Kirkdale Kid senses Liverpool's chance to rival glorious past

The Everton-supporting former England winger, who was twice a Champions' League winner at Real Madrid, believes his old club can expose Milan in Wednesday's final
Click to follow
The Independent Football

At least until Wednesday evening by the Bosphorus, there is only one Scouser on the planet who knows what it feels like to leave a Champions' League final clutching a winner's medal. And Steve McManaman, the Kirkdale Kid, has done it not once, but twice. Not only that, but he also knows what it feels like to score a goal on the greatest stage that club football can offer. And not only that, but it was a goal of rare beauty, the sweetest of right-footed volleys that in Paris, five years ago tomorrow, gave Real Madrid an unassailable 2-0 lead against Valencia.

All of which, compounded by his nine years as a Liverpool player, gives McManaman a unique perspective on Wednesday's final between his old club and Milan.

"Liverpool have a wonderful chance," says McManaman. "Milan have a certain aura and they were impressive against Man United, but they were lucky to get through [in the semi-final] against PSV [Eindhoven]. I also saw Juventus beat them at home in the league recently. A lot of their players are not in good form. They've been a dominant force, but they're just over the top now. A bit like Deportivo [La Coruña], when you have a group of players together that long there comes a point when they all start to struggle together. I think that's the stage Milan are at.

"The daft thing is that before the semi-final everyone at Liverpool was thinking, 'PSV, we want PSV'. Afterwards they were thinking, 'thank God it's not PSV'. Milan had Stam, they had Nesta back, Maldini, but they looked vulnerable at the back. PSV caused them so many problems with their pace, and Liverpool have pace as well up front."

McManaman delivers this assessment in characteristic fast-talking fashion; it's no wonder that his erstwhile Real Madrid colleagues, even those like Luis Figo who spoke decent English, often couldn't understand what he was on about.

Whether understood or not, however, he was immensely popular both with his fellow players and the Madrid fans. His stock with the fans of Manchester City, where he is at the end of a two-year contract that will not be renewed, is not, shall we say, quite as high. One Sunday paper yesterday declared him the, "waster of the season", having picked up a £1.5m salary for five starts.

We'll come to all that. But I would challenge anyone not to warm to McManaman in person. I first met him four years ago when I went to interview him in Madrid. I turned up as arranged at the club's surprisingly ramshackle training ground, from where he drove me to his lovely home in the suburbs.

First, though, he had to nudge his car through a smiling multitude of autograph-hunters. Our encounter this time takes place at City's Carrington training-ground, swisher than Real's Ciudad Deportiva, yet not shrouded in the same, almost tangible, pall of expectation. Presumably, though, the burden of history was nothing new when he walked out at the Bernabeu; he'd had to shoulder it at Anfield, too?

"Very much so, yeah. At Madrid you get all that Puskas and Di Stefano stuff, the famous white kit, but it was just the same for me at Liverpool.

When I joined in 1989-1990, I was aged 16 or 17 training with men who'd won the European Cup. You think, 'oh my God, there they are in front of me'. But you feel that burden more if you're from that country. It weighed heavily on Raul at Madrid, and there's a parallel for Steven [Gerrard] and Carra [Jamie Carragher]. Winning it will mean more to them than to any of the other players, and so will losing it. For the manager, it's maybe good that he's not so involved in the history and all that crazy passion. Rafa [Benitez] can just concentrate on the job."

And what a job he has already done, though I wonder how McManaman explains Liverpool's relative failure in the Premier League, being pipped to the fourth Champions' League spot by Everton, of all clubs? And whether victory in Istanbul can make them major players in the Premiership again?

"Yeah, it's been a funny season for them. Even in the Champions' League they were getting beat by Sturm Graz at home, and then they knocked out Juve quite comfortably, so they've gone from one extreme to the other in Europe too. I don't know why they didn't do better in the League. Maybe European nights gave them a little extra lift, maybe it's the style of play.

"Despite finishing fifth I can't see them winning the trophy and not defending it. They've got to be in it, but certainly not at the expense of Everton. I was a mad Evertonian when I was younger and it's a wonderful, wonderful achievement by them."

In his book El Macca, a fascinating chronicle of his four years at Real Madrid, McManaman admits that he has never stopped being an Everton fan, which is significant because we are meeting on the morning after the 7-0 demolition job by Arsenal.

