Travis Binnion: Harry Maguire and the Sheffield United way
Written by Simon Austin — August 7, 2019
“YOU could have looked at Harry Maguire at 16 and said ‘he can’t run,’ because people in England like to find something a player can’t do,” says Travis Binnion, Sheffield United’s former Academy Manager.
The 31-year-old, who left the Blades this summer following a decade's service for the club, first worked with Manchester United's new £80m centre-half when he was a gangly 14-year-old.
“Our biggest strength at Sheffield United was that we catered for all types, not just athletes or technicians,” Binnion explains. “It was an individual and personal approach to development. The biggest clubs often get players who are outstanding in all areas, so maybe they don’t have to do that same work.
“We always said push strengths and hide weaknesses. Harry may not be the quickest, but he’s smart, he positions himself well, he uses his body well.
“Even at 14, he was excellent on the ball, excellent in the air and backed himself. He was the sort of boy that if you had a go at him, it wouldn’t bother him, because he had that belief, ‘I’m a good player’.
“You can’t underestimate that quality. And like all the best players, he didn’t make the same mistake twice.”
Now Maguire has made a record move to Old Trafford, via Hull and Leicester, but he was forged in Sheffield. Binnion was also a youth player with the Blades, before having to retire at the age of 21 because of injury and move into a coaching role with the club.
Former Academy Manager Ron Reid was a major influence on him in those formative coaching years and Binnion says there has always been a 'Sheffield United Way', one that mirrors that of the Steel City itself. “Be a good person, don’t have airs and graces, put a shift in and maximise what you’re capable of”.
He adds: “What I would say about our players, under Ron and all the way through to me, is that they’re good kids with good values. You don’t see them making negative headlines, they all come back into the club, and that doesn’t happen by chance.
“Harry is a good kid. He comes back for United games whenever he can, especially the derbies. He’s a Blades fan and that affiliation will always remain.
"You want anyone who comes into an Academy to leave as a better person.
"That should be a primary concern for the person in charge and their staff. Players might not progress as anticipated as footballers, but they can progress in other areas of life through everything you do with them. It’s such a wide-ranging programme that Academies run now.
"You take them around the world, you’re involved in the schooling, the physical, psychological, development, parental workshop. You’re trying to affect them on so many levels and that’s a big responsibility. You’re aiming for them to have a really wide skillset that makes them more likely to succeed than their peer who didn’t come into the system.
“If we can all do that as Academies then we’re having a positive impact beyond football, impacting communities.”
Another reason that Sheffield United proved the right club at the right time for Maguire - who grew up in Mosborough in east Sheffield and entered the Academy at 10 - was because of the first-team opportunities offered to him at a young age.
“Opportunity is everything,” says Binnion. “You can have an unbelievable programme, but if opportunity isn’t there at the end it doesn’t matter. You have kids’ careers in your hands and have to take a pride in them transitioning.”
Nick Cox, who was Sheffield United’s Academy Manager before Binnion and now runs the youth programme at Manchester United, has a simple formula for this: talent + opportunity = success.
Maguire made his first-team debut in April 2011 against Cardiff City, just a month after he had turned 18. Despite coming on as a half-time substitute, he was named man of the match. By the time he ran out in the Youth Cup final against Manchester United a few weeks later, he had already made five senior appearances.
The first leg, played in front of 30,000 at Bramall Lane, finished 2-2, but a Manchester United side featuring Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Ravel Morrison won the second leg 4-1 at Old Trafford.
Maguire went off with concussion in that second game and had to spend the night in hospital, which is when Sir Alex Ferguson, who had been watching on from the stands, phoned to ask how he was and tell him he had the potential to become a top player.
With the Blades relegated to League One, Maguire made 56 appearances the following season and was named both the club’s player and young player of the season.
He wasn’t he only homegrown player to get senior opportunities, with George Long, Terry Kennedy, Jordan Slew and Matthew Lowton all coming into the first team as well.
By the age of 20, Maguire had made 100 senior starts. In comparison, Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who also made his first-team debut at 18, had only played 31 games after his first three seasons.
“Sometimes I look at the Under-23 games and wonder what clubs are getting out of them,” says Binnion. “Clubs are winning matches at that level but fielding old teams. By the same ages, our lads had been getting 50, even 100 senior games.”
David Weir, who managed Maguire at Sheffield United in 2013, told TGG that “the game is the teacher” last year - and Binnion agrees.
"You learn by playing with players who are better than you at an intensity that’s higher than you have played at before.
“You have to be tough enough to go into that environment and survive. You want the lads to be humble enough to learn but tough enough to survive. Most 18-year-olds aren’t subjected to those kinds of demands, are they, which is why you are having to produce unbelievable people at Academies.
“You also have to remember that the best coaches are senior players. They’re teaching and guiding you - both by example and what they show and tell you - in the heat of competition. Nothing matches that.”
Sheffield United placed 15th in our 2017/18 Academy Rankings, making them the third most productive Category 2 Academy (after Leeds and Charlton).
Binnion admits: “There was a purple patch for our players when David Brooks was named player of the tournament in Toulon, Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored the World Cup-winning goal for the Under-20s and Aaron Ramsdale won the European Under-19 Championship with England.”
And he pays tribute to the staff who worked under him and came before him.
“I had some really good coaches, like Mick Wadsworth and John Dungworth, and you benefit from culture, longevity of staff and consistency of approach. The club always backed us within its means and we played a key part in raising money through player sales. Now we’re back in the Premier League they are going to have to keep players longer, educate them for longer.”
Throughout our hour-long interview Binnion, who grew up in Chesterfield and is a Sheffield United fan, refers to the club as ‘we’, even though he left in the summer following a decade of service.
With him went Wadsworth and Dungworth, two of the most experienced coaches in the Academy system. After being replaced as Academy Manager by Jack Lester, Binnion is now looking for a fresh challenge in a new environment.
“I want to implement everything I’ve learned and put that into action in a different situation and also learn,” he says. “I’ve always worked at one club in one setting so am excited about doing that, because I’m passionate about developing players and people.”
He says the core of effective coaching remains “how you connect with people” and worries that young coaches today “don’t get their hands dirty enough” by putting in the hours on the training pitch.
And he's “sick of people talking about ‘old school’ now. What is old school? Good values? Running hard, working, listening? Being responsible, resilient and honest? These are the qualities you want throughout the generations and then you pick the best of what’s available in terms of sports science or tech to add to that.”
Those are values he will take into his next job, and ones which have stood Maguire in good stead for his move to Manchester United.