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Football Flashback: Macca in Madrid

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In this edition we flashback to Steve McManaman in 1999, when Macca shocked the football world with a high-profile Bosman free transfer to the Real Madrid “Galactico’s”.

The Liverpool of the mid-to-late 90s was a very different proposition to the modern-day machine we see today. After an era of huge dominance, the Reds sleepwalked into a lull of mediocrity at the start of the Premier League era. A lull which tarnished many supremely talented players with the same brush.

The Liverpool of 1999 contained talents such as David James, Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler. Yet they still failed to deliver anything like success – at least by Liverpool’s lofty standards. The Media branded them “Spice Boys” in an era of commercial endorsements and bumper salaries. Unfortunately, talented winger Steve McManaman was also slipping into this category.

He was one of the best players in the Premier League. But after 12 years at Anfield, he had very little to show for it.

An Englishman abroad

McManaman’s Liverpool contract was coming to its end, and he was restless. He had no shortage of suitors willing to take advantage for the new “Bosman” ruling. This would see him leave his boyhood club for free. Lazio, Inter and Juventus were all reportedly interested from Serie A. Barcelona actually tabled a bid to take Macca before his contract was up. However, it was interest from Real Madrid that really made McManaman pay attention.

“It was such a tough decision because I’ve been here 12 years but I’ve always stated that I wanted to play in Europe at some stage. Now is the right time. This is a chance to test myself in a top European league. I chose Real Madrid above the other top European clubs that came in for me because I’ve always thought they were an excellent club.”

Steve McManaman in a statement to Liverpool fans in 1999

He announced he was leaving Anfield for the Bernabeu once his contract expired. Accusations of “money grabbing” soon followed, with many Reds fans feeling betrayed by a player the club had nurtured for 12 years. But this was about trophies now for McManaman, who’d already ruled out staying in the Premier League.

It was a bold and brave decision, following in the footsteps of Hoddle, Waddle, Gascoigne, Ince and Platt trying his luck abroad. McManaman could’ve rested on his laurels in the comfort zone of Anfield, but he put his reputation on the line in the pursuit of success.

A star in danger of stagnating

By the summer of 1999, McManaman was 27 and at his peak. He’d broken into the Liverpool team as a tall, gangly winger with an abundance of pace and balance to run at defenders. It worked brilliantly in the Premier League, and under Terry Venables at Euro 96 he’d made himself a starter for England. It was clear to see why Europe’s top clubs coveted him.

He had outgrown his Liverpool team mates, and was ready for more. Liverpool weren’t progressing, and he was – rapidly. He had the quality to win silverwear, and when he moved to Madrid he certainly didn’t look out of place. Real’s then-manager Guus Hiddink made McManaman the highest-paid British player at the time on £50,000 per week. Some statement, and some vote of confidence.

Macca in Madrid

McManaman’s arrival at Real Madrid came at a tumultuous time of change, even by their standards. No sooner had Macca arrived in Madrid, Hiddink was out the door, replaced by Welshman John Toshack. The Galacticos era was just beginning under new president Florentino Perez. This should’ve been the start of an era of dominance, but the start was rocky.

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Toshack played McManaman sporadically, but when he did play, he made a difference. Madrid’s league form stuttered and by November, Toshack was sacked.

His replacement Vicente Del Bosque played McManaman in a variety of positions, to be expected with so much talent at his disposal. But whenever he played, and wherever he played, McManaman impressed. Goals and assists were the currency in his position, and time after time he produced.

With formidable firepower around him, Macca’s pace and vision scared defenders and created openings. The assists came easy with so much movement in the final third. Bombing ahead were Ronaldo, Raul, Morientes, Guti. His creativity always had an outlet.

He wasn’t short on goals either. The highlights reel from his time in Madrid is full of quality finishes. McManaman was clearly fulfilling his immense potential in this team.

European glory

While the damage had been done in La Liga from their poor start to the 1999/2000 season, in the Champions League Real were flying. They’d made their way to an all-Spanish final against Valencia in Paris, and Macca was starting for Madrid.

It could hardly have gone much better. An assist for Morientes to open the scoring, was followed up with a smart McManaman volley from the edge of the area to make it 2-0. A Raul goal made it 3, and Macca was a European champion. It was the undoubted peak of his career.

Over the following season, as Real signed star after star, McManaman predictably found himself in and out of the starting line-up. However his work ethic always prevailed. The role he played at Madrid demanded patience and maturity, and it earned him almost cult status amongst the fans.

First Luis Figo, then Zinedine Zidane, and even David Beckham joined the ever-growing Galacticos project. Yet still, McManaman found a way to force himself into the side through perseverance and obvious talent. In his second season, he still appeared 42 times and helped to end a four-year wait for the La Liga title. His versatility that season proved extremely effective, as he switched wings, cut inside, and found any target man Madrid chose to deploy.

Cult status with the fans

By the end of McManaman’s third season, he had another Champions League Winner’s medal around his neck. His time in Madrid was shaping up to be an unparalleled success.

He had become an extremely popular member of the Madrid squad, liked by pretty much everyone, and the fans loved him. His professionalism, maturity, patience and ability made him hard to ignore.

McManaman left Spain as easily England’s most successful, most decorated football export.

Not bad for a Spice Boy!

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© Mike Barclay at The Football Diary 2020