Football: McManaman changes perceptions

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: Glenn Moore listens to the Liverpool player dispel the misconceptions that he is a `scally', a hedonist and a winger

It can never have been easy, being young gifted and famous, but it is probably harder now than it has ever been. The explosion in earnings and erosion of privacy, means the young stars of rock bands and football teams have to do their growing up in public. They may try to keep a level head, but it is difficult when earning riches beyond the dreams of peers and parents and the unquestioning adulation of millions.

This is not to suggest it is a harder life than being on the dole, but neither is it a cosy sinecure. Some deal with better than others - the Gallagher brothers of Oasis do not seem to have handled things as well as the Neville brothers of Manchester United - but it is not always as easy to tell. Public perception is often inaccurate.

Ask Steve McManaman. When he arrived on the scene, he was misrepresented both as a footballer and a person.

When he first appeared at Anfield as a spindly teenager, he was regarded as a winger. He was still being described as such by the time he was in the England squad three years later. Only now, after two seasons of wreaking havoc from a floating midfield role, is he being seen as a multi-faceted player.

"I've never been a winger," he said after an England training session at Bisham Abbey at the weekend, "but that is the way people labelled me.

"My best position is the one I play for Liverpool. There are three of us in midfield and within reason I've got a licence. The other two sit for me and I can go where I feel dangerous. I've always got Barnesy [John Barnes] and Michael Thomas or Jamie [Redknapp] to compensate for me.

"I have defensive responsibilities but I have licence to go forward. I'm more consistent and maybe it is the free role, or more confidence. We are a passing team and I seem to be on the ball a lot, or looking for it, and we have players who can give to you."

Significantly McManaman, a childhood Evertonian, said his heroes were "Bob Latchford, because he was a goalscorer, and Duncan McKenzie, he was a flair player who excited me". No mention of Dave Thomas, the classical winger who played alongside them.

"There are flair players in the English game now and we are allowed to express themselves," McManaman says. "And that is coming in from youth level."

Steve Heighway, his youth coach at Liverpool and an unconventional forward himself, added: "Steve is the type of player English football had been failing for too long. The whole English team had tended to stifle play.

"His strength is his ability to hold the ball and go past people. We encouraged him to do that. All you ever hear at training pitches up and down the country is `Pass, pass'. At ours we were shouting: `Take him on'."

It was McManaman's dribbling ability that led him to be classified a winger, but as long as Liverpool knew what he was capable of, that false description was not a problem.

More worrying was the other misrepresentation. Liverpudlian youth has had a poor image outside the city. Brian Clough's infamous jibe about Scousers stealing hubcaps was just one manifestation of a common belief that the city's young men were more interested in taking cars and drugs than earning a living. "Scallies" they were called and it did not help that a minority played up to it.

At first, no one suggested McManaman might be a scally. Then Robbie Fowler arrived carrying the baggage of his birthplace, Toxteth, an area blighted in the minds of middle England. Still no real problem, until the pair were interviewed by Loaded, which at that time was a new magazine out to make a name for itself.

The interviewer gave the impression that he had spent an evening on the booze with the players and they had confessed to a life of hedonism. The tabloids lifted the tale, giving it wider currency, and two reputations were stained.

"I've done a thousand interviews," said McManaman, "but that one didn't show us in the right light. People's perception changed. I'm a very sensible level-headed lad and the interview that came out was not the interview we gave. It was one of their early editions and it was a bit of sneakiness on their part. We've learned from that."

McManaman had reason to be unhappy. Not only did he have a steady girlfriend, but he spends little time in his Albert Dock bachelor flat, preferring to stay at his mother's in Walton. Fowler also remains close to his roots.

For those who have met him, McManaman's obvious intelligence and sanity have long restored his reputation. Recently, this has been revealed to a wider audience through a well-reasoned broadsheet newspaper column. This week, some of the Italian press suggested that "in the macho world of English football", this would ruin his reputation, "like being seen with a book".

"No," McManaman counters. "It has done no harm. It has been nice to change the perception that all Liverpool lads are scallies. Some people are uncomfortable with the press but you have to deal with it. You can change people's opinions of yourself."

McManaman, who is 25 tomorrow, has already developed a keen appreciation of his role in the team and is not afraid to discuss it with club or country.

"The relationship between players and staff is excellent at Liverpool, if you have something to say you can air your views, no problem. It's been the same since I've been there. If you had a problem under Kenny Dalglish or Graeme Souness, you could air your view.

"With England, the gaffer [Glenn Hoddle] changed the structure for the Georgia game to the way Liverpool play with two sitting and Gazza [Paul Gascoigne] pushed forward and it worked perfectly. It needed doing because against Poland we isolated Paul Ince, me and Gazza, because we wanted to get forward so much. They had a lot of chances as we were stretched out to a certain extent."

McManaman was left out for the Georgia game, but with Gascoigne struggling for fitness, there is speculation that he will replace the Rangers player.

"It is a role I play, but Paul Merson can play there too and he has been in excellent form," McManaman says. "I was very disappointed not to play in Georgia, but I accepted it because the decision to change the structure was right."

McManaman recently criticised the number of foreigners in the Premiership, but he stresses: "It is good to see foreign players over here, but we should not buy them just because they are cheap at a time when our transfer fees are spiralling. It prevents young players coming through. But it is great to see the likes of [Gianfranco] Zola and [Gianluca] Vialli here."

McManaman, who watched the video of Chelsea's FA Cup defeat of Liverpool by himself to see what he could glean from it, adds: "You can't help but learn from watching players do things you can't do. You can learn off the likes of Zola, and you can learn from the 16 and 17-year-olds at Liverpool.

"I follow most football. In England, there is a wide range on television from different countries, so I watch as much as I can."

This quest for self-improvement is currently being concentrated on his finishing. "I've got eight this year, but I'd like to think I could score 25 in a season. I get a lot of chances. Sometimes I'm a bit unselfish and I pass, but people tell me to be more greedy, to shoot in the box. Maybe that ruthlessness is the difference between being a midfielder and a centre-forward. A centre-forward's first thought when he receives the ball is to look for goal, maybe I am looking for the pass to put Robbie [Fowler] through or whatnot." A common McManaman expression.

"It frustrates me. I've hit the woodwork many times this year so it is a fine line. I regularly do shooting practice with Robbie - I am better but on the pitch he has that killer instinct.

"Goalscoring is a major thing missing from my game, but there are other parts I have to improve on - defending, heading. Even the good things can be improved. I see people dribbling and I feel I can learn off them."

Hoddle would like to see McManaman concentrate on his all-round game, not just his shooting. "He needs to improve in the last third and his finishing could be better, but he is a provider. Maybe he needs to go back to just being a provider. He makes space with his runs by drawing defenders towards him and maybe he needs to put the creator's hat on again more than the goalscorers. He will probably pop up and score then.

"His best position is the one he plays at Liverpool, but within a team shape you have to ask if you can afford a floating player. There is discipline when the other side have the ball - he only floats when Liverpool have it."

Hoddle seems likely to play McManaman against Italy at Wembley on Wednesday. A good performance and Serie A will be beckoning. Would he like to play there?

"I do admire foreign football and the idea of a different culture. I was aware of Italian football from my early days at Liverpool with Ian Rush and Graeme Souness playing there. I've spoken to Gazza and Chris Waddle, while Paul Ince speaks highly of it. But I'm a Liverpool lad and I love the club. As long as Liverpool want me, I'll stay at Liverpool."

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