The hesitation was telling, the first word something of a filler. The question may well have been one Gareth Southgate also asked. Why, when there was the chance of a move to West Ham, the prospect of first-team football and the opportunity of something equating to a new start, did Harry Maguire opt to stay at Manchester United?
“Erm,” he began. “Well, I think it was a bit of both. Erm… how can I put this? We just didn’t come to an agreement and they were happy for me to stay and I was happy to fight for my place. I want to do that and every time I train or play I will give everything.”
Which scarcely felt the most convincing of explanations, even if it hinted at a hold-up. The bare facts are that United accepted a £30m bid from West Ham; there was agreement there. Where the three parties could not all concur, then, was on the issues of remuneration and recompense.
Maguire’s wages actually went up this summer, as a result of United’s qualification for the Champions League. West Ham were unlikely to pay him at a rate commensurate with a status as the world’s most expensive centre-back.
The sense is that a pay-off was required but not agreed.
It is not the only factor, as Maguire suggested. Erik ten Hag has demoted the 30-year-old, first from the team, then from the club captaincy. But he has never forced him out. The United manager wants two players for every position; he sees Maguire as one of his centre-back options. Admittedly, he often seems fifth in line: Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez became established as the preferred pairing last season, with Victor Lindelof a reasonably reliable deputy. Ten Hag is reluctant to use Maguire on the left and would rather field Luke Shaw there.
To the outsider, the prognosis for Maguire looks bleak. Yet he has confounded expectations before: playing in League One at 21, he was a World Cup semi-finalist four years later. Footballers require a belief in their ability; there have been times on the pitch in the last two years when Maguire has looked to be suffering from a crisis of confidence but he sounded positive.
“At club football, I want to play games, I want to play football,” he said. “The first four weeks were hard because it was one game a week and the manager didn’t select me but we have lots of games coming up now and I am sure I will play lots of games.”
His first appearance of the campaign came as a substitute at Arsenal; with Shaw and Varane injured, his next outings may depend on whether Martinez, who came off at the Emirates Stadium, is also sidelined. His last game brought an own goal, benefitting Scotland.
Southgate came to the centre-back’s defence after an evening of mockery at Hampden Park when it seemed as though Scotland’s new national sport is taunting Maguire. Nevertheless, his job would be easier if Maguire had joined West Ham, just as it would be had Jordan Henderson not signed for Al-Ettifaq. Leaving Old Trafford would have been a way of protecting his international place.
“Of course, my England career is a big priority,” Maguire countered. “And so is my club career. I considered everything and I know, at the moment, when I have not started a game in the first four games of the season, the story comes to me. I finished off last season with two very strong performances for England and I have played in all five matches to help put us where we are in qualifying, so I need to keep performing when I get chosen.”
And yet he can feel a part-time footballer, playing for country more than club. Maguire denied rustiness was a problem against Scotland, saying Southgate was very happy with his performance against Ukraine. His night in Glasgow, however, was notable for the reaction of the Scotland supporters and the goal he dispatched past Aaron Ramsdale.
“Obviously, I am disappointed with the own goal but that is football,” Maguire said. “You are a centre-back and you put yourselves in those positions. I am really pleased with how I performed in the second half and how I dealt with it. Little things can go against you and one moment went against me. That is part and parcel of a defender.”
Sadly for Maguire, he was already ridiculed at Hampden even before he accidentally converted Andy Robertson’s cross.
He found an advantage among the ridicule. “It pretty much takes the pressure away from my teammates and puts it all on myself,” he said. “I would not say I am a person who struggles with pressure mentally, I have been through a lot in the last couple of years.”
If anything, that felt an understatement. The next year assumes an importance, too. Southgate’s faith in Maguire appears unyielding, but a season on the sidelines at United could test it anyway. By opting not to leave, Maguire risked his place at Euro 2024. “It is way too far away to consider,” he argued. “I take everything as each week goes by.” But he could do with some good weeks at the club he perhaps should have quit.