"Some of the football Arsenal played last night was incredible. Just incredible. And the average age of that side is, what, 24 or 25? Plus, they're moving into a new stadium which will generate more money. Then there's Chelsea who've been fantastic this year. I saw them at Man United and they won easily, and you think to yourself, 'bloody hell, what if they go out this summer and spend £50m, and get that 25-goals-a-year centre-forward they need?' So when you ask whether Liverpool can become contenders again in the League, I think the top two, probably the top three with United, are still out of reach. Liverpool will always have money to spend because they've got very generous benefactors, but you're talking about a 40-point gap. I think fourth place is still the best they can hope for."

And yet here they are, about to play for the right to be considered the premier team in Europe. I invite McManaman to draw on his own experiences and tell me what the Liverpool players have in store. How different is the Champions' League final from a domestic cup final, for example?

"Completely different. It's the FA Cup final times 10, without a doubt. They know that they're playing these giants of European football, the second most successful team ever. And they'll notice from the second they arrive in Turkey how different everything is. They'll go to the stadium to train the day before, and the first thing they'll notice will be the amount of press. I'm sure it won't be a closed training session. The entire world's media will be there.

"I just hope the match itself is not a dull affair, like the Juve-Milan final at Old Trafford. That was rubbish, wasn't it? I really hope it's not like that, with both teams playing cagey football. I want the best team to go and win the bloody trophy."

That's certainly what happened in 2000. "My goal put the game out of reach," he recalls. "Valencia were visibly deflated, we could almost hear them thinking, 'ah, we've lost it'. We'd had so many hard games against them, but we never had an anxious moment in that game. I remember thinking it was incredible that you could win the Champions' League so easily. But it was different in 2002 [against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow]. Then, everything was on edge right up to the last minute."

Until he arrived at Real Madrid, McManaman had never played in the Champions' League. Within three seasons, he had two winner's medals. "And I kind of thought that justified my decision to leave Liverpool, but even then there were people saying. 'why did he leave? English football's the greatest'. It's been the same with Michael [Owen]. He's been outstanding over there. His goals per minute ratio is better than anyone's. He enjoys the lifestyle, he's settling in. Yet there are still people implying that he can't wait to get back to England. Mind you, the trouble with Real Madrid is that the president likes to buy centre-forwards."

Moreover, there is a significant difference between Owen and McManaman in that, while both of them left Liverpool hoping for a realistic shot at winning the Champions' League, McManaman's dream came truer than he could possibly have imagined, while Owen's dream has been frustrated in even less predictable fashion, with his new club failing to make the last four, and his old club in the final.

As for Real's rather more celebrated English import, McManaman saw at first hand the effect that David Beckham's arrival had. "It wasn't David and Victoria's fault, but until then the players had been left alone by the press. There's 10 or 12 pages about Real Madrid players in the papers every day, but it's all football stuff. They were used to their football being scrutinised; even if you commit a foul in training it's on television.

"But when Becks arrived we were suddenly blockaded. I got it 1,000 times over, an influx of press wanting to know any sort of rubbish. They'd just get into a taxi and say, 'McManaman's house' and then ring my bell. I told my wife [also Victoria] not to speak to them. But she said, 'ah, there's this girl outside who's come all the way from England and she sounds very nice down the intercom'. So she gave this girl from The Sun an interview, and she never even mentioned David or Victoria, but it was turned completely around so that it was all about which shops she'd be taking Victoria to. It was so much bollocks, but once the English papers started taking pictures of players coming out of night-clubs at 4am, the Madrid papers, who'd never done it before, said 'hey, that's our territory'. So I feel for them all in that respect. I don't think it will ever go back to the way it was."

Nor will it, in all probability, for McManaman himself. He is still a hero in Madrid, but in Manchester they are a good deal less smitten. He insists that he is his own worst critic, but he'd be going some to outdo several City fans I know, and probably a whole lot more.

"Look," he says equably, "that laid-back demeanour I have has always been fine when I've played well, but it becomes a problem when I don't. I'm not a crazy fist-pumper, a lot of that stuff embarrasses me, but that doesn't mean I'm not absolutely delighted to win or that I don't get very upset with myself if I play terribly. Unfortunately, I've had a huge number of injuries since I've been here. It's maybe not much consolation to the fans but I now feel fit for the first time in my two-year-deal."

McManaman is currently in Barbados mulling over his future, having agreed with his old England team-mate, Stuart Pearce, that he will leave City. So what next? "I don't know. I need to discuss it with my wife. She loves the foreign way of life and would go away again at the drop of a hat. We'll have to see."

Ah well. The future may be uncertain but the past, in the form of those two Champions' League winners medals, is engraved in gold.

El Macca: Four Years with Real Madrid, by Steve McManaman and Sarah Edworthy, is now out in paperback, published by Pocket Books priced £7.99