Harry Maguire reflects on Euros heartbreak as England return

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Harry Maguire has not rewatched it and the England defender doubts he ever will. Maybe in retirement, he says, when he looks back on what he has achieved. But Maguire can still see it clearly. It is seared into his memory – the night of Sunday 11 July when he and the team were so close to beating Italy and winning the European Championship at Wembley. So close but, agonisingly, not close enough.

You can hear it when Maguire gives his analysis of the final, especially the second half of normal time when England lost the initiative and their 1-0 lead. But you can hear it, more than anything, when he rakes over the pain.

Maguire took the second penalty of the second round of the shootout and when he lashed it high into the net England had a 2-1 advantage. Glory beckoned. Then it melted away.

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“We know how close we were – the closest you can ever be to becoming European champions,” he says. “It hurts and it always will hurt. It hurts every fan as well – not just us players and staff.

“Will you ever get over losing a penalty shootout to become European champions? Probably only if you win one of these major tournaments will you overcome that.”

England are preparing to get back in the saddle. It is disorientating to realise there is a World Cup finals in Qatar in November of next year – yes, a little over 14 months’ time – and England have a qualifying campaign to resume. They do so in Budapest on Thursday night at what promises to be a packed Puskas Arena and against a Hungary team that impressed at Euro 2020, drawing against France and Germany and only narrowly failing to escape the group of death. Their other result was the late defeat against Portugal.

England’s opening three World Cup qualifying ties – the wins against San Marino, Albania and Poland in March – were overshadowed by the looming European Championship finals. They felt more like tune-ups for those finals but now the path is clear. After Hungary come the Wembley fixture with Andorra on Sunday and the trip to Poland on Wednesday.

Gareth Southgate mentioned on several occasions the need to reset along with having to “get back to base camp”, conjuring images of a massive mountain peak ahead. But to reset also means to process and it feels impossible to disassociate Southgate and his squad from the Euros, particularly the Italy game.

Should England have been bolder in the second half? “In hindsight, yes,” Maguire says. “We gave away a bit too much possession, a little bit too much pressure. We could have been a little bit braver.

“They didn’t create a clearcut chance. We conceded from a corner, which has bounced around the box three or four times and fallen to their player. I never felt they were going to score. I never felt under pressure in terms of the amount of chances.

“If we’d have held out and won 1-0, everyone would have said we managed to set the second half brilliantly. It’s fine margins but when I look back now, maybe we could have punished them a little bit more on the counterattack.

“That was a big part of the second half. When we did manage to get into promising positions, we didn’t hurt them enough. We didn’t create enough.”

Maguire is set to feature for England against Hungary.
Maguire is set to feature for England against Hungary. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/AFP/Getty Images

The summer was not all frustration. Far from it. The last‑16 victory against Germany was a mini-epic and after the run to the 2018 World Cup semi-final it was the first time since the late 1960s that England had reached a final and semi-final at back-to-back major tournaments. All this with a young squad heavy on potential.

“You play football to create memories and put smiles on people’s faces and we certainly did that,” Maguire says. “The journey we had … I think it really boosted the country.”

Maguire inhabits a fast-moving, sometimes surreal world. He describes Cristiano Ronaldo as “the greatest player to play the game”. Now, after the forward’s return to Manchester United, Maguire becomes his captain.

“It has happened so quickly it has probably not sunk in properly but it is amazing for the club – the atmosphere he will create around the place and the mentality he can bring to the squad,” Maguire says.

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“It is big for the fans but, more importantly, it will improve us on the pitch. He is an exceptional player as you saw last season and in the Euros.”

Maguire’s focus is on England, on harnessing the many positives from the summer, which include a feelgood factor around the team; more than 60,000 tickets have been sold for the visit of lowly Andorra. And on digging even deeper.

“It’s a test of mentality for the players to come back and make sure we perform like we have done over the last couple of years,” he says. “The belief is there. You look around the room and you feel that if you improve and do everything right, you’ve got every chance of being world champions.

“You see in a lot of teams that they have to come close and have disappointments before they actually hit where they want to get to. I hope and pray that’s where we are at the moment.”