Football: McManaman can man creative supply line

Liverpool's enigma deserves another chance for England. By Norman Fox
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THE GREAT thing about Michael Owen, explained Liverpool's Jamie Redknapp, is that "you can hit a bad ball and he's so quick he makes it look like a good pass". Except, that is, when a defender of similar pace spots the bad ball first. Gary Neville's comprehensive domination of Owen for Manchester United at Old Trafford last Thursday not only put some fresh spring in his step for England on the European Championship road but cast doubts on Redknapp as the national team's possible answer to who should be Owen and Alan Shearer's main midfield provider.

Glenn Hoddle, who on Friday announces his England squad for the forthcoming European Championship matches against Bulgaria and Luxembourg, will have been impressed by Neville's mature, safe and, above all, remarkably agile performance as a centre-back-marker, but he would not have been surprised. As Alex Ferguson said: "Gary started in that position. England have used him there. If he'd been a few inches taller he would have become the best central defender in Britain."

Neither would Hoddle have been the least surprised that Paul Scholes, goalscorer and, in partnership with Roy Keane, master of midfield, was outstanding in a typically tough, typically Manchester United sort of way. What he would have noticed was that in a match of great physical effort, oppressive local prestige and national significance, the only reason why Scholes rose above the rest was that he did the simple things well and tackled decisively. So what more would the England coach want? Real ingenuity and a touch of the unexpected of the sort that has been missing since Paul Gascoigne brought about his own exclusion. Who came close at Old Trafford? Rarely Scholes or Redknapp, neither of whom made you catch your breath with surprise (and rarely do); sometimes David Beckham, whose confidence seems to be growing out of adversity; but more often than not Steve McManaman, the enigma both of England and Liverpool.

It was not one of McManaman's outstanding games, one in which he floats over tackles and sends over crosses that should be an object lesson to the more talented, but infuriatingly careless, Ryan Giggs. Because United had been stung so sharply by their defeat at Highbury and countered Liver- pool with such voracious determination, he sometimes found himself physically forced to the fringes of the pitch or pressed into hopeless situations deep by the corner flags. However, in terms of possession play and drawing United players out of position, he was Liverpool's principal source of danger and, not for the first time, their crucial problem, which is also England's. If you choose to have McManaman in your side you have to accept that he will get a lot of possession while, if the opposition is good enough to divert him into the by-ways of the game - as United did so well - the consequences can be the absence of an end product.

England's last game, the 2-1 defeat by Sweden in Stockholm, was disappointing partly because the root of Hoddle's previous successes, ball-winning in midfield, never took hold, but predominantly because of the failure to link the defence and attack with a ball-runner. Having lost Gascoigne to self- inflicted wounds beyond the powers of any faith-healer, Hoddle has been loath to risk the brilliant, but similarly overweight, Matt Le Tissier and never really asked McManaman to impose himself on the England team as their key playmaker.

In his present circumstances, Hoddle may well think that this is the time to give McManaman a free-ranging role. After all, no one else has the equivalent ability to draw attention to himself by keeping the ball close and diverting the eyes of defenders away from two of the best strikers in the game, world-wide, Owen and Shearer.

Liverpool under the new guidance of Gerard Houllier are, inevitably, going to look at the percentage figures showing possession and say that given Owen and Robbie Fowler's goalscoring potential, the team must surely remain title challengers. Obviously both Houllier and Roy Evans get frustrated when that confidence comes over as blind faith in goalkeepers and defenders in their squad who seem unable to see danger until it hits them in the back of the net. Complaints against referees get headlines but are simply smokescreens to avoid humiliating through public criticism those players who continually fall below the standard of potential champions and leave Liverpool looking like a team capable of winning the title in terms of goals scored but facing relegation in the context of negligent goals conceded.

The Evans-Houllier partnership urgently needs to encourage several of its better players to perform to their real potential. Redknapp has done remarkably well to force himself back into the England reckoning after forfeiting 18 months of possible international appearances because of injury.

Now fully fit, he has the potential to be an automatic choice, but even in these difficult times for England, when suspensions will leave the midfield denuded, his moment of opportunity is in danger of being nothing more than a chance to show that he can secure an international place with safe passes and a good positional sense while perhaps England need someone who takes risks and is a risk.

McManaman always qualifies but so far has too often failed the ultimate test.