There’s something about the lad from Mosborough that I recognise. Like his South Yorkshire teammates, fellow Sheffielder Kyle Walker and Barnsley’s John Stones, who played for Penistone Church (one of the most windswept football grounds in the world, surely), his studs have trodden an early path I recognise all too well.
At 28, he’s a decade older than my own son, Jack, but I feel sure that somewhere in South Yorkshire, one Sunday morning, I’ve seen him on a misty, muddy field behind a Miners’ Welfare, pulling off his hoody and getting on the pitch, whatever the weather. Like so many of his England teammates, his back-story touches a chord with ordinary people.
If ever a team represented modern, multi-cultural Britain, this is it. Where I come from, it doesn’t matter where your father was born or what nationality your mother holds. If you could kick a ball, you were in.
In my experience, the people who follow football as an excuse to exercise their ultra right-wing and often dangerous political instincts are hardly athletes, unless you count sinking pints and chasers in quick succession as a national sport.
I’ve had a foot in grassroots football for 15 years now, although my weekends of helping another mum run the tuck shop and ferrying car-fulls of teammates on soccer safaris are now but a (mostly) happy memory. Football, as Southgate’s team know, builds unbreakable bonds that survive slings and arrows. We should all at least take heart from that.
I’ve known lads like Maguire, watched them progress and inevitably end up spotted by a scout from one of the big South Yorkshire clubs, Manchester United or Manchester City – in Maguire’s case it was Sheffield United.
He’s battled a few personal demons along the way and the big defender’s place in this England team was not assured. Yet no-one looked prouder to have done his bit for his country.
This massive favour was not returned, as insurgence erupted at Wembley and then afterwards, penalty takers Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were pelted with disgusting racist abuse on social media.
In Manchester, a mural of Rashford, who has battled since the start of the pandemic to help children living in poverty access free school meals, was defaced. He might have missed a penalty, but thanks to him thousands of children have not missed a meal. Did the trolls and trouble-makers forget this?
Do Maguire and his teammates – including Walker and Raheem Sterling, who were all picked for the official UEFA ‘Team of the Tournament’ – deserve what’s happened since Sunday night? Of course they do not.
Not in any world, not with any justification, should any sportsman (or woman, for that matter) who has given it their all for their country, have to deal with an aftermath that involves violence, racial hatred and mindless nationalistic thuggery. Then again, trouble was already brewing. Booing other national anthems and players who take the knee? Unchecked, this was only going one way. In the face of this, the team and their manager, Gareth Southgate, a proud adopted Yorkshireman who lives in Harrogate, have behaved with nothing but dignity.
The Prime Minister and prominent members of his government, on the other hand, have been entirely wrong-footed. It’s bad enough that some of these nationalistic thugs have been emboldened by the Prime Minister’s own determination to ‘get Brexit done’ and subsequent acts of frank jingoism, such as brandishing our naval power in the Crimea.
What’s worse is that rather than providing a clear political response and national leadership, they have appeared hypocritical. Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned taking the knee as “gesture politics” and said England fans had a “choice” over whether or not to boo players as they made their protest.
Then she turned round and condemned these same fans as racists. What did she expect?
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has also branded both Mr Johnson and Ms Patel as “total hypocrites”.
“The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary gave licence to the racists who booed the England players and are now racially abusing England players,” she posted on Twitter.
She also likened the pair to “arsonists complaining about a fire they poured petrol on”. Total lack of understanding, in other words.
Every true football fan, who loves the game for what it is and not an excuse for a drunken punch-up, knows that Wembley truly is hallowed turf. The journey there is a pilgrimage, its place in football history a shrine. It’s not there to be trashed, vilified or used as a stage for racist and offensive behaviour.
Maguire’s own father, Alan, 56, was left with suspected broken ribs after being trampled in the crowd when an estimated 5,000 ticketless yobs stormed through the turnstiles and shoved fee-paying fans aside. Maguire told reporters that his dad was “struggling to breathe”.
Shakespeare was right, but not in a way he could ever have imagined. ‘Cry God for Harry, England, and St George!’. Yes, we’re crying this week. For shame and our country.
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