It’s hard for me to assess Steve McManaman’s career with reference only to football, and so it’s a good thing that I have basketball to help me. If Steve McManaman had been an NBA player, then he would have been an elite “sixth man”: someone who doesn’t just emerge from the bench to bring dynamism and contribute decisive moments, but who is also a playmaker and a leader in his own right. McManaman assumed this role at Real Madrid, where he moved after seasons at Liverpool where he had been so influential that Sir Alex Ferguson drew up tactical plans specifically to stop him. It took some humility for McManaman, having been a superstar in the Premier League, to take a back seat at the Bernabeu, though cynics might argue that the substantial contract he was offered was no small part of that. McManaman was too shrewd not to take full advantage of his market value, but he was primarily an athlete who wanted to win, and at Liverpool he had largely missed out on the trophies that one would expect for a footballer of his application and talent. And so he went to Spain, having controversially run down his contract and left for free under the Bosman ruling, in the hope of making his name amongst a formidable roster of stars.
His record there was remarkable. Though he played only 94 league games in four seasons, he emerged with two league titles and two UEFA Champions Leagues, playing a crucial role both times that Real conquered the Continent. In 2000, in the final against Valencia, he scored a goal that is still curiously underrated – his team’s crucial second in a 3-0 win, meeting a ball that looped down from the heavens with a perfect hitch-kick from the edge of the area. The ball found its way into the side-netting with one bounce, the goalkeeper watching bemused as this sublime volley soared past him. It was classic McManaman: a brilliant piece of improvisation that punctuated a performance of supreme economy with the ball. In 2002, McManaman would seal his team’s place in the final with a beautiful chip on the break against Barcelona, proving again his taste for the big occasion.
Ryan Giggs earned great credit over the years for reinventing his game, but it is arguable that McManaman achieved the more complete transformation. Giggs, after all, remained a player whose greatest asset was to drift past players, even as his final ball evolved into a truly dangerous weapon. McManaman, on the other hand, went from being a winger to a midfield controller, a career trajectory closer to that of John Barnes, and a role he occupied – when it truly counted, and when given the opportunity – with the greatest distinction. He was a fine foil for Fernando Redondo in central midfield, where his role was reductively described by some as the legs to Redondo’s brains. That description, though, said more about the limited expectations in some quarters of English playmakers. McManaman was the most cerebral of footballers, whose man of the match award in that final against Valencia was just reward for his magnificent outing.
McManaman was always an intriguing player. He played in central midfield as if it were a game of five-a-side, making minimal contact with his opponents, floating here, receiving the ball there, prodding it elsewhere and turning sharply away. English midfielders of his era were not so commonly seen with this style, which was in some ways a precursor of the tiki-taka with which Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona would proceed to such devastating effect. He was perhaps never so much a winger as an orchestrator who cut in from the flank; and he did not so much dribble past defenders as stalk them as they anxiously retreated.
McManaman, in summary, was a little like Spain’s Guti, albeit with a ferocious work ethic; someone who seemed too delicate to be amid so ferocious a fray, a fencer in a field of axemen. However, time and again, he prevailed, revealing a startling resilience; and if he was eventually a jewel for Madrid then he must have been a diamond, marrying a rare elegance with the hardest of edges.