Return of the Mac

Ian Farrell is puzzled by the lack of appreciation for one of England's most  decorated footballing exports, now looking to add to his medal collection at Manchester City

Upon returning to Britain from relatively brief spells at moderately successful foreign clubs, Paul Ince and John Collins were assumed to be better players, better people and an asset to any employer. Even Paul Gascoigne, whose time in Italy was mainly about in­juries and semi-public urination, was thought to be bet­ter for the experience. Steve McManaman had four years as a popular and at times very important player for the world’s biggest club, with two championship medals, two Champions League medals and the ex­perience of playing and training with the very best to show for it. He’s only 31, he’s dropped his wages by half and he’s free. Form an orderly queue, gentlemen, sure­ly? Yet, after Man­chester City won his signature ahead of another mid-table side, there were enough eyebrows raised for Kevin Keegan to feel the need to come out and defend signing him, like you would an unstable alcoholic or convicted match-fixer. Strange.

So, after surviving several votes of no confidence from Florentino Pérez, McManaman has finally ad­mitted defeat and agreed to leave the Bernabéu, to end a rollercoaster four years. He’d previously bat­tled back from injury and loss of form to help Real win the Champions League (scoring in the final), only to find the new president did not want him. Then, those who had dubbed him “the postman” in tribute to his delivery abilities (and the Spanish aren’t keen on their postal ser­vice) were chanting his name after he resisted at­tempts to offload him to Middlesbrough, won his place back and helped Real to the 2001 title. Despite this personal vic­tory, the writing was on the wall once Zidane arrived. There was a feeling McManaman was part of Real’s past, not their gleaming future of superstar imports and homegrown young­sters. Even so, he has experiences no other Premiership player can claim.

So why the indifference? After already buying a whole midfield over the summer, Keegan would not have signed McManaman unless he thought him some­thing special. It does not seem to be a view shared by many. There seems to be a selective media amnesia over McManaman’s time in Spain. His vital role in the first two seasons’ triumphs is forgotten. Instead, it’s all “he’s hardly played over the past couple of years”. True, since the arrival of Zidane he was not a frontline starter, but in 2001-02 he was usually first off the bench (as in that year’s Champions League final), while even last season he made more than 20 appearances. Not overworked, admittedly, but we are a long way from Rebrov country, let alone Bogarde-ville.

Despite an excellent Euro 96, there is the widely held opinion that “he never did it for England”. Com­bine this with the Spice Boys thing, not getting stuck in enough, seeming a bit clever and being interviewed by music and style magazines and it is easy to see why the pundit mafiosi do not see him as “one of us”. He became such a magnet for blame that a year or so after England lost to Germany at Wembley, Alan Mullery on Soccer Saturday put much of the defeat down to his performance. A bit harsh, considering he didn’t play in the game – Nick Barmby did. When in doubt… This just about sums up his standing with certain types.

Some at Real wanted him to stay as a translator for Beckham. At City, his expected positive contribution is to “cheer up Fowler”. Where does football come into this? On the pitch, misunderstanding McManaman is some­thing of a disease – but it does not always equal underestimation. While his few defenders regard him as one of our last creative midfielders and his accusers view him as just another unreliable artist, anyone who had only seen him in Spain would have difficulty accepting either description. Though he tried to live up to his star billing in his first season, he soon settled into a safe game of short, Batty-esque passes, “showing a good engine” and pointing at things: the archetypal bits-and-pieces midfielder, happy to do the spade-work and leave the fancy stuff to others better suited. His few montage-friendly goals apart (a couple of mazy dribbles, a couple of acrobatic volleys), he is now more Matt Holland than Platini-wannabe. Should Keegan include him at the expense of the popular Shaun Wright-Phillips, he will be ex­pected to do more than keep it simple. If he cannot rediscover the creative spark of his Liverpool days, he may find difficult times ahead. If he can, these may be two of the best years of his career.

The idea of Fowler and McManaman turning the clock back to the mid-1990s may be stretching it a little, but there is a definite feeling that they each might be what the other needs at this moment. While the former is willed to succeed by a popular media reluctant to criticise him, the latter knows there is plenty of win­ning over to be done, but the opportunity is there for the two to shine in tandem in a big season for both. With another European Championship on the horizon and neither the left side nor the second striker position settled, this might just be a very big season. Swapping the Bernabéu for the “Blue Camp” might be a step down in glamour, but it could save his reputation.

From WSC 201 November 2003. What was happening this month