Steve McManaman at Real Madrid: the most successful English player to head overseas

Steve McManaman at Real Madrid: the most successful English player to head overseas

In an era of defined positions and rigid tactics, a lanky winger glad in Liverpool red broke the mould. Steve McManaman had all the qualities of a true winger. As a footballer, his talent was never a doubt, nor his ability to operate as a creative force on the wing. As an athlete, the boy could flat-out run with a rare combination of pace and balance. McManaman’s mazy runs tore through opposing defensive lines and he could just as easily deliver from deep positions or beat his man to the end line to whip a cross in.

His gangly legs proved to be an asset as he outpaced others to get on the end of loose balls. From distance, he shot with an accuracy and ferocity that highlighted the dichotomy of his skill-set and qualities. At times, when it looked like he was about to unleash a howitzer of a shot, he simple slotted a pass into a target-man and burst through the box to collect the ball to finish with a deft touch or a delicate chip. 

In hindsight, it makes sense as to why McManaman was a target of top clubs, including Real Madrid, and why his 1999 move to the Spanish capital ushered in the era of the Galácticos.

As a popular and central member of the notoriously-named ‘Spice Boys’ at Liverpool, McManaman displayed a peculiar raw talent during his early years on Merseyside. But even with his quality performances for the Reds, few would be able to predict that McManaman would become a star in LaLiga for Spain’s most dominant football club.

In the late-90s, the reputation of English footballers – especially in an era not far removed from the drinking culture that pervaded the English game – was hardly something to be emulated by a mega-club from Spain. McManaman, however, had the look of a flashy winger; long curly hair, a sleek build with the type of fleet-of-foot quality needed to compete in a frenetic and direct Premier League era.

But, beyond the flair and flamboyance, the man could outright play football. His performances in Liverpool’s midfield are often overlooked because the club underperformed during his key years at Anfield.

There is a particular cult appeal to the assembly that McManaman associated with at Liverpool. The likes of Jason McAteer, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and Neil Ruddock provided no shortage of attention from the tabloids and press with reports of audacious off-field behaviour and partying and a proclivity to spend their wages on cars, quirky attire and booze as quick as the money was wired into their bank accounts.

However, one must remember that in the mid-90s, with the Premier League firmly established as a media and footballing industry growing in marketing power and siphoning attention of a new generation of fans, wages for footballers soared. This pre-social media era (thankfully for many, surely) turned footballers into poster boys for colognes, hair creams, flash cars, and cream-coloured suits.

McManaman, perhaps more than the others, epitomised the archetype of the fun-loving, supremely talented footballer turning out for a perpetually underperforming Liverpool side that defined the era. Ironically, it is this boom of popularity of the Premier League where the value of a club’s image was challenged by the power a player could command away from the pitch. Such a tempest of culture and sport with ‘Macca’ as a central character made a move abroad to Real Madrid more understandable in retrospect. 

In many regards, the players at Liverpool couldn’t match the preceding decades of dominance at the football club. Other clubs had seemingly taken the Premier League by storm and, as Liverpool would learn, this was not the old First Division. Television rights and viewership expanded and sponsorships dictated a club’s commercial success just as much as the football they played, and when the majority of the press is associated with the hedonism associated with uber-rich young players who acted out meant the storm clouds were arriving at Anfield.

The culture surrounding the club was only a few years removed from winning domestic league titles and weight of expectation was heavy on the shoulders of a youthful group of players who more money than they knew what to do with and the looks and talent to leverage such attributes. 

Original Series  |  Brits Abroad

In August 1997, McManaman found himself in contract turmoil with Liverpool, with rumours of top clubs wanting the services of the winger. Barcelona, Juventus and, eventually, Real Madrid made approaches for the Bootle-born player. Entering the 1998/99 season, with the continuation of the contract dilemma looming at Liverpool, McManaman found himself facing free agency; a move seemed inevitable as the player declared his desire to play abroad.

When Gérard Houllier replaced Roy Evans, there was a palpable tension in the air to rid the club players deemed surplus to requirements; many of them members of the Spice Boys. McManaman, however, found himself in a precarious position as he continually sat on a stale contract, having not signed a new one with the club while injury, form and a change of team and coaching dynamic reinforced the move away.

Eventually, in January 1999, Real Madrid emerged as the preferred destination for McManaman. Manager Guus Hiddink seemed to ignore the press portrayals of the winger and instead saw the footballer who was part of the 1996/97 PFA Team of the Year, named in the UEFA European Championship Team of the Tournament in 1996, and who featured heavily in England’s Euro 96 campaign. Macca would finish his Liverpool career with 66 goals in 364 appearances.

The move would make McManaman the highest-paid British player to date at the time he signed his pre-contract with the Spanish club. Soon, he would be the second Englishman to turn out for Los Blancos, after Laurie Cunningham who played for them in the 1980s. Additionally, McManaman would be the first Premier League player to move to Real Madrid and the first high-profile British player in LaLiga since Gary Lineker’s move from Everton to Barcelona in 1986.

As a British player abroad, McManaman’s arrival at Real Madrid pre-dated the Galácticos era that was ushered in under newly-elected Florentino Pérez, who replaced Lorenzo Sanz. Macca was Hiddink’s last signing at Madrid, the Dutch manager sacked before McManaman arrived in Spain. Adding to the uncertainty of being a British player abroad, in an era where the Premier League was attracting increasingly more foreign talent, McManaman also got a glimpse of the ruthlessness of the culture at a club with the stature of Real Madrid.

