations, still ranks as the world’s most expensive defender needed reminding of that. Having started just five league games this season, two of which ended in defeat, Maguire has not even had the typical reserve’s luxury of regular appearances in cup competitions, having been named in the starting XI for just four of 16 such games so far this season.

It is an astonishing decline, especially when Erik ten Hag has even converted left-back Luke Shaw into a central defender on occasion and played him in a back three, ahead of selecting Maguire. To his credit, the 29-year-old has remained stoic and a popular figure in the dressing room, with Ten Hag praising his professionalism.

Still, with his contract having at least two more years to run after this season, Maguire is facing a stark, almost unprecedented, choice for a player of his stature: whether to remain as a virtual cheerleader in a squad clearly on an upward trajectory, or seek regular football elsewhere.

“Of course, I want to play games and I also want to contribute to the team,” he said. “I am the club captain and I have a big responsibility on and off the pitch, so it was nice to get on and help the lads. I don’t have mixed emotions. It’s been so long since the club won a trophy, it’s a really good day for the club and the fans. My main job is to move this club forward and to bring success back and today has been part of it.

“Obviously, I want to lead the boys out of the tunnel at the start of the game but, also, I understand this is part and parcel of football when you play at the top level and you have competition for places.”

The Wembley victory was a reminder, also, of the impressive form by World Cup winners Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane in Maguire’s position. Injury is an ever-present lurking threat in top-level football – and Varane has history in that area – but short of long-term absences for either of the incumbents, it is hard to envision Maguire upsetting the status quo.

“He [Ten Hag] has been asked numerous times about my role in interviews and he tells me honestly, he believes in me, but this is football,” Maguire said. “This is Manchester United. We want to win trophies and to do that you need competition for places. The manager speaks to me daily and he really respects me and believes that I am a top centre-half with all the attributes to play in his team. But also he understands that the players who are playing – and I understand that – are playing very well.”

Despite any personal concerns Maguire may have, he believes this trophy feels like the start of a real run. “When I first came to this club it felt like we had turned a corner, then we had a bad season and things changed again,” he said. “I think if you spoke to the manager, he would tell you he has great confidence in his tools and his work and the squad he is building in terms of the players and staff, they are behind him. The belief in the players, the staff, is the reason why we are moving forward.”