Return of the Macca

September 4, 2003
By Dale Johnson
(Archive)

Four years after leaving England for the high-life and bright lights of Madrid, Steve McManaman faces the task of rebuilding his reputation back in the Premiership with Manchester City.

The heady days of flying down the wing at Liverpool, being showered with adulation from an adoring Scouse faithful, must now seem an age away. He returns home known as a bit part player who gatecrashed Real Madrid's star-studded party.

McManaman's role at the Bernabeau for the first three seasons was somewhat understated. Although a squad player, he made no small contribution to the club's success.

The way McManaman overcame the odds to remain an important part of such a talented squad has to be admired. Although the 2002/03 campaign was perhaps a season too far, he does return a more mature and possibly technically gifted player.

When he left Anfield in the summer of 1999, few expected him to succeed. However, he topped off a fantastic first campaign by scoring in the 3-0 victory over Valencia in the Champions League final.

Even so, McManaman was then told he had no future at the club - with new coach Vicente Del Bosque eager to move him on. Real had accepted an offer of £8million from Middlesbrough, with Aston Villa also showing an interest, but the Bootle-born player was determined to make it in Spain.

Time and again he was forced to ignore those who proclaimed he was no longer welcome at the Bernabeau, working at his game and forcing himself into the first team reckoning.

McManaman's role did diminish in his last season at the club, in which he won the league title for the second time to add to his dual Champions League winners' medals, and by the time Carlos Quieroz was installed it had become clear that the constant influx of world class players had finally forced him out.

But the fact that he survived in the Real squad for four seasons should tell its own story. Too many people were eager to poke fun at McManaman for staying at the Bernabeau for so long, claiming that he was out of his depth.

The challenge back in the Premiership could prove to be even more difficult than the one left behind. McManaman has become something a forgotten player and he must prove himself once again.

City boss Kevin Keegan has been criticised in some quarters for signing McManaman, but he has snapped up a quality midfielder on a free who will undoubtedly add depth to a rapidly improving squad. McManaman, reunited with old Liverpool team-mate and long-time pal Robbie Fowler, will add a plethora of options.

'I am absolutely delighted with this signing,' Keegan remarked. 'In my opinion Steve is a world class player who won't be fazed on the big stage. He has the ability to cover a lot of positions and will always do it to the best of his ability.'

With Paul Bosvelt, Trevor Sinclair, Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Eyal Berkovic, Claudio Reyna and Antoine Sibierski all vying with McManaman for a first team place, competition will be fierce.

One of the concerns for supporters at the City of Manchester Stadium is that the 31-year-old is past his best, and while that may be true he still has plenty to offer.

Steve McManaman
GettyImages / StuartFranklinMcManaman: Manchester move

McManaman will surely have improved his game while in Spain, learning from the likes of Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane.

But minds are probably still clouded by McManaman's disastrous display against Albania in a World Cup qualifier at St James' Park two years ago.

Replacing Nick Barmby after 64 minutes, with England leading 1-0, he put in one of the most inept displays seen in an England shirt in recent years - almost gifting an equaliser to the minnows.

Sven Goran Eriksson's men went on to win the game 2-0, but McManaman's fate was all but sealed. He was banished into the international wilderness after one further late substitute appearance against Greece one month on. It seems highly imporabable that he will add to his 37 England caps, especially under the current coach.

McManaman never managed to reproduce his club form with England, which is partly down to the failure to find an effective position for him. Often dumped on England's problematic left-side, Keegan's attempts to give him a 'free role' also ended in failure.

That performance against Albania remains many supporters' lasting memory of McManaman. The exciting attacking play he was famed for at Anfield now seems in the distant past and his task is to win over all those who have written him off.

Keegan has certainly gone for experience over youth in his summer transfer dealings with 29-year-old attacking midfielder Sibierski the youngest of his seven new recruits.

After the signing of McManaman, City fans are worried about the influx of veteran stars who are likely to command a first team place and the effect that will have on their younger players.

With the average age of the City squad now 27, and with eight players into their 30s, City must be careful that they don't make Spurs' mistake of having to replace too many veterans at one time.

In Barton and Wright-Phillips, City have two of the brightest young talents in the country. And after impressing in the first few weeks of the new campaign the fear is that they will lose their places in the side.

It is more likely, as Keegan himself has indicated that a rotation policy will be employed.

'I want to be able to look at my bench, to look at my squad and put out a side that the other team does not expect,' he explained. 'I don't want us to be predictable with people able to look and say that is his starting eleven. There will be no starting eleven here with the players that I have here now. I will mix and match.'

Keegan is eager to compete on all fronts - both domestically and in Europe - and that is only possible with strength in depth.

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