More doubt circulated as to whether he made the right move when Real Madrid legend-in-the-making Raúl apprised the press of the situation at the club by saying: “The dressing room is a cesspit of lies, treachery and whispers. I feel sorry for new players like Steve McManaman coming into the club. If McManaman thinks he is coming to one of the world’s top clubs, then he has made a big mistake.”

Of course, this premonition was in the midst of the tempest that the Galácticos era would obliterate as Pérez unveiled his plan to sign and attract the world’s best players to the club. With a new culture and newly-acquired financial stability at its disposal after selling key players such as Clarence Seedorf and Davor Šuker, Pérez brought in the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and Luís Figo. But it didn’t matter. Under the pragmatic management of coach John Toshack, McManaman found himself cast adrift in the distant depths of a budding squad that boasted amazing players in every position. 

Inevitably, McManaman began to play well for his new side. He assisted the winning goal on his debut against Mallorca, and scored the following week. However, domestically, Real struggled and fell far down the table. By November, Toshack was sacked and replaced by Vicente del Bosque. The team was able to climb back up LaLiga’s table and McManaman would even have the chance to claim the first European silverware of his career.

Real Madrid’s struggles in the domestic campaign juxtaposed their form in Europe. The Champions League was where McManaman’s performances showcased his attacking ability on the wing, in a challenging campaign where Los Blancos lost to Bayern Munich twice in the group stage and once in the semi-finals, only clawing their way past them on aggregate to secure their place in an all-Spanish final against Valencia.

There is perhaps no better place to score a goal than in the Champions League final, especially for a player whose future at a giant club was uncertain and whose past with his boyhood club still had open wounds. A McManaman tackle-turned-cross in Valencia’s box proved to be the key assist to a headed Fernando Morientes goal in the first half, to ensure the match would be tightly contested as Valencia pushed to equalise.

In the 67th minute, Macca got on the scoresheet with a scissor-kick volley from a Valencia clearance. Finally, from a breakaway, Raúl would finish off a pressing Valencia in the 75th minute. For McManaman, the strike that found the bottom corner of the net solidified his place as a key member of the star-studded Real team ushering in the Galácticos era. He also became the first English player to lift the Champions League with a foreign club.

Over the years, McManaman’s form, fame and fortunes had the predictable ebbs and flows in a system that attracted the world’s best players, inside the cauldron that is the Bernabéu. Every time he found himself on the outside looking in with his place on the teamsheet, bumped down the pecking order for the next newly-signed star, McManaman found a way to prove his worth to the club on the pitch.

In a way, he was forced to mature and display an uncanny work ethic that distanced him from the enduring image of a Spice Boy. His transformation as a man and as a player coincided with that of Real Madrid, whose performances, wheelings and dealings dominated the Spanish press at every opportunity. McManaman proved his worth not only with his play on the pitch but with the way he navigated the waters of foreign football at a massive club with seemingly unflappable professionalism. In other words, the boy from Bootle had grown to be a man in Madrid.

Where the British media was waiting for him to fail and return to England, McManaman was winning the Spanish press over as he continually found himself able to play amongst the best players Real Madrid could attract each transfer window. Moreover, as he found himself away from the magnifying glass on Merseyside, he was seen with fresh eyes in Madrid; not as a gangly foreigner struggling to find his way but as a creative and intelligent maestro in the midfield who pulled the strings.

The cult legend of McManaman at Real Madrid continued well into his second season, where he featured 42 times in all competitions, helping them to win LaLiga for the first time in four years. The versatility of McManaman was evident on the pitch, where the Englishman would dutifully fill any role asked of him in an ever-changing system. If a striker preferred the ball to be served to feet, McManaman was happy to connect and keep it on the deck. For others who opted to operate as a target-man, McManaman’s identity as a winger flourished as he showed levels to his own game to accommodate their needs. 

As his time with Real continued, McManaman found ways for Del Bosque to include him in the side, even when Pérez tried to offload him time and again to ease pressure on the wage bill. The fans themselves were keen to have McManaman remain with the club and, in a quirky way, welcomed goals he scored with a frenzy of white bandanas from the terrace whipping through the air. The reality was that McManaman’s success was lockstep with Real’s: the club was winning league titles and yet another Champions League at the end of the 2001/02 campaign.

Off the field, McManaman fit in well with the Galácticos and became close friends with some of the best footballers on the planet in the ego-mad world of Real Madrid. Del Bosque remained fond of his influence on the team and, in a 2015 interview, said: “He was a caballero, a gentleman, a stupendous guy; he always had a smile, he never complained, he was great, a leader. He related to everyone very well; he united people.” 

Eventually, McManaman’s adventure abroad came to an end as the political struggle between the Real Madrid front office and the coaching staff reached a crescendo, and they duly offloaded the Englishman to Manchester City in the summer of 2003.

Back in England, McManaman found himself reunited with David James and Robbie Fowler – and the media was merciless. The football was also nothing like the gilded stuff played at Real Madrid. Rumours of scandals, complacency resulting in earning more money, and capturing more silverware in Spain, along with persistent injuries, saw an almost meteoric fall from grace for Macca.  

While the Gálacticos era will be remembered for the wondrous play of Zidane, the unplayable Ronaldo up top, the magic of Figo, the security of Iker Casillas, the power of Roberto Carlos, and countless other stars, there is a place at the table for McManaman. The journey of a supremely-talented playboy clad in red who yearned for something more abroad is one worth retelling.

By Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3

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