The Hampden roar has often been reserved of late for a Manchester United player who was born in England. Just not this particular one. Scott McTominay, after all, was the scourge of Spain and is the joint top scorer in Euro 2024 qualifying, level with Romelu Lukaku and Rasmus Hojlund, just ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane.
Yet this wasn’t a McTominay goal that Scotland support were enjoying. The announcement of their scorer over the tannoy was met with the sort of noise that stems from schadenfreude. Harry Maguire, the most prolific centre-back in the history of the England national team, had struck for Scotland.
Which, in one respect, was the product of a teasing cross by Andy Robertson, into the corridor of uncertainty, luring Aaron Ramsdale off his line, forcing Maguire to commit himself, resulting in an unstoppable finish that bisected goalkeeper and near post. And in another way, it had a sad inevitability.
These things happen to Maguire. Were his form or luck or touch better, he would have diverted the ball past the goal, or straight to Ramsdale; perhaps missed it altogether. Now his last two goals have come for Scotland and Sevilla.
“Just unfortunate,” said Gareth Southgate of his latest mishap, but Maguire can seem the most unfortunate of footballers, the sport’s equivalent of Unlucky Alf from the Fast Show. If something can go wrong, it often does when Maguire is around. For all his shortcomings as a defender – a lack of pace, particularly on the turn, and a capacity to look cumbersome – he seems on an extended run of bad luck that has lasted for around two years, since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign at Old Trafford started to unravel, since his career nosedived. He has lost the United captaincy; but for Southgate’s stubbornness, he may have lost his England place.
But now so much with Maguire has a symbolic feel. When Andre Onana made his United debut in pre-season, when a goal was conceded and both Christian Eriksen and Maguire were culpable, it was the world’s most expensive centre-back he subjected to very public lambasting. When Declan Rice scored the decisive goal for Arsenal against United last Sunday, it took a telling deflection off Maguire. And when it deflects off him, it somehow seems destined to go in. Such is the unrelenting cruelty of being Maguire; in the highest standard of tournament football he has proved arguably one of the best centre-backs in England’s history and yet is now a figure of fun.
“A joke,” said Southgate, though he was referring to the treatment of Maguire, to the unwanted reputation he has acquired, rather than the player. Yet Scotland faithful bought into it. They cheered when he was brought on at half-time. They spent much of the next 45 minutes taunting him, making every five-yard square pass an event. They sang about Maguire and, ultimately, so did the England support, trying to reclaim him and hail him.
“From a Scotland fans’ point of view, I get it, I have no absolutely no complaints of what they did,” Southgate said. “It is a consequence of ridiculous treatment of him for a long period of time, frankly, and I think our fans recognised, ‘Ok, there might be a bit of heat from our own supporters but we are not going to have it from others getting into him.’”
Despite England’s ultimate 3-1 victory, it felt like 45 minutes of relentless torment. Perhaps unnecessary torture: Southgate sent him on at half-time when Marc Guehi went off. If Maguire has been barracked by some opposing fans, it was foreseeable that none would be as keen to heckle him as the Scots. England have had a restorative effect on him at times, amid his troubles with United, but there was nothing rejuvenating about this hostility.
And Southgate, often the diplomat, became outspoken. He is his favourite defender’s foremost defender. A scapegoat culture has developed. “It is a joke,” he added. “I have never known a player to be treated the way he is; not from the Scottish fans by our own commentators and pundits. They have created something that is beyond anything I have ever seen.
“He has been an absolute stalwart for us in the second most successful English team for decades. I have talked about the importance of our senior players, he has been crucial amongst that and every time he goes on the field the resilience he shows, the balls he shows is absolutely incredible. So he is a top player and we are all with him. I feel fairly strongly about it, yes.”
Southgate’s argument is that Maguire will not hide. “He has fronted up as he always does which is enormous credit to his character,” he said. The wider argument is that Southgate should hide him, that the rustiness of not playing enough for United will hinder England, that this seems a case of a player being afforded preferential treatment in selection. And thus one of the most torrid nights of Maguire’s career ended up with a resounding endorsement from his manager. But only after the sort of pratfall that may bring more jokes at Maguire’s expense.