After growing up at Arsenal, Republic of Ireland U21 centre back Mark McGuinness is spreading his wings at League One Ipswich
Mark McGuinness speaks with a levelheadedness that belies his years. The Republic of Ireland Under 21 and Arsenal centre back, currently cutting his teeth with League One Ipswich Town, has been growing a steady following of admirers.
Befitting a player snapped up by the Gunners when he was ten years of age and immersed in the ‘footballing’ philosophy instilled in the club under Arsène Wenger, McGuinness is as far removed from the ‘if in doubt, kick it out’ central defender of decades gone by, as you can get.
A skilful player, comfortable on the ball and with a liking for carrying it out from the back, his highlights reel is something to behold. It’s not often you see a centre back doing swivel turns, drag backs and ghosting through the opposition’s midfield to set up attacks.
And at 6ft 4in, the Slough-born youngster has the physical presence to go with those innate skills.
At just 20, it’s folly perhaps to over speculate as to what the future could hold for McGuinness, but the possibility of another player out of the Mark Lawrenson or Paul McGrath mould is a very exciting one indeed for Ireland fans.
First and foremost, though, as McGuinness points out, he’s a defender. Everything else comes second.
“My job is to stop the ball going into the back of the net. If you can’t defend, then you’re not doing your job,” McGuinness told the Irish World.
“I love defending; I don’t think anything beats [keeping] a clean sheet – it’s credit to you doing your job.
“There’s no better feeling than making a big block or a goal-line clearance. It’s great.”
For the modern centre back, though, that’s not enough. Being able to add value in attack is something McGuinness says is essential, if he’s to make it at the very highest level. And he certainly has aspirations of that.
“You need to be comfortable on the ball and that’s something I’ve always been comfortable with,” he says.
In that regard, he couldn’t have asked for a better footballing education than the one provided him by Arsenal.
“Growing up at Arsenal, it’s very technical. Buying into the technical side from early doors stays with you,” says McGuinness, who used to be a midfielder in his very early days and was something of a goalscorer.
Just prior to coming to Arsenal’s attention, the manager of McGuinness’ district side opted to switch him to centre back for a game. A scout from Arsenal just happened to be watching.
“After the game he gave me his card. Ever since then I’ve played centre back,” he says.
Signing for Arsenal meant a massive commitment, not just for McGuinness but for his parents.
It was upon them the task fell of collecting him from school several times a week and driving to-and-from Arsenal’s Walthamstow training ground in east London.
An unenviable trek through rush hour London traffic, but as McGuinness says, they “were never going to turn down the opportunity to play for Arsenal”.
Especially as McGuinness and his dad, John, are both Gunners supporters.
McGuinness did that for five years before he was able to move full-time to Arsenal’s Colney training ground in Hertfordshire – a much more manageable 30 minutes from home.
“When I first joined Arsenal at the age of ten, I wasn’t the most technical player there. You’d have these boys who’d been there since six,” he recalls.
“There’s always that emphasis on being comfortable on the ball. Before training we would do technical drills, kick ups and passing drills – a lot of possession-based stuff.
“That’s the philosophy of Arsenal and it’s always going to be embedded into my style of play.”
Among his coaches was Steve Bould – Wenger’s former assistant coach and a member of George Graham’s ‘old school’ Arsenal defence of the early 1990s renowned for its organisation and meanness.
McGuinness’ star has been on a steady upward curve ever since.
He signed his first professional contract with Arsenal in April 2019, after impressing for the club’s Under 18s, and helping them to London South Division title success that season.
2019 would also be a very big year for McGuinness on the international front, as he earned a call up to Tom Mohan’s Republic of Ireland Under 19 squad.
He qualifies for the Republic through his dad, John, who comes from Derry.
McGuinness’ Republic debut had come three years earlier when he was picked in the Under 16 squad for the 2016 Victory Shield, alongside the likes of Derby’s Jason Knight, Adam Idah (Norwich) and Nathan Collins (Stoke).
