Full redemption can only come when overcoming bigger challenges but the faith Manchester United and England have shown in Harry Maguire is starting to reap dividends, as it did in England’s 3-0 win over the Republic of Ireland on Thursday.
That error-strewn performance — featuring two late tackles which epitomised just how off the pace he was — came upon his return to the squad following a September omission for being found guilty of aggravated assault, resisting arrest and attempted bribery on his summer holiday in Greece.
With Maguire appealing that verdict, his form for United and England slumped to the point where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were beaten 6-1 at home by Tottenham. Ex-United legend Rio Ferdinand even led a plethora of calls for the 27-year-old to be rested for his own good.
Instead, Maguire has played every minute of United’s Premier League programme since, producing arguably his best performance of the season in last Saturday’s win at Everton.
And here at Wembley, Gareth Southgate backed up his news conference support of Maguire by handing him the armband for the first time, making him the 124th player to captain England. The big man led from the front by scoring the opening goal in an easy 3-0 win.
Maguire’s 18th-minute header from Harry Winks‘ cross owed plenty to his tenacity, the defender beating Ireland skipper Shane Duffy to power home a header past Darren Randolph. But it also settled down an England team exhibiting early nerves despite facing a depleted line-up in a rare international friendly.
Ireland lost Seamus Coleman in their final training session at Wembley on Wednesday evening, with James McCarthy already out of the squad for family reasons, Aaron Connolly injured, Harry Arter rested and John Egan substituted just 14 minutes after a clash of heads.
Jack Grealish could have been lining up for England’s opponents having represented Ireland at Under-21 level before switching allegiances and his hesitation in doing so was partly based on whether he could successfully break into a more competitive team. That challenge remains but Grealish continues to make significant strides towards inclusion into England’s strongest XI with another influential display, probing and cajoling with the swagger of a player possessing far more than three international caps.
As Maguire caused problems in the box once more and England recycled possession at an impressive rate, the 25-year-old found Jadon Sancho in space on 31 minutes and the Borussia Dortmund winger curled a low finish past Randolph to double the home side’s advantage.
Southgate, who has spent the week defending England’s treatment of injured Liverpool defender Joe Gomez and explaining why his boss, chairman Greg Clarke, had to resign following racist comments at a Parliamentary select committee hearing, felt sufficiently comfortable in the haven of his technical area to hand Foden his first cap since breaching COVID-19 rules in Iceland and a debut to 17-year-old Jude Bellingham, now the third youngest man ever to play for England after Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney.
Maguire, of course, played the full 90 minutes, his only alarming moment coming when Ronan Curtis tried his luck from 20 yards to test goalkeeper Dean Henderson, on at half-time for his debut in place of Nick Pope. He even almost added a fourth for England late on when heading just wide from Reece James‘ corner. The ‘love train’ isn’t rolling with World Cup 2018 frequency but there are signs it is starting to move through the gears.
Tougher tests await before Maguire can be reliably restored as, well, Mr. Reliable. And while England will get one Sunday in the Nations League against world No. 1 Belgium, Maguire will not, as the defender is out through red card suspension.
This was England’s first victory over Ireland since 1985 but it felt utterly inevitable from the moment England took the lead.
But ultimately it was as smooth an evening as Maguire, and indeed Southgate, could have hoped for. After all the pair have had to contend with off the field in recent times, that feels like an achievement in itself.