McManaman relishes spice of bitter rivalry

True blue who turned red knows all about Mersey derby, and the pain in Spain

For someone brought up as a dyed-in-the-blue-wool Evertonian, who then played 364 games for Liverpool over a nine-year period, Mersey derbies bring mixed emotions. Studied neutrality is not the most obvious of them, but that is what Steve McManaman has to practise when his employers, Setanta Sports, televise two derbies in a week.

The number of true Blues who have gone over to the other side as players is something of a continuing frustration to Everton followers, who dream of the teams they might have fielded had Ian Rush, Michael Owen, McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Carragher and others stayed true to "The People's Club". McManaman turned down his boyhood favourites because they would only offer a one-year schoolboy contract to a tiny lad whose father (also an Everton fanatic) wisely reckoned would need longer than that to develop physically. Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool's manager at the time, suggested a schoolboy contract plus a two-year apprenticeship on top and the deal was done.

"I was a big Everton fan, but at the time Liverpool's scouting system was just a hundred times better," says McManaman 20 years on. "They made that extra effort, wheeled out Kenny Dalglish to meet you and made you feel as if this was the greatest club in the world. The clubs were virtually on a par at that time, Everton had just won the Cup-Winners' Cup, which I went to watch as a fan, but at that age your dad wants what's best for you and I think that was the case with all those lads."

If Liverpool became the more successful of the two sides in the Nineties, they still lost as many derby matches as they won. McManaman was a squad player in his debut season for the most famous of them, the 4-4 FA Cup replay at Goodison that prompted Dalglish's resignation.

"That was just the most incredible game," he says. "I had some great derby memories and some terrible ones, and being a local lad they do mean that little bit more to you. I understood that by playing in other derbies as well, like in Spain, where it really meant a lot to the local boys."

There is a feeling, articulated by Carragher in his autobiography Carra, that passions off the pitch in the Mersey derby have degenerated into crude abuse of players. McManaman still believes that the rivalry, fierce as it is, has nothing on what he experienced after leaving for Real Madrid in 1999 as the first major Bosman free transfer and coming up against Barcelona.

"That's something else. It's like Spain against another country, with a different language and culture, and there's real resentment there. When we got near their ground there'd be police running alongside with shotguns and we'd all get into the middle of the bus while [the Barcelona fans] stoned the windows. It was just mad." Sticks and stones or not, it was a hugely enjoyable time, after which he could probably claim to have won more major trophies abroad than any other British export, including two European Cups.

Liverpool, in contrast, had never been in contention for the League (once finishing eighth, once seventh) and had to settle for the 1992 FA Cup (he was named man of the match in the final) and a League Cup three years later. What of Rafa Benitez's chances this season of the trophy that supporters want most? "I think it's still very much on the cards and certainly the best chance for a long, long time."

Although essentially supportive of Benitez, whom he first met in Spain, he believes one little managerial outburst in the past couple of weeks would have sufficed and that the second one, about the club's internal politics, was not quite the Liverpool way. "I thought the first one, about [Sir Alex] Ferguson, was just a half-term report, not a rant, where he felt United had got away with things. I didn't mind that. The contract problems I'd personally have preferred to be kept quiet. It should be kept private. But I don't think it's big enough for him to walk away."

He admits that Liverpool will need to improve on last Monday's performance, when they allowed Everton back into the game for a deserved draw. "It was a little bit negative. The people Liverpool put on the pitch were quite negative, and the passing went sideways and backwards, the whole team. It just invited Everton to come and have a go at them and they were incredibly resilient. Then it was a stupid challenge to give away a free-kick and they let the best header in the team, Tim Cahill, have a free header, so it was a disastrous end to the game for Liverpool."

There will be more mixed emotions when Real Madrid meet Liverpool again in the Champions' League. "Madrid are not in great shape at the moment, though the Champions' League brings the best out of them. So I certainly think Liverpool will be favourites and the four English teams should be too strong for everybody bar a very impressive Barcelona side."

Long before that, however, there is another, more parochial, squabble to be settled. Delighted to have found such an enjoyable second career without the strain he saw afflicting Dalglish, McManaman will gratefully take his place in the Setanta box today.

His former team-mate and fellow Spice Boy (a tag they naturally hate) Fowler will be representing Liverpool, and Gary Speed Everton, whileMcManaman plays the neutral. "We'll have a laugh and a joke. The people I work with are brilliant, and where you miss the camaraderie of the dressing room, I've got that back here."

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