Football: An invitation for McManaman

Norman Fox hears Hoddle set Liverpool's trickster a summer challenge

AFTER a season of undulating form, Steve McManaman should be lifted by the knowledge that yesterday the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, made it obvious that he regarded the Liverpool player as the natural bridge between the unreliable Paul Gascoigne, the troubled Paul Merson and the youthful potential fulcrum, David Beckham.

At 25, McManaman ought to be claiming the middle ground between the players nearer 30 and the inexperienced ones who Hoddle hopes to see mature when England play South Africa (24 May), Poland (31 May) then go to France for a tournament including the hosts, Italy and Brazil. After naming his squad, he claimed to be satisfied with the number of "creative players" available to him, but if Gascoigne fails to start another "love affair" with the game (Hoddle's slightly unfortunate expression) McManaman becomes the obvious marriage broker between the profusion of workmanlike players and the attacking skills of Alan Shearer; and between youth and experience. Hoddle says that the opening is there.

His argument that there are few players of exceptional creativity in international football is a dubious one which could be contradicted by the South Africans. Experience may be lacking, but their individual skill could well make the England midfield look just as plodding as it did against Georgia. The arrival in the squad of the promising Paul Scholes hardly guarantees a sharp intake of breath whenever he gets the ball.

Hoddle recognises that with Gascoigne's future uncertain, he badly needs McManaman to mature. "Steve's end product has got to be improved," Hoddle said. "I mean, his final ball and creative play at this level and his finishing. He's played 18 games for England without a goal. But he's got immense talent and he hasn't got to prove it to me. But he's got to recapture that talent and form he showed at the beginning of the season for Liverpool. He has to make another jump to this level."

He views McManaman's effectiveness quite differently from that of Gascoigne. "Steve is creative but not in the same way. You wouldn't say to Gazza `we want you to play wide right', but you can play them both off the front in a midfield attacking role. McManaman doesn't like to play wide but does it. In the European Championship he was coming inside a lot even when we wanted him wide. At Liverpool when he's allowed to get in between the strikers and the midfield players, that's his best position - that's where he can hurt the other team. But we need to get him back to scoring and creating goals. I think we can bridge the gap between his best form for Liverpool and what he has shown for England."

Hoddle says he believes that players with special ability - "the two or three we saw in the best teams in the Seventies and Eighties" - have become ever more scarce. "You show me where these wonderful creative, world-class players are around the world." Perhaps he should look nearer home: Wembley on Saturday - Zola and Juninho.

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