There is always a sense of power colliding when Manchester United face Liverpool — English football’s two biggest and most successful clubs, each with a global fan base that dwarfs that of their domestic rivals — but the influence that comes with wearing the red shirts of the two teams extends beyond the pitch.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, who will miss Sunday’s Premier League clash at Old Trafford due to a long-term groin injury, has become one of the most prominent players in the game since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with his leadership of the #PlayersTogether group, formed to organise footballers’ collective response during the crisis, elevating the 30-year-old to a new level of status and respect.
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United captain Harry Maguire, who has worked closely with Henderson in #PlayersTogether, also earned praise throughout the first UK lockdown last spring by arranging the delivery of food parcels to the vulnerable in his home village of Mosborough, near Sheffield.
Maguire and Henderson have continued to work closely in #PlayersTogether — “lots of Zoom calls and WhatsApp messages,” Maguire told ESPN — as footballers learn how to use their celebrity and profile to make a difference and, in an exclusive interview with ESPN, the England defender reveals that he is in contact with Gianni Infantino after being sought out by the FIFA president earlier this season.
“We spoke over emails,” Maguire said. “It’s great that he [Infantino] got in touch with me, and it’s something I appreciate. He is a highly respected man, and obviously someone I respect. It’s really nice for him to get in touch and speak to me about ways that we can develop football.
“First and foremost, I respect whatever he has to say to me. He’s the boss, he’s the one who tells me or explains what’s going on. But obviously, if he asks me a question, I’d answer with my honest opinion. My opinion is obviously one of a million peoples’ opinion, but if I could have got tiny, tiny input, then that would be important.”
Maguire is speaking in the wake of the failed plans by 12 clubs — including United — to form a European Super League (ESL). The collapse of the initiative, driven by fan protests and the threat of government intervention, continues to cast a shadow over the game, with fans’ groups planning further demonstrations before Sunday’s meeting between United and Liverpool.
United would not allow Maguire to discuss the ESL situation with ESPN, but the 28-year-old did address the need for all involved to be able to express their opinions on the development of the game.
“I think it’s really important that footballers have a voice in the football,” Maguire said. “It’s really important that fans have a voice in football and owners, too. We’re all in this together, we all love the sport, we all have great passion for the sport and it’s important that everyone has a voice.
“I think playing for Manchester United, you have a big profile whether you are captain or not. Obviously I’m the captain of the club and I’m really proud of that, but there are all the big players and other big voices in football who I’m sure will have a big input.”
Maguire is also keen to increase his involvement with the PFA, the players’ union, and ensure a line of communication with the incoming chief executive, Maheta Molango.
“It’s important that we develop football together, not just myself and other players, but lots of players,” Maguire said. “You mentioned Jordan [Henderson], and what he has been doing off the pitch as well, so yes, it’s really important that we get together and we move forward together. The #PlayersTogether group is still going and it’s a big thing. It’s all over a Zoom call or WhatsApp or emails, but it’s really important that we keep in touch and, for sure, when [society] is back to normal, we will be having meetings, I’m sure about that.”
While Maguire and Henderson have walked in step with their efforts off the pitch, the United defender watched on in envy as the Liverpool midfielder lifted the Premier League trophy last season.
With Liverpool’s title success — their first since 1990 — coming just a year after the club won the Champions League for a sixth time by beating Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid, the balance of power between the clubs has shifted firmly from Old Trafford to Anfield. But having finished 33 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s team last season, United go into Sunday’s game 13 points clear of Liverpool, knowing that victory would inflict major damage on the outgoing champions’ prospects of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
United remain off the pace in the title race, with Manchester City needing two wins to seal a third title in four years, but Maguire believes that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is driving real progress at the club.
“It’s a big game whenever we play Liverpool,” Maguire said. “We want to win and we expect to win. But the most important thing is that we improve on last season. We finished third in the Premier League and it was only the last day that we qualified for the Champions League, so we needed to improve on that.
“The league table doesn’t lie. I don’t know how many points off the top we finished, and we’re still points off where we at this club want to be, even if we finish second in the Premier League. Next season, whatever happens, we’ve got to finish better than where we finish this season and that means getting more points than we’ve done this season.
“I joined the club to win trophies, to lift trophies. Every player who plays for Manchester United expects to win trophies. In recent years, we haven’t managed to do that, so we’ve got to improve and, next season, we’ve got we improve again.”
Maguire goes into the Liverpool game having played in every minute of United’s last 71 Premier League games, an ever-present run that equals the club record set by Gary Pallister between November 1993 and May 1995.
The £80 million signing from Leicester City in August 2019 is speaking to ESPN as an ambassador for STATSport, a GPS sports technology company, and he admits that fitness data is crucial in players staying fit and avoiding injury.
“It [monitoring data] does become a little bit obsessive, but I think that’s part of the world now in every sport,” Maguire said. “I used it [GPS tracker] a lot during lockdown, when the club wanted us to work as much as we could to keep the fitness levels up. There would be 5K runs, in parks and up hills, which is totally different to running on a pitch, and you would try to beat your old [data] scores in terms of intensity and top speeds. It’s a big part of the game now. A big part of my game is availability and it’s essential, because you want that consistency in the team, a solid foundation.”
Maguire admits, however, that playing throughout this season, with football still forced to adhere to strict COVID-19 protocols including restrictions on group work in training, has been challenging.
“I think I’ve got myself into a routine now because it is just games, games, games and not much training,” he said. “The first lockdown last year was the longest period I’ve had off in my career, but then coming into the game without any fans and getting used to the surroundings at the training ground and not being able to socialise with the lads, that was tough. I don’t want to say we’ve got used to it because we want everything back to normal, but we have got more used to the surroundings and the environment that we all work in.
“But team spirit is a massive part of the game and we’re not able to go out for meals, our families aren’t able to meet other families and socialise that way.
“We are in separate dressing rooms at the training ground at the moment and we’re on different buses travelling to away games, so it is strange, but the most important thing is safety.”