Football: McManaman must destroy the myth

Steve McManaman has been labelled a chronic underachiever. But Glenn Moore finds his competitive nature fired up to win an England place for France 98
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The Independent Online
STEVE MCMANAMAN strolled casually off flight BY815 at Basle airport yesterday lunchtime, looked up at the grey Swiss sky, then sauntered towards the waiting coach. He looked like a seen-it-all-before holidaymaker rather than a footballer with his World Cup destiny in the balance.

McManaman's body language is as offensive to some as Peter Reid's verbal version. Languid in the extreme, he is the antithesis of the fist-clenched, bawling scrappers beloved by the English game.

Yet watch McManaman closely and his desire, his will-to-win, is evident. His work-rate matches any player in the Premiership, he is always either on the ball or calling for it. His passing is done with a purpose, not for the sake of it and, when the ball is still, he can be seen quietly lifting or bollocking his team-mates.

Frustration is the theme of his career. Locally born, though initially an Everton fan, he has lived through a lean decade at Anfield. In the 1990s they have won just a trophy apiece in the FA and Coca-Cola Cups - scant achievements against Manchester United's dominance.

The story is the same on a personal level. Since his 1994 debut he has appeared 19 times for England but, after appearing to establish himself in Euro 96, has played only four times for Glenn Hoddle and just once in the last 360 days.

There is no guarantee that the 26-year-old will play against Switzerland in Berne tomorrow. It would appear that he and Paul Merson are contesting one place, a belief Hoddle has encouraged rather than dispelled.

He offers fewer clues as to his preference. McManaman, said Hoddle, played "as well as I have ever seen him" last week against Spurs - when he had a floating role behind Michael Owen. But he is also complimentary about Merson and, by pulling him out of Middlesbrough's team on Sunday, would appear to want to play him tomorrow.

Rumours persist that Hoddle is less than enamoured with McManaman because he and Robbie Fowler pulled out of Le Tournoi but McManaman said: "There was never a problem and I want to kill that myth off. I've not spoken to the gaffer [Hoddle] about it, I've never needed to.

"I don't know why there are so many negative vibes about me. I never take anything negatively, I try to look positively at things. I am a very confident person. I could improve for England but I am always aiming for perfection, everyone looks for improvement in themselves.

"I've played twice in a year and we won both games. I'd liked to have played more but I've not got a problem with it. I have something to offer England but there are probably 30 players who can say that. Of course I passionately want to go to the World Cup, it is the greatest tournament there is; you are mixing with the best in the world. You want to test yourself against them.

"The will to win is always there with me. I may not show it as much as other people but the passion is strong. I want to win every game whether against a minnow in the FA Cup, a big League game against Manchester United or an England international. Maybe people say I've underachieved for England but I hope to smash that myth by doing well in the summer."

Hoddle said McManaman's spell as Liverpool captain had helped his football as it enabled him to "see the game differently in taking on more responsibility". Hoddle added: "He has had a good season, scoring goals has given him extra confidence. He has lost a couple of chains and he has been more consistent."

McManaman, whose keen and questioning intelligence has not always been popular with managers, thinks otherwise. "I've always been a talker. I've always tried to help the young lads in our team. It's not something that happened with the armband," he said. "Goalscoring isn't a problem for me. Sometimes they all go in, sometimes they don't. I don't worry about it."

All this is said with a sardonic air. McManaman sometimes gives the impression that he feels these question and answer sessions are beneath him and it is true that such gatherings - there are about a dozen press interrogators - can sometimes pursue a tired agenda. With McManaman it is the "underachiever" line partly because it also applies to his club and partly because, being a model pro who has missed one match in three seasons, there is no "my injury/drugs/drink-hell" line to pursue.

However much he may resent it, such is his and his club's talent it will continue to be raised until Liverpool win the title and he establishes himself at international level.

Tomorrow McManaman will find out if Hoddle, whose fitful international career has many parallels, is prepared to offer him a chance to show that he, at least, can fulfil his potential.