NOT so long ago, Harry Maguire was just a starry-eyed kid throwing footballs back to his heroes from the touchline.
Now Maguire is one of the stars of the Sheffield United side gunning for promotion to the Championship today at Wembley.
Over the last 13 months, Mosborough-born Maguire has been on an amazing journey from ball-boy to ‘top boy’ at Bramall Lane. His head still shakes in disbelief as he ponders the speed of his ascension through the ranks and the experiences along the way.
From the FA Youth Cup final at Old Trafford to the agony of relegation and now a League One play-off final. He was also voted in the PFA’s League One team of the season.
At the age of 19, the defender – who has missed only two games this season – will line-up for the Blades against Huddersfield Town watched by over 60,000 supporters.
Not only is it a Yorkshire derby being played at one of the world’s most famous stadia but, far more importantly, a battle to secure the third and final promotion spot from League One.
“It’s been an incredible year, the best 12 months of my life,” Maguire told the Yorkshire Post. “To be honest, I still can’t get my head around it.
“Only last season, I was playing youth team football and this year I have played in every game for the first team except when I was suspended or ill. I think I have done a fairly good job and it would be incredible if I could cap it off this weekend by winning promotion at Wembley.”
A product of the Blades academy, Maguire spent many a Saturday afternoon with his friends on the Bramall Lane Kop before taking the role of matchday ball-boy at the age of 16. Even at such a tender age, Maguire showed the bravery that would be needed in his future career on the field.
“I always sat behind the goal at the away end – because no-one else dared to go there,” he said. “That was only a couple of years ago and it is really strange to think what has gone on since.”
Maguire helped the Blades progress to the final of the FA Youth Cup last season and it was his performances at the heart of the defence for John Pemberton’s side that caught the eye of then-manager Micky Adams.
As injuries stretched the depth of his first-team squad to the limit, Adams turned to Maguire in the final games of the battle against the drop.
Although his introduction failed to prevent relegation, Maguire never looked out of place.
Craig Bellamy, one of the leading strikers in the British game, even took time out to praise the teenager after his debut as substitute against Cardiff City.
Maguire missed only one of the final six games as the Blades waved farewell to the Championship but received a major vote of confidence in the summer.
New manager Danny Wilson resisted the temptation to sign a more experienced defender and Maguire was given a permanent job alongside Neill Collins at centre back.
“That showed the gaffer had great trust in me and I would like to thank him for that,” he reflected. “It gives you extremely high confidence knowing that people believe in you like that.
“I was chucked in at the deep end but, in a way, it was good because I had less chance to worry and get nervous.
“People kept on saying that I might ‘need a rest’ but that didn’t happen and I still feel fresh. I have grown with experience this season and I have also learned many things playing alongside Neill Collins.”
Maguire is the only Sheffield-born player in the current Blades side and, without question, the most progressive member of last season’s youth team.
Although striker Jordan Slew was snapped up by Blackburn Rovers, he has finished the season playing on loan for Stevenage reserves. Goalkeeper George Long played four times for the first team but also slipped down the pecking order as the season moved on.
“As a local player, it has been extra special for me to reach the play-off final, especially when all the fans came onto the pitch celebrating at the end of the semi-final against Stevenage,” he said. “I saw a few of my friends on the pitch that night and I always feel privileged when I go places and people recognise me as a Sheffield United player.
“All my family are Blades and they have all supported me through my life whenever I have played.
“My Dad even took me up to games at Newcastle on a Sunday morning – which I guess is quite hard when you have been out on a Saturday night.
“But it has paid off now and I have dreamed all my life about playing at Wembley.”
Blades-mad Maguire admits it has been hard watching rivals Wednesday celebrate automatic promotion at his side’s expense over the last couple of weeks.
The Blades and the Owls were involved in a tense tug-of-war for second spot which was only settled on the final day.
“It has been difficult but we have just focused on what we had to do,” he said. “It was disappointing to see second spot taken away from us but our target has always been Championship football, no matter how we did it.
“Although Wednesday overtook us, we feel our performance levels didn’t really drop.
“We still have great belief that we will be in the Championship next season but we also know we have a tough game coming up and what we need to do.”
Not surprisingly, Maguire is painfully aware of the Blades record in previous play-off finals. Three games have resulted in three defeats and no goals.
“I didn’t go to the Burnley game (in 2009) but it would be nice to end that record this weekend,” he said. “It would also be great to see all the Blades fans celebrating again.
“Last season, I had a taste of the Championship and it was disappointing to be relegated but, if we go back now, we feel we will be better equipped to handle it.”