Harry Maguire shows the role of the Football League in breeding English talent.
Sir Alex Ferguson never lost his touch. That’s why even after leaving Manchester United he gave his successor David Moyes a transfer tip — keep an eye on Harry Maguire. Sir Alex had worked with many a talented defender, and he saw something special in the youngster.
The talk of Moyes brief tenure at Old Trafford resurfaced as Maguire edged towards Man Utd this week. In 2013, the club could have secured him for £4 million. In 2019, they are paying Leicester City £80 million.
Maguire is used to people questioning his value. He faced the same debate when he joined Leicester for £17 million, and it has returned amid his move to Man Utd for almost five times that figure. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but there is a benefit in looking back at Maguire’s career.
The 26-year-old moved to Bramwell Lane in his youth after a stint with Barnsley. In 2011, he played in the FA Youth Cup final against a Man Utd side containing Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba. By the time he made his Premier League debut with Hull City in 2014 he already had over 120 games worth of experience in the Football League.
Surprisingly, Maguire is not unique in having a grounding in the Football League. Of the 23 man squad selected for the UEFA Nations League Finals this summer, 16 had played at least half a dozen games in the Football League during their early career. Of that group, 12 had played over 25 games.
It’s a similar story with the U21s, where only four of the last 23 man squad have not sampled the Football League in some capacity.
“It was really important,” Maguire said earlier this year. “It’s something I’m really proud of playing in the EFL. It gave me the opportunity to make my debut, go on and play games week in week out. I think that’s really important at a young age. Step by step I’ve worked my way up the ladder and playing for my country is the pinnacle of it. I wouldn’t be there without the EFL.”
For clubs eager to test the ability of their young players, the Championship becomes an obvious destination. Although not quite the same standard as the Premier League, the Championship still requires strong technical ability to succeed and mirrors the top flight in terms of pace and intensity.
Premier League clubs loaning their young players to the second tier is nothing new. There could, however, be changes coming to benefit England’s youth even more. Championship clubs are putting a greater emphasis on developing players via their academy, in part due to the threat of FFP.
For example, Derby County manager Phillip Cocu spoke about player development being a tenet of the club’s philosophy going forward.
Promotion rivals Leeds United have trod a similar path, with Helder Costa, signed on loan with an obligation to buy, the only major deal the club have done.
“To develop players is very important for the philosophy we have – to try to make a plan for each individual player to make it possible to reach the first team,” Cocu said. “The first team as well needs to be competitive as we try to get into the top six with the Premier League a goal, but not necessary in the first season. The bigger picture is about the football we play and the development of individual players.”
Last summer, Championship clubs spent a combined £207m, this season it is down to £120m with days left of the window(source TransferMarkt.com).
That lack of spending should, in turn, open up opportunities for those youngsters seeking to break in, either at their current club or through loan deals. It would also appear the Premier League is taking notice. This summer has seen top-flight clubs spend just over £100m on 11 young English players from the Championship.
From there, the hope is that those players can take the next step and transition into the full England team, just like Maguire.
His time in the Football League was the start of a career that has taken him to a World Cup and one of the biggest clubs in England. And while the debate about his value remains, the role of the Football League in incubating his talent cannot be contested.