McMANAMAN The boy for man-to-man
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Late on Wednesday night, long after the floodlights had dimmed on England's international with Bulgaria, four young men wandered on to the pitch at Wembley.

They were singing and a group of stewards turned, warily, to see if they were lager- fuelled escapees from a hospitality box. One went over to investigate.

As he got closer he saw there was no need for alarm, it was a latterday Liverpudlian Fab Four: Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and Mark Wright. Not as tuneful as the originals, perhaps, but gifted in their own way.

The quartet's amiable high spirits reflected the present mood at Liverpool, who go into today's FA Cup semi-final with Aston Villa flush with confidence. Although they may have left it too late to fulfil pre-season predictions of a title, there is a belief that the club is on the verge of lasting glory.

"With the likes of Robbie and Jamie we have a good nucleus of young lads in the team," McManaman said.

"A lot of us have signed long-term contracts, we will be around together and, hopefully, the longer we play together the better we will become."

McManaman is at the heart of the club's revival. A spindly 24-year-old, he went to school within a mile of both Goodison Park and Anfield and grew up supporting Everton.

However, it was Liverpool who signed him and his ability was first seen by a wider audience in the 1992 FA Cup final when he bewitched Sunderland. Another match-winning performance, against Bolton in the Coca-Cola Cup final last April, confirmed his big occasion temperament - as has his growing maturity with England.

While he has yet to be entrusted with the same freedom for England as he has for Liverpool, his influence is increasing.

In time he may be given a free-ranging role, though probably not while Paul Gascoigne is also in the side. Though they are different players - and very different people - it is not beyond McManaman to replace the gifted Geordie as England's virtuoso.

McManaman was one of the first products of Kenny Dalglish's reorganisation of the Anfield youth system under Steve Heighway. A former Liverpool winger himself, Heighway regards McManaman as the sort of player which English football has often stifled.

"His strength is his ability to hold the ball and go past people. We encouraged him to do that because he could. All you ever hear shouted at training pitches up and down the country is `pass, pass'. We were shouting `take him on'."

While McManaman's dribbling is his forte, his shooting is more erratic. He averages 10 goals a season, and has scored some spectacular ones. But he has also missed plenty, most recently at Wembley on Wednesday. It is an area he is seeking to improve.

"As an attacking midfielder I will always get into positions but my finishing has not been the best aspect of my game," he said this week. So, twice a week at Melwood, Liverpool's training ground, he and Robbie Fowler spend half-an-hour on shooting practice with Joe Corrigan, the goalkeeping coach.

"You should always work on aspects of the game you think you need to improve," McManaman said. "Believe it or not I'm better than Robbie in training - he's just 100 times better on the pitch."

The admiration is mutual. Fowler said of McManaman: "He has got everything. He goes past players for fun. He creates so many chances and lately he has started scoring goals. When he is playing we are always creating chances, you can almost guarantee we are going to score.

"When you are playing against him, you do not know where he is going to turn up because he has licence to roam anywhere. Against Leeds he was man-marked and he was still man of the match, which proves what a good player he is."

Villa also man-marked him at Anfield. Within two minutes he had scored, three minutes later he had helped make a goal for Fowler. "It is a compliment to be picked out," McManaman said. "It does not bother me."

Not much does. McManaman appears unflappable on the pitch however often his ankles are tapped from behind. Even when he misses a shot at goal he shows a rueful grin rather than a snarl.

"We play with a smile on our faces," he said of the Liverpool side. "We are enjoying games. I think you do that naturally when you are winning and playing well, and we know if we play to the best of our ability we can beat anyone."