IT slipped by almost unnoticed but something remarkable has happened.
Two lifelong Sheffield United supporters captained England at cricket and football simultaneously at the weekend. Joe Root plotted at Old Trafford against Australia whilst ex-Blades central defender Harry Maguire was handed the armband for the closing stages of England’s 4-0 victory in a European Championship qualifying rout over Bulgaria at Wembley.
For Root, from Dore, there was bitter disappointment 24 hours later when any chance his England team had of regaining the Ashes disappeared, going down 2-1 in the fourth match of the series, a crushing 185-run defeat, with only one Test remaining. Now questions are being asked about the 28-year-old Yorkshire batsman’s leadership but Root, Test captain since succeeding Alastair Cook in 2017, insists he remains the best man for the job.
The immediate future looks a good deal more rosy for Maguire. The Blades academy graduate, now the world’s most expensive defender following his £80million summer move from Leicester City to Manchester United was already being tipped as the man most likely to takeover the captaincy at his new club.
That has only been enhanced by England manager Gareth Southgate’s decision to let the 26-year-old accept the skipper’s armband from Harry Kane when the striker was substituted for the final 15 minutes at Wembley.
It is no surprise to Blades fans that Maguire, who made 166 appearances before leaving Bramall Lane for Hull City in 2014, has created a big impression in his short time at Old Trafford. One of the success stories as England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, he is being tipped to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Manchester United’s Steve Bruce, Rio Ferdinand, one of Maguire’s idols, and Nemanja Vidic, all of whom played in the heart of defence.
Ashely Young currently wears the armband, having succeeded Antonio Valencia who was released in the summer and joined Liga de Quito in his native Equador. Young, however, is something of a controversial appointment among many fans and is not gifted with traditional leadership skills, one of the mainstays of the the golden era under former manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Indeed, following the departure of another huge influence on the other side of Manchester, City skipper Vincent Company, Gary Neville is convinced that Etihad boss Pep Guardiola may regret bowing out of the race to sign Maguire claiming he was too costly.
Pundit Neville, another former Manchester United captain, said: “‘If Aymeric Laporte [City’s injured defender who recently underwent knee surgery] is out for a long period of time, I think it will cost City points. He is a dominant centre-back. He is a brilliant player, Laporte. I just look at it and think it’s a real worry. Maguire would have been ideal. I think Manchester United did really well to get him and I’m surprised City didn’t go with them.”
But not everyone is so impressed. Former Manchester United captain Roy Keane said of the defender’s performance against Bulgaria: “We were talking about how good he is on the ball, but defensively I still think he's...I still have one or two question marks over him. I always worry about his pace on the turn.
“I remember the first goal [Manchester United conceded in a recent home defeat] against Crystal Palace where he's not doing the basics – covering round his other centre-half. Listen he's 26 years of age now, you're worried if you're pointing these things out to him.”
A little harsh from a man who finds it so easy to criticise others and at the same time is seemingly oblivious to his own well publicised character failings as a player, coach and manager. But nevertheless an opinion worth taking on board if Maguire does want to rub shoulders with the great names of the past at Old Trafford.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his manager, was prompted to splash out after watching how the addition of central defender Virgil van Dijk was transformative for Liverpool last season, solidifying a previously questionable rearguard. In any other season Jurgen Klopp’s team would have coasted to the Premier League title. It was a misfortune they were in a two-horse race with an exceptional Manchester City and finished a point behind them on 97, losing only one match. The European Cup was Liverpool’s reward for a fantastic campaign.
Maguire was also a target of former Old Trafford boss Jose Mourinho who was frustrated by the club’s reluctance to back him on the asking price, sowing another seed which led to his eventual dismissal.
Nicknamed ‘Slab Head’ by his former England and Leicester teammate Jamie Vardy, Maguire quickly won hearts and minds at Bramall Lane, not only for his rock-like defensive skills but also light footwork for a man with such a big frame, confidence on the ball and driving runs forward. As irony would have it, qualities which would sit perfectly on the foundation which current Blades boss Chris Wilder built two promotions in three seasons.
Former Blades defender and skipper Neill Collins recalls: “Playing alongside Harry I formed the best partnership of my career and that was down largely to Harry being a great listener and always willing to learn. This is one of the main reasons he has progressed. He can play out from the back as well as anyone and there is not a stronger player in British football.”