Steve McManaman: The Underrated icon of Liverpool’s Spice Boys era

Words By Jack Lusby
August 13, 2018
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Mention the name Steve McManaman to the majority of modern football supporters, and it will conjure an image of the sporadically insightful, primarily divisive BT Sport pundit, with this stretching to sections of the Liverpool fanbase, too. Alongside the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Savage and Glenn Hoddle among the mouthpieces vying for attention, McManaman has faded into the fabric of BT’s slick, polished coverage; a jack of all trades in the broadcasting landscape. But much like Paul Merson and Matt Le Tissier at Sky Sports, this belies his heritage: as a footballing icon of a bygone era.

In the mid-1990s, the Premier League was a much more innocent prospect; lifted by an injection of TV money, but still harbouring the precociousness of youth. Manchester United held an early dominance, but Blackburn Rovers’ 1994/95 title win under Kenny Dalglish—featuring future staples of the division such as Shay Given, Graeme Le Saux, Tim Sherwood, David Batty, Jason Wilcox, Chris Sutton and leading goalscorer Alan Shearer—highlighted the promise of the new top flight. Few clubs embodied the fledgling spirit of the early Premier League era as closely as Liverpool.

Though they entered the division under the management of Graeme Souness, who took over from Ronnie Moran in 1991, Liverpool did not kick on in the decade of Cool Britannia until their former captain resigned three years later, with Boot Room alumni Roy Evans taking the reins. Souness had taken a stripped-back approach just as the Reds’ rivals moved forward, and Evans inherited an inexperienced side lacking in genuine quality and, crucially, the swagger Liverpool had performed with throughout the 1980s. However, to Souness’ credit, the Scot showcased an admirable faith in youth during his time with the club, with David James, Rob Jones, Dominic Matteo, Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler all making their debuts during his reign.

Liverpool were soon built around a core of promising talent, with Phil Babb, Jason McAteer, record signing Stan Collymore and later Jamie Carragher, Patrik Berger and Michael Owen all making their names at Anfield, and at the forefront of this tidal wave of young blood was Fowler. One of the most naturally gifted finishers in the history of English football, Fowler scored 18 goals in 34 games in his first full season with the Reds, and never looked back. The Toxteth native married his incisive, attractive brand of attacking play with a insouciant, carefree attitude both on and off the pitch: Fowler became a symbol for a group of young players who became known as the Spice Boys.

While Evans’ side gained notoriety in the press for frequenting Soho nightclubs and modelling anything from Armani to Head and Shoulders, they established themselves as one of the most promising sides in the Premier League—most notably underlined in their 4-3 victory at home to Newcastle United in 1996. Still renowned as the greatest game in the history of the Premier League, the clash between two of the English top flight’s most adventurous sides was ultimately decided by a last-minute effort from Collymore, with both Fowler and the former Nottingham Forest striker scoring braces on a breathtaking April night at Anfield. Man of the Match that night, however, was McManaman, who by that stage had cemented his role as Liverpool’s most important player.

A stringy, nimble midfielder who wore his sleeves long and his socks short, McManaman was a technical talent of the highest quality, a local lad whose boyband curtains and boyish looks matched the energy and vibrancy which he took to the field. McManaman made his Liverpool bow in 1990, and by 1995 was a key player for both club and country, with his peak for England coming at the European Championship on home soil a year later. Evans acknowledged McManaman’s dazzling flair, creativity and eye for goal and, remoulding his Reds side into a 3-4-1-2 formation, gave the Englishman carte blanche: his system was built around McManaman, with the likes of Redknapp, Berger, Fowler, John Barnes and Ian Rush playing supporting roles. At Euro ’96, McManaman was given similar freedom to express himself, but instead in the role of wing-back, with Terry Venables opting for a similar 3-5-2 setup—perhaps unsurprisingly given the talent at their disposal, England reached the semi-finals of the tournament, famously losing to Germany at Wembley.

But for a player who scored 66 goals in 364 games for Liverpool, and played such an important part in one of England’s most successful tournament runs in recent memory, McMamanan remains a hugely underrated talent—as Fowler attested in a recent documentary for LFCTV. “For me, he’s probably the best player I played with,” he explained. “If anyone was to run Steven Gerrard close, I think Steve McManaman would just probably pip him.” So why has his legacy faded?

There is, of course, the nature of his departure from Liverpool—his Bosman transfer to Real Madrid in 1999—and its symbolism as the death of the Spice Boys era, one which the club were eager to move away from with the appointment of Gerard Houllier a year previous, with the Frenchman gutting the squad and ushering in a new, more professional, European regime.

But McManaman remains one of the most talented players to turn out for the Reds since the Premier League was founded, one of the most under-utilised talents on the international stage—earning just 37 caps over seven years with England—and, with Real Madrid, both the first British player to win the Champions League twice and the first English player to win it with a non-English club. McManaman belongs in the upper echelons of modern footballing history, and his enduring image on the BT Sport sofa does no justice to the majesty of his talent: a true Liverpool legend.

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