Marcus McGuane: Former Arsenal prodigy finding feet at Oxford United – via Barcelona – set to face Gunners in FA Cup third round
Marcus McGuane looked destined to lead Arsenal back to the top, but on Monday he will be plotting their downfall with Oxford United in the FA Cup third round.
Before Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe there was Marcus McGuane. Like Saka, McGuane joined Arsenal’s Hale End academy shortly after starting primary school and, as he developed into a classy central midfielder, became tipped for the very top. He captained an under-18 side featuring current Arsenal first-team players Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson and impressed Arsene Wenger sufficiently to be handed minutes in the Europa League.
Andries Jonker, the Dutchman then in charge of Arsenal’s academy, predicted that McGuane would go on to play for England. He was not alone in admiring the Greenwich-born prospect; word reached Barcelona of his prodigious talents and the Spanish giants swooped to sign McGuane in January 2018, just four months after his Arsenal debut and shortly before he turned 19. In an indication of how highly they rated him, Barca set the buyout clause in his contract to €25m.
McGuane enjoyed a whirlwind start to life in Catalonia. Six weeks after signing, he made his first-team debut, becoming the first Englishman to represent Barcelona since Gary Lineker in the 1980s. Suddenly, the south Londoner was training with some of football’s biggest stars, taking part in rondos with Barcelona’s legendary MSN forward line: Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. “There have been some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” McGuane has said.
But his adventure soon turned sour. A change of manager at Barcelona’s reserve team, where McGuane was mainly playing, saw him sidelined and then shipped out on loan to Dutch second division outfit Telstar. Bigger clubs had wanted him, but he chose Telstar in order to reunite with former mentor Jonker, who was manager there. “I told him this level is too low, he’s too good for this. But he decided he wanted to come back to me and enjoy football again,” Jonker said.
It proved to be the first step in kick-starting a career that, three years on, has brought him back to English football at Oxford United who, in a twist of fate, host Arsenal in the FA Cup third round on Monday night. From seeming destined to lead the Gunners back to the top, McGuane, now 23, will instead be plotting their downfall and the latest upset in this year’s competition in his first meeting with his former team.
Arsenal and McGuane have both had a turbulent time since he swapped north London for northern Spain. While Arsenal have reversed years of decline to emerge as Premier League title challengers under Mikel Arteta, McGuane has found regular first-team football in League One via mixed spells at Telstar and then Nottingham Forest. No player has made more appearances this season for Karl Robinson’s men than the midfielder.
In another quirk of fortune, Arteta’s Arsenal are built around young talents, a few of whom, like McGuane, graduated from Hale End. Nketiah is likely to lead the visitors’ attack in the FA Cup tie, while Smith Rowe is expected to make his return from injury. Nelson would probably have played too, were he not currently sidelined. Had things worked out a little differently, McGuane might have been putting on a red shirt instead of a yellow one.
No one would have blamed McGuane for enjoying the spotlight returning to him ahead of the FA Cup showdown, but he has preferred to keep a low profile. “He doesn’t buy into the industry, he just loves playing football,” said Robinson. Teammate Lewis Bate added: “He doesn’t want to make too much of a fuss about it, but I know it’ll be a massive game for him. At the same time, he won’t treat it any differently to any other, and he’ll play how he usually he does.”
Premier League pacesetters Arsenal have won 19 of 24 games this season, so Oxford, who sit 15th in the third tier, are firm underdogs. But the Gunners have lost twice when Arteta has chosen to rest his first XI this term, to PSV Eindhoven and Brighton, and have never won at Oxford, albeit that their last visit was in 1988. If McGuane can extend that record and upset his old colleagues, he will surely find himself in the headlines again.