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Football: Exuberant talent that so frustrates Anfield

Two images lingered after Liverpool had lost at home to Leicester on Wednesday night. One was the baby's bib being sold outside Stanley Park which bore the words: "I can dribble better than McManaman". The other was two supporters criticising the matchstick-man figure in red.

"He hasn't done it for 18 months," one said as Steve McManaman shuffled into another Leicester-lined cul de sac. "He's not interested. The sooner we sell him the better." Ten yards away in the directors' box, just out of earshot range, was Barcelona's general manager, Bobby Robson.

The news that Robson and Barcelona are hoping to prise away McManaman with pounds 12m is not a shock as the Spanish club are known admirers; that Liverpool are prepared to listen is.

Roy Evans, who has fashioned his side round McManaman, once described him as "priceless", but it seems the Anfield board are ready to disagree. Not for the first time, opinions are mixed when it comes to him.

One of the reasons why Evans adopted a back-five formation as soon as he took over as manager in January 1994 was to liberate the bewildering young talent he had at his disposal in McManaman. He was too lightweight for central midfield in a conventional 4-4-2 line-up and too easily isolated on the wing. But buttress the rearguard with an extra man and he could have the freedom to take flight.

Since, he has become the embodiment of the pluses and minuses of Evans' team. Blessed with pace, skill to tease and the stamina of a racehorse, he has been the focal point of Liverpool's attacks. A typical goal would involve him twisting and turning a defence horribly with his quicksilver feet before priming the extra- ordinary scoring talent, Robbie Fowler, his room and soul mate.

And yet that final ball - like that of Ryan Giggs, with whom he is inevitably compared - is also his Achilles' heel. Too often the end result falls short of the build-up, his passes and crosses inaccurate, his mind too giddy with excitement to remain cool in the penalty area.

As for scoring, Scouse legend would have it that McManaman reserves that for off the field. Evans estimates that he should get between 15 and 20 goals a season given the number of chances he gets, but his best tally to date was the 11 he got in his first full season, 1991-2.

"People say that finishing is my big weakness," he said last season, "and if there's a part of my game that I need to improve then, yes, that would be it. I practise every day on my shooting and I probably get more goals than Robbie Fowler on the training ground. But once we get into a real match Robbie has that killer instinct."

Add this shortcoming to a placid nature that sometimes gives the mistaken impression McManaman cares less than others when Liverpool lose, and it is easy to see why some supporters blame him as much as anyone for the club's inability to win the championship last season. Merseyside christened the team "The Spice Boys" last season, a testament to the perceived lack of substance behind the show, and the tag attached itself to him as readily as it did David James and Jamie Redknapp.

"Of course I care," he said. "I want to win with Liverpool and England as much as the fans do. I want to achieve exactly what they want and they just have to believe me on that.

"I'm pretty laid-back on the pitch. If I get kicked I just get up and get on with it. If I can still laugh and joke after being beaten it doesn't mean I'm not disappointed by what's happened. But I can't change my nature."

Just as he could not resist kicking everything that moved as youngster. "We've another boy," his father, David, recalled, "and if he sees a tin can on his way to school he steps over it. Steven was the opposite."

McManaman's tin-can-alley dreams centred on emulating his hero, Duncan McKenzie, by playing for Everton but like Fowler, Ian Rush and Michael Owen, who also leaned towards Goodison Park rather than Anfield, he was spotted first by Liverpool's scouts and signed schoolboy forms with "the enemy" at 15.

His first job was to clean the footware of the man whose boots he would ultimately fill, John Barnes, and it is a paradox that master and pupil might leave Anfield within days of each other. The sense that a new Liverpool are entering a new era is overwhelming.

Evans, whose side are already five points behind the team by which their supporters gauge the club, Manchester United, will have pounds 12m to spend if the deal with Barcelona goes through although whether he would use the money to find a direct replacement for McManaman is questionable.

There are few dribbling talents outside Anfield to compare with McManaman other than Giggs, and Old Trafford could not contemplate selling him to their greatest rivals, while other areas of the team - notably, goalkeeper and centre-back - need strengthening more urgently.

In any case Jason McAteer fulfilled the same role for Bolton Wanderers and had to be adapted as a wing-back because his style too obviously aped McManaman. With Rob Jones now back on the right flank, McAteer or Patrik Berger are as suited as anyone in the Premiership to run at defences from midfield.

Nevertheless, even McAteer will not be able to replicate the exuberant, heady dribbling of McManaman at his best and it is an uncomfortable thought that his talent will be lost to the English game.

Only last Saturday McManaman wrote about this season being "the biggest challenge" of his career. He meant the prospect of England playing in the World Cup finals at the end of it but in the light of a prospective move to Barcelona the comment suddenly seems particularly prescient. Now we will see how good he really is.