McManaman's big-game mentality sends memo to England

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The Independent Online

At the time Steve McManaman's goal seemed, at least beyond the stunning moment of it, to mean more to his masters, Real Madrid. For them it was another brilliantly forged link in a mighty chain of history. For him it was one more snatch of fleeting fame, and perhaps even a postscript to a run at the glory that, somehow, has gone wrong.

It made a near certainty of Real Madrid's appearance in yet another European Cup final at Hampden Park next month and the chance of a ninth triumph in world football's most demanding club competition. But what did it really mean to Macca?

In all likelihood he will be back in the substitutes' chorus line when history flashes its eyelashes again at Hampden, his superb cameo performance which brought a stunned silence to Nou Camp on Tuesday night long filed away in the forlorn pigeon hole which has become his home at the Bernabeu: the slot of a superior jobbing footballer operating at the highest level of the game.

But then you isolate that passage of fluent action which saw McManaman run with such self-possession by Frank De Boer to float the ball with exquisite judgment beyond the reach of Barcelona's Roberto Bonano, and it is hard to dismiss an old question.

Is it really true that McManaman, who while never being embraced by the Real hierarchy has still to be banished from the company of such as Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, has let down English football? Or is it precisely the reverse? Inspired by the latest evidence of McManaman's capacity to operate from time to time with supreme effectiveness at the top of the European game, should not Sven Goran Eriksson reopen the file on the mysterious, paradox-laden case of Steve McManaman?

The gut feeling here on the dawn of a great city's anguish at the loss of a match on which its very identity and sense of self-worth seemed to hinge – it was Real's first win at the Nou Camp in 19 years – is to say yes.

It is true that McManaman's legs were fresh when he arrived at the 79th minute of a game so draining it its emotional demands even the ultimately sublime match-winner, Zidane, had to summon, it seemed, his deepest will to make a decisive contribution, but the point of his impact was not some mere surplus of energy. He has, perhaps more than any contemporary English player, always had that to burn. No, what Macca brought to the potential vortex of football's least anaesthetised theatre was something far more precious than mere heightened endeavour. It was an implicit understanding of what was expected of him. It was the utter conviction with which he seized upon his moment. He brought an authentically big-time presence to a stage which, like no other across Europe, shakes with thunder.

How many players with such acumen and cool can Eriksson count upon in the Far East at the end of next month? Michael Owen, no doubt. He has been over the territory and not been found wanting, not least as an 18-year-old against Argentina in the World Cup. David Beckham, if he is fit, is surely likely to reconfirm that he has outgrown the adolescent petulance which marked his disastrous little eruption in that same game. Paul Scholes is reasserting all his old strengths. But the list of psychological certainties is not long.

Steven Gerrard was consumed by the pressure of England's vital qualifying game against Greece. Kieron Dyer was said to be unmasked by the expectations he carried into last week's game with Paraguay.

Interestingly, and perhaps with some subtlety of intention, McManaman spoke on Tuesday of the exhilaration rather than the trial of his experience at the Nou Camp. He spoke of inspiration rather than intimidation, and, by implication, maybe, would he not feel that stimulation in the World Cup finals for his country quite as much as he did on behalf of Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the European Cup?

At 30, McManaman is far too knowing now to send a hearts and flowers message to Eriksson, especially at this delicate time for the England coach. But at the Nou Camp he had laid down certain compelling arguments for himself on that vivid green tablecloth.

As applications go for an 11th hour stay of World Cup execution it is hard to imagine a more impressive case. Is 10 or so minutes of a still wide-open European Cup semi-final not at least as relevant to Eriksson's judgement of a player's capacity to absorb the demands of a World Cup as 45 minutes of one of those virtually meaningless friendlies which for some time have been confusing selection issues? There were arguments that young Joe Cole had first disqualified himself, then earned re-instatement with second-half performances against a half-interested Italy and a comatose Paraguay.

Some will say that Macca has had his chances, and certainly it is a long time since he glowed in an England shirt. But then who's fault is this? Significantly, McManaman had his best phase of England activity six years ago in Euro 96, when Terry Venables had created a team who knew who they were and what they were doing. At one point in the run-in to the 1998 World Cup, Glenn Hoddle had McManaman playing right wing-back – a travesty of a job assignment if ever there was one. In Euro 2000, before the authority of the coach, Kevin Keegan, was cooked on the spit of tactical and selectorial confusion, McManaman started brightly enough, scoring one of the goals in England's thrilling but utterly misleading assault on Portugal at the opening of the first group game.

Against such an erratic form graph there has to be placed McManaman's proven ability to make an effective, if sporadic, contribution, to a team which draws its principal inspiration from two of the world's best players, Zidane and Figo. Two years ago McManaman scored a fine goal in a European Cup final against Valencia. Even the old Real demi-god Alfredo di Stefano, a damaging critic of McManaman in the past, has not questioned the player's technical and physical ability to make at the very least a solid contribution to the team's running-passing game.

Meanwhile, England search for left-sided players. McManaman works best on the left, which was one of Venables' early, sound assessments of the player's strength. Still, McManaman's World Cup credentials appear to have been firmly pushed to one side. What McManaman said at the Nou Camp, with brilliant timing and admirable restraint, was that perhaps Sven should take another look. Off the field the plea was understated. On it, it matched the thunder he dispersed with a piece of play that would have graced any World Cup.

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