Sean Maguire: ‘If you take that second touch, defenders are going to go through you’

Preston striker is in the Republic of Ireland squad for the first time and confident his Championship experiences have prepared him for World Cup football

The Republic of Ireland need events to take an extraordinary turn over the next week if they are to secure a World Cup play-off spot. Not only must they beat Moldova in Dublin on Friday but they must then win in Wales and hope other results go in their favour. And they have to do all that with a depleted team. What they need, then, is a new hero to step forward. Is this Sean Maguire’s time?

“If the opportunity arises for myself, I’d be very confident I can step up,” says the Preston North End forward, who has made the final cut for his country’s squad for the first time.

Given the injury to Jonathan Walters and the sudden retirement of Kevin Doyle, there is a chance the 23-year-old could be handed his debut and asked to help his country out of a hole. Many observers share his confidence he will be able to step up, which is why there has been a clamour for most of this year for Maguire to be given that chance. Only after he has proved he can thrive in the Championship, as opposed to the League of Ireland, has the call come.

Martin O’Neill and his assistant, Roy Keane, watched Maguire in action for Cork City last June and saw him score a hat-trick in a crucial match against Dundalk. It did not convince them he was ready for international football so Maguire was not picked for the following week’s game against Austria and instead contested a Europa League qualifier against Estonia’s Levadia Tallinn, and scored another hat-trick.

That made him Cork’s all-time leading scorer in European competition and before he completed his move to Preston, he equalled the club’s domestic record for a season, ending with 20 goals from 21 matches. He scored on his debut for Preston in a pre-season friendly against Burnley and has continued to thrive. The bald statistics – two goals from nine starts – do not reflect the excellence of his all-round contribution. He is an artful creator as well as a scorer.

“It’s going great at Preston,” he says. “We’re flying as a team. We’re staying level-headed but we’re a very young team and we’re very hungry to succeed. I’ve found myself playing in numerous positions across the front four and I’ve found my feet rather quickly. It took time to get my first goal [against Barnsley in his sixth game for Preston] but then I scored again rather quickly against Cardiff and my performances have been going well.”

He says moving to the Championship has already made him a better player. “I’ve only been here for three months but I feel I’ve improved in so many ways. It’s very different [to the League of Ireland] in many ways. The main one is probably physically. You’re coming up against guys who are 6ft 2in and built like machines. If you take that second or third touch, they’re going to go through you. Mentally, as well, going into the latter stages of the game, with 20-30 minutes to go, you really have to keep your concentration. If you lose the ball you’re going to get punished – even if you’re playing up front or out on the wing you can find that you end up conceding.

Republic of Ireland’s squad, including Scott Hogan (left) who also bolsters Martin O’Neill’s attacking options, train before their game against Moldova
Republic of Ireland’s squad, including Scott Hogan (left) who also bolsters Martin O’Neill’s attacking options, train before their game against Moldova. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

“For the physical side you just have to work hard in the gym and use your body well – so I need to do a lot because obviously I’m a small guy at 5ft 9in. And on the mental side, you also have to work hard to stay focused. But when you’re playing with this standard of player, it improves you every day coming into training. I’ve learned a lot of things. Against Birmingham I was at fault for the goal we conceded but I learned from that. I’ve learned to use the ball better. Here you have to make decisions that split-second earlier.”

Preston represents Maguire’s second crack at life in England – or his third if you consider he was born in Luton before his parents moved back to Kilkenny when he was a couple of months old. At 18, after impressing for Waterford United in Ireland’s second tier, he was signed by West Ham but never made a senior appearance, the closest he got being an unused substitute for a FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest in January 2014.

“I then went to Accrington on loan and thought I did quite well but when I came back I found myself released,” he says. “So I was back to square one.”

He moved to Dundalk, where “it didn’t really click for me”, and then, in December 2015, he joined Cork, where it could not have clicked more smoothly. “And now I’m back in England, mentally and physically better and more mature in every single way. This time around I know how to do things.”

It has helped he has found an Irish community at Preston. Not only did the club sign Cork’s left-back Kevin O’Connor at the same time as Maguire, but earlier in the year they had lured Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle from Dundalk, and there is also another former Cork player, Alan Browne, while Preston’s captain is a Galway man, Greg Cunningham.

“Obviously when they brought Daryl and Andy to the club they found the League of Ireland is a great standard and you can go from doing well in that to stepping up to this level,” Maguire says. “It’s always great to look to your left and right and have Irish lads by your shoulder. But it’s not only them, the other boys are brilliant, too. The relationship on and off the pitch is shown in how well we’ve been doing so far.”

Maguire was signed by Simon Grayson, who left to join Sunderland before he arrived, but has prospered under Alex Neil. “His plans have come across to the players brilliantly and we have great relationship with him and it’s getting stronger,” he says. “We don’t want to get over the top we just want to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Preston are sixth in the Championship and, without getting carried away, are not ruling out finishing in the play-off spots. “I found that against the bigger teams we’ve performed and stepped up to that level. We went away to Leeds and Middlesbrough and feel we should have beaten them but only came away with a point each time. But then came up against Cardiff, who are top of the league, and we thrashed them 3-0. So who knows what’s possible?”

Indeed. Shane Long looks likely to start for Ireland against Moldova if fit, and Nottingham Forest’s Daryl Murphy carries a potent aerial threat, while Aston Villa’s Scott Hogan could be given a debut. But what if Maguire’s form at Preston has banished O’Neill’s doubts and convinced the manager to throw the forward in for a vital World Cup qualifier? Does Maguire feel ready to rise to that challenge?

“Definitely,” he says. “People had their doubts about whether I could step up to Championship level and I was very confident I would, so if you’re asking me the question: ‘Would I be able to step up to the next level?’ I’m very confident I could do that as well.”