Gareth Southgate offers Harry Maguire ‘full backing’ but no guarantee of starts

  • England manager happy with competition for positions
  • Southgate says defender cannot be assured of starting place

Gareth Southgate has emphasised that Harry Maguire retains his full support but knows he cannot give the beleaguered defender any guarantees over a starting place in his England team at the World Cup later this year.

Maguire had hoped the international break would offer him the chance to reset after his torrid period at Manchester United. During the 29-year-old’s last game for United, the Champions League last-16 exit at home to Atlético Madrid, the Old Trafford crowd cheered his withdrawal six minutes from time.

However, when Southgate started him in England’s second game of the break – the 3-0 win over Ivory Coast on Tuesday – home supporters booed when Maguire’s name was announced before kick-off. There were further boos when he took his first touches.

Maguire has excelled for England under Southgate, playing a key role in the runs to the 2018 World Cup semi-final and the Euro 2020 final. There is the feeling in some quarters that his credit in the bank is so extensive that he is certain to start at the World Cup in Qatar, which kicks off in late November, especially as Southgate’s experienced options in central defence do not run particularly deep.

The manager, though, made it clear that was not the case. “I’m not going to give any of them that because they’ve got competition for places,” Southgate said. “This week, we’ve seen Marc Guéhi and Ben White play extremely well. I think Tyrone Mings’s record of clean sheets with England is outstanding. We weren’t able to get John Stones on the pitch [because of injury].

“Yes, Harry has been in our No 1 pairing through those tournaments and has my full backing and support. But equally I’m not going to say to anybody in the middle of March that they are a guaranteed starter in the World Cup team. That’s not the environment I’m looking to create and not the competition we are going to need.”

The Qatar World Cup chief executive, Nasser al-Khater, has called for a meeting with Gareth Southgate after the England manager said he was unhappy some fans will not feel safe travelling to the finals because of concerns over human rights issues in the country.

Homosexuality is illegal in the Gulf state and there is also unease over women's rights, and a report by Amnesty International found that thousands of migrant workers in the country were being exploited, which Qatar has denied.

Southgate said this month it was a "great shame" there were issues stopping fans going to the World Cup, highlighting the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community.

"Somebody with a lot of influence, such as Southgate, somebody with a big audience that listens to what he says, ought to pick his words very carefully," Khater told Sky Sports. "And I think that before making statements like that, when it comes to the workers, he needs to come here and speak to workers and understand what workers get out of being here."

The World Cup draw is being held in Doha on Friday and Khater said he wanted the opportunity to discuss the issues with Southgate. "I look forward to welcoming him here, I look forward to meeting him at the draw and he can listen to my opinion. He does not have to believe it, but at least he needs to go that far to understand different opinions and different cultures." Reuters

Though Southgate is looking forward to Friday’s World Cup draw in Doha, when England will be in the top pot of seeds, the shockwaves from Maguire’s treatment by the fans continue to reverberate and the manager is painfully aware the incident threatens to destroy one of the foundation stones of his tenure.

He has been able to rebuild the connection between the team and the support, and players want to report for international duty these days, which was not always the case in the past. However, Southgate warned after the Ivory Coast game that there could be a regression in the relationship.

“Don’t think for one minute the other players are not looking at that and thinking: ‘That could be me one day,’” Southgate said. “That has been one of the problems of playing for England.”

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He did not pull his punches at Wembley, calling the booing of Maguire an “absolute joke” and questioning what had gone through the minds of those who had done it – if anything. “I would imagine if you were to ask people why they were doing that they wouldn’t be able to answer,” he said. “It becomes a mob mentality.”

It is rare to hear a manager criticising the fans of his own team, although Southgate was quick to absolve the proper supporters of any blame; the “hardcore”, as he called them, who were “trying to get Maguire’s name sung”. Yet if Southgate’s comments came from a position of strength, they also betrayed the depth of his anger.


David Hytner

The GuardianTramp

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