Steve McManaman: An ode to Liverpool and Real Madrid’s forgotten magician

A bass player dropped by pre-fame Cast. A smooth-talking Ayia Napa holiday rep taking backhanders from local bars.  A sociology student with an unexpected talent for unicycling.

Based on appearances, Steve McManaman could have been any of them. With his floppy hair, pipe-cleaner limbs and easy grin, each seemed as likely as top-flight footballer. McManaman confounded expectations.

Not just those of defenders left scrambling after his dropped shoulders and shaken hips, but of those watching. Perhaps, more obviously, the preconceptions of those looking back.

What was he? Sepia-age throwback or new-lad figurehead? Scouse hero or soldier of fortune? A free-floating maverick or an integral cog, greasing midfield wheels?

That lack of clarity has seen his career slip from view. Simpler narratives have supplanted his own. This August, the Athletic’s journalists looked back at their 60 Greatest Premier League players.  Michael Owen was 36th. Robbie Fowler was 42nd. Jamie Carragher was 59th. McManaman, the creative spark in the same Liverpool teams for nine seasons, was nowhere. The outcry was also absent.

Instead, the social media buzz was McManaman’s Champions League co-commentary being dunked on by one-time war-zone talking-head Rageh Omaar.

Just another episode in a quietly glorious career.

* * *

Two sunny days at Wembley, one year apart.

On the first, McManaman arrives at the stadium and is greeted by an 80-year-old man. Sir Stanley Matthews is the guest of honour at the 1995 League Cup final. He clasps McManaman’s hand and tells him how much he likes his “dribbling”. It is an old-fashioned compliment from the game’s elder statesman. McManaman duly scores two superb solo goals, straight from the days of Pathe newsreels, with Bolton defenders trailing after him like finger-wagging Benny Hill fall girls.

The second is the FA Cup final the following season. McManaman has his arm draped across the shoulders of Fowler, giddy with excitement, as they wander around the pitch pre-match. Both are wearing white Armani suits. The concept may have been Tony Manero. The reality is more Man from Del Monte. McManaman is shackled in a dull game won by Eric Cantona’s late knockout punch.

The two episodes sum up a player who straddled eras and divided opinion.

Born in Bootle, raised a Blue, McManaman was on Everton’s books before being dropped at 14 and allowed to cross town.

Blooded by Graeme Souness, he flourished under Roy Evans’ gentler regime, running at defences with speed, intelligence and the precision footwork of a prima ballerina.

Sir Alex Ferguson knew it. Whenever Manchester United came up against Liverpool, McManaman was the theme of the Scot’s team-talks. A behind-the-scenes documentary, filmed in 1998, showed Ferguson demanding his team shut down McManaman. As he speaks, Ferguson stews on his failure to do so three years earlier in a league defeat that opened the door for Blackburn Rovers to win the title.

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Stifle him, snuff out Liverpool’s attacking threat. Plenty had the same theory, few had a solution though.

In December 1996 Sheffield Wednesday manager David Pleat deployed Peter Atherton to mark McManaman out the game. Nevermind touch-tight, Atherton was to be so close to McManaman he could track him with four of his five senses at any one time. Wednesday won 1-0, but Atherton knew the toll it had taken.

“It will encourage other teams to try and do the same but it is not a job I enjoy,” he said.

“It’s a battle of wits because he is a bag of tricks. I felt drained mentally and physically because you need to concentrate for the entire 90 minutes.”

A cross-country talent at school, McManaman would wear defences down as well as unpick them with a moment of skill. His finest Liverpool goal was one of his latest, a sublime run and curling finish for an injury-time equaliser against Celtic in 1997.

In the 1995-96 Premier League season, he came up with 15 assists, more than any other Liverpool player has managed in a single campaign since. That summer he, Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne were the only England outfield players to make Euro 1996’s all-star squad.

His finishing could be terrible. He would carve open opposition like a donor chef at closing time only to drop the chips when it came to side-footing home.

But no other player, not Fowler nor Owen, created the same buzz around Anfield with the ball at their feet.

Not that you would know it now.

Part of it was his departure. When he moved to Real Madrid in 1999, McManaman was the highest-profile footballer to make use of the Bosman ruling that allowed uncontracted players to switch clubs for free.

The long goodbye turned sour. McManaman was jeered by Liverpool fans after his plans were announced. They felt he’d strung along contract talks at Anfield, always intending to cash in on a big-money move.

But it was more than that. Ian Rush and Kevin Keegan had done similar before him. Luis Suarez and Fernando Torres would do after. But McManaman’s £54,000-a-week deal with Real was revealed two days after Fowler agreed a five-year deal to stay on Merseyside.

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A caricature contrast had already been drawn between the friends. Fowler, all spiky intensity, really cared. McManaman, with his languid style and considered post-match comments, didn’t.

When both wore t-shirts in support of Liverpool’s striking dockers, ready to be revealed when either scored a goal, some suggested McManaman had calculated the risks and realised his inferior goalscoring rate meant he was less likely to cop the heat and fine that would come with the protest.

Internationally, he had emerged into a no man’s land between an Italia 90 squad of big personalities and a noughties golden generation of big talents.

And, in the days when La Liga was only just nosing onto the satellite schedules, Spain was out of sight and largely out of mind.

McManaman finished his first season at Real with a scissor-kick volley in the Champions League final against Valencia. Liverpool meanwhile finished their own campaign with a defeat at Bradford City, consigning them to another season of UEFA Cup football.

At the end of the 2002-03 season, McManaman was celebrating a league title in Ronaldo’s dry-ice filled party room. Steven Gerrard was getting accustomed to life as El-Hadji Diouf’s team-mate.

In Spain, he had to change his game to match his surroundings. He played deeper, dictating tempo and directing traffic, wrestling matches Real’s way with vision and touch rather than slaloming runs.

Real’s technical director Jorge Valdano saw his work and approved.

“McManaman is connected to everybody. A football match is a game of little societies and McManaman is a member of them all,” he said.

That was McManaman. A player too adaptable to be typecast, a man too ambitious to be pigeon-holed. A strangely muted star in English football’s firmament.

Steve McManaman: An ode to Liverpool and Real Madrid’s forgotten magician
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