Harry Maguire and How Memes Change Our Perception of Players
Memes have become an all-encompassing part of the football fan experience.
Not a game goes by without every flashpoint, unfortunate screengrab, off-kilter press conference or individual player performance becoming subject to the mass-memeing treatment. For the big meme pages cluttering our social feeds, there’s not a template out there the weekend’s big events can’t be squeezed into, with users eager to wring every ounce of content they can.
Perhaps no player has become more memeable in recent seasons, than Harry Maguire.
Think back to August 2019. Liverpool were European champions, Donald Trump was president, lockdown had yet to enter our everyday vocabulary, and Manchester United had just smashed the record transfer fee for a defender to sign Leicester City’s Harry Maguire.
At the time, the centre-back called the move an “incredible opportunity”, but it’s hard to call the England international’s time at the club anything more than a parade of reputational disasters. Through what should have been his prime years, Maguire has been shaped by the very-online modern football-watching experience and how sports coverage in general has leaned into meme culture.
As a move to West Ham looks to be entering the final stages and his own Manchester United manager lays down the gauntlet to improve or move on, it’s important to analyse how it wasn’t just Maguire’s technical and tactical shortcomings that made a continuation of his United career untenable, but the online conversation around him.
The Summer of Slab Head
While some were skeptical about the price, Harry Maguire’s signing at Manchester United was met largely with positivity online.
United fans and opposition supporters alike noted how he was proven in the league, had performed well at the 2018 World Cup and would bring presence, maturity and strong ball progression to United’s improving backline. All in all, United fans were happy to have ‘Slab Head’ on board
The name ‘Slab Head’ itself stands as an example of how memes have followed Maguire for much of his career since eye-catching Premier League displays at Hull City and Leicester offered the opportunity to become a mainstay in Gareth Southgate’s reborn England side.
As the public began to warm to the Three Lions for the first time in more than a decade, Maguire became something of a prototype Jack Grealish in the eyes of bucket-hat-wearing, Instagram-meme-page-following, beer-in-the-air young fans. He was the subject of not one, but two defining memes throughout the tournament. The first, the aforementioned affectionate name ‘Slab Head’, coined for, well, the size of his head, his ability in the air and his quintessentially ‘proper Brit’ appearance that stood as a point of pride against more cultured defenders at the tournament in the eyes of English fans and media.
The second, a picture of Maguire talking to his wife in the crowd post-match, arm propped on the barrier, seeming at ease with the world and relishing the history he and his teammates were making. It was the antithesis of the classic man shouting in a woman’s ear in the club meme. Maguire had the confident air of a lad approaching a girl in the pub, but he was equally soft, casual and as in awe of England’s rejuvenation as the fans. He was just leaning in to tell you football was coming home.
(‘Smooth’ Harry Maguire meme. Credit: Knowyourmeme)
United in Memes
Just a year later, Maguire made his long-anticipated move to Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United, a side re-emerging from the fraught parting with Jose Mourinho and looking to rebuild.
Things started positively. Maguire impressed on his debut as part of a 4-0 Old Trafford thrashing over Chelsea. In January, he was named captain. United weren’t back, but you could see the pieces forming for what should have been building blocks on their way back to the top of the English game.
The big move came with added scrutiny though. Maguire was suddenly less a loveable Englishman with an eye for a pass and more of a target for big memers. The big man at the back was less endearing and more prehistoric. Where Maguire had shined for Leicester, he had become slow, ponderous and a liability in big games. He had become ‘The Fridge’.
As the COVID-delayed season ended in a whimper for United with Europa League disappointment and Maguire found himself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, public opinion offline and online had shifted.
More Fridge than Man
Things have never been the same for Maguire.
Along with the rest of his United teammates (and eventually, the manager who brought him to the club and gave him the armband), saw a dramatic dip in performance. Before, during and after every United game, Maguire memes were the currency big accounts traded in. Whereas before an underperforming player might have stepped away from the spotlight until things blew over, a combination of his price tag and captaincy made him undroppable, while engagement-hungry meme pages couldn’t afford to not make Maguire their focus. On the off chance he performed well, it was time to dig out the “end is nigh” memes.
Christiano Ronaldo’s flawed return, United’s slow start to the 2022/23 season, England’s poor run of form in the Nations League – while not the sole responsibility of Maguire, he became a key player in these stories. A chance to point fun, engage the baying online crowd and provoke the big-headed bear into a reaction.
And react he did. It’s hard to say Maguire’s response to criticism of him hasn’t accentuated animosity amongst fans. While the more fervent online abuse pointed at him is unacceptable, Maguire has perhaps extinguished the warm World Cup feelings around him with statements about how he had proven his ability, claims of England goalscoring records and fingers-in-the-ears celebrations.
This is not to say memes drove Maguire out of United. Fans have a right to criticise his performance, and the tactical preferences of Erik ten Hag were an inevitable final blow. But it’s hard not to see the public perception of Maguire as indicative of the short-term thinking of online football fans and the meme template crutches that make online discussion around the game so repetitive, surface level and borderline toxic.
Should Maguire have thicker skin? Perhaps content farms should get new ideas. How many times do we need to mock Spurs for not winning a trophy? Are ‘bottling’ jokes that funny the 50th time? Do we really need to see another pre-match lineup with Maguire up front for the opposition?
Football’s Meme Culture
Online discussion shapes so much of the media we enjoy, and football is no different. Super Sunday feels like an exercise in watching Roy Keane and Micah Richards pander to the head of Sky’s social media team. Youtubers are all over football programming, ranking players in tier lists and making (sure to be meme’d) outlandish predictions. Maguire is less a victim of this, and more of a figurehead of how the unfettered need for content and engagement has transformed football discussions.
Even at West Ham, it’s hard to see a real redemption arc for Maguire. Could a player for who booing them on a pre-season tour almost feels like part of the experience be welcomed back by the wider fan base? His future goals and performances will always be spoken of in the content of these memes, at least amongst one section of the footballing audience. Unfortunately, that’s the one the game seems desperate to pander to.