Northern Ireland had also been interested in the teenager, whose first taste of international football actually came with England’s Under 15s.
But “the timing wasn’t right” with England and McGuinness subsequently found his niche with the Republic.
“We had a great squad and I really enjoyed it,” he recalls. McGuinness’ Victory Shield experience convinced him that his future lay with the Republic.
“I loved the feeling, the atmosphere, the coaches, the players. The passion that came with playing with the Republic of Ireland. I was hooked and I’ve never looked back since then,” he says.
“I love playing for the Republic of Ireland.”
In March 2019, he made his Republic Under 19 debut in a 5-0 European Championship Elite Round win over Romania. That team included Jason Knight, Will Smallbone (Southampton) and Jonathan Afolabi (Dundee).
He followed that by netting in a 2-0 victory against host nation Russia, as Tom Mohan’s side booked their place in that summer’s Under 19 finals.
Ireland, with Man City starlet Joe Hodge in their ranks, would emerge from a group containing France, Norway and the Czech Republic, to reach the semi-finals, before bowing out to Portugal.
“That was probably the best footballing experience I’ve had in my career. It was amazing,” said McGuinness.
“We did so well out in Armenia and then came up against very good France and Portugal sides, but we took a lot from that. There were a lot of positives and a lot of talent in that squad.”
A debut at Under 21 level for the Republic came last November – McGuinness setting up one of Ireland’s goals in a 2-1 win against Luxembourg.
“It was fantastic a feeling and achievement for myself,” he says.
Jim Crawford’s side’s chances of reaching this summer’s U21 European Championship finals had already gone, with a 2-1 defeat to Iceland. Ireland would have graced that stage, had they got there says McGuinness.
“I think we would have done really well. But take nothing away the boys were incredible, the style of football we played was great.”
McGuinness has already set his sights on adding to that solitary Under 21 cap, when Ireland open their World Cup qualifying campaign against Portugal and Azerbaijan in September.
“The Republic of Ireland has a fantastic youth set up and great players coming through. The passion and desire to play for your country is unmatched,” he said.
Stepping up to Arsenal’s Under 23s in 2019/20 McGuinness didn’t look out of place. He then turned heads last August when he came off the bench to score with a powerful header in a pre-season win over MK Dons, after being promoted to the first-team by Mikel Arteta.
With first-team opportunities likely to be limited, however, the following month the club sent him out on loan to League One Ipswich, having impressed for Arsenal’s Under 21s against the Tractor Boys in the EFL Trophy.
Looking around the Portman Road dressing room, McGuinness found former Ireland internationals Stephen Ward and Alan Judge, and ex-Waterford striker Aaron Drinan.
The club’s Irish contingent was further swelled in January by the on loan addition of Tottenham and Republic Under 21 star Troy Parrott.
McGuinness has been a regular in the Tractor Boys’ defence ever since, as Paul Lambert’s side look for an immediate return to the Championship.
“You need first-team experience, especially as a centre half, for managers to go and trust you,” he said.
“When you’re playing in League One you come up against big strikers. I haven’t felt out of place.”
He also popped up with the winner against Burton. Another towering header, it was his first-ever competitive senior goal.
“It was a great feeling; I was talking to people before the match and I was saying ‘I should be getting four or five goals a season easy with my height and leap’,” adds McGuinness.
Just five points off the play-offs, despite only one league win in their last five games, McGuinness is confident Ipswich can still force their way into the top six over the coming months.
“It’s going to be tight up until the last couple of games of the season – anyone can beat anyone in this league,” he said.
“But we know we need to kick on and start winning a few games, and keep up with the boys up at the top.”
Game time is what McGuinness wanted and that’s exactly what the Arsenal centre back is getting at Ipswich. But if he can also help them win promotion, it certainly wouldn’t look too bad on the footballing C.V.