When Patrick Kluivert scored for Ajax in the 1995 Champions League final, he described it as a rush of “pure ecstasy”. Arjen Robben did it in 2013 and saw his “whole career” flash before his eyes. And for Internazionale’s Diego Milito in 2010, it was the moment he realised “anything in life is possible”. But when you ask Steve McManaman how it felt, he draws a blank… he simply can’t remember.
“I don’t know how I felt to be honest,” he squints, as if blinded by the darkness of his own memory. “I suppose it must’ve felt good. I certainly look pretty happy in the photos, don’t I?”
Can it be true, that he has forgotten his wonder-volley that helped Real Madrid beat Valencia 3-0 to win the Champions League in 2000? Can he really not recall what must have been the single most important moment of his career? “It was so bloody long ago,” he shrugs nonchalantly. “I just can’t really remember.” Then his frown dissolves into a smile, and he chirps, “It’d be brilliant if I had a memory, wouldn’t it?”
Steve – or ‘Macca’ if you’re either his friend or from Liverpool – is wearing a three-piece tailored suit in navy when we meet him in a hotel on the outskirts of Manchester. He looks intimidatingly sharp – the polar opposite of those dazzlingly-uncool cream Armani suits he and his Liverpool teammates so-confidently wore ahead of the 1996 FA Cup final. Needless to say, they lost that game.
He speaks a bit like he played, bearing down on you with fearsome pace, weaving in and out of sentences before you’ve time to cut in. He is intelligent, articulate and very scouse. He crosses his legs and leans back in his chair with the air of a man who’s Made It. And why shouldn’t he?
This is a man whose career has reached pinnacles most footballers could only dream of. Not only is he a Liverpool legend, lauded across Merseyside for his mazy runs and pinpoint passes over nine years at the club, but a European one too. As the owner of two Champions League winners’ medals and two La Liga titles during a four-year stint with Real Madrid, he is English football’s most-successful foreign export. Pele himself hailed the floppy-haired playmaker as Europe’s most talented footballer after his electric performance for England at Euro ’96. Upon retiring from the game, he glided into the world of punditry and is now BT Sport’s most-respected voice on football. But in modern punditry’s depressing quagmire of predictable opinions, in-jokes and Malaga tans, Steve is one ex-player who isn’t afraid to put his head above the parapet.
Small talk over. We are sat in a bland business suite, watching Steve play out tactical football formations on a table with a cookie, some cups and a sugar shaker. He clearly still lives for football, so we want to know what he would do to make the Beautiful Game that bit more beautiful.
Steve was born an Everton fan. For him, growing up in Liverpool in the 1980s, supporting his local team was easy. “I remember going to Everton as a lad,” he recalls. “I was a junior Evertonian and there was a turnstile for under-16s to go through. We had a little pass and it was £1.50 to get into the game. It was very accessible to go in those days. Not now. Now, being a true fan is next to impossible.”
The problem? Corporate greed.
“The kind of money clubs are getting from TV and sponsorship deals nowadays is phenomenal,” he goes on. “Unfortunately, that has not brought ticket prices down. Instead, a family trip to Arsenal or Chelsea in London – when you take in to account the tickets, travel and food – will cost more than your average working-class dad will earn in a week. So fans are turning their backs on matches. The question we need to be asking is, where’s that money going? Straight into players’ pockets, presumably.”
The was once a time – a simpler time – when footballers were people too. They didn’t drive army camouflage-coated Bentleys, shoot interns with airguns or take selfies while wiping their arses with cash. No, they drank pints and ate pies and cycled to work.
“I think in a lot of areas players are being paid too much money,” says Steve. “Some earn so much that they’ve lost the hunger – they don’t actually need to play to enjoy a good lifestyle. At 16, you shouldn’t have a nice car and a nice apartment – you should be desperate to get that car or apartment … and be prepared to work for it.”
When Steve joined Liverpool as a fresh-faced 15-year-old, his first job of the day was to clean John Barnes’ muddy boots – a task, he says, that made him the man he is today.
“I was paid £27.35 a week to clean Barnsey’s boots, pump up balls, wash smelly kits and clean the Kop every morning,” he says. “I’m not going to lie, at the time I thought it was rubbish. But I look back on it now with nostalgia. I spoke to John every day, he’d say, ‘Get me this, get me that’. I was servant to the best player in the country.”
By 17, Steve was training with the first team, in the shadows of stars like Barnes, Alan Hansen and Peter Beardsley. “I was desperate to learn everything I could, watching players of my position in training, sitting on the players’ bus listening. Things are different now. Some of these kids are on so much money now, they think they’re kings of the world.”
We cannot hold our tongue. Wasn’t Steve himself one of Liverpool FC’s infamous “Spice Boys” – a group of fashionable young players, including Robbie Fowler and Jamie Redknapp, famed as much for “booze, birds and BMWs” as they were for football? At the time, he was even managed by Spice Girls guru Simon Fuller.
“The whole Spice Boys thing was whipped up by the press and wasn’t anything like as bad as it seemed,” he protests. “There was all this talk of hard partying in London but I never did that – I used to stay up north all the time.”
Then there were those cream morning suits that made the team look more like bouncers at a Christian nightclub than elite sportsmen (he agrees they were “atrocious”). And what about the now-infamous “Dentist’s Chair” drinking binge, in which a handful of England players, including Steve and Paul Gascoigne, were photographed guzzling booze in a Hong Kong bar ahead of Euro ’96.
“The pictures were absolutely appalling,” he concedes, “but the saddest thing about it was that I was stone cold sober. I think we were out celebrating Gazza’s birthday and, you know… something stupid happened. I think I did get in the dentist chair but for about two seconds.” Cue calls for fines, sackings and puce-faced indignation as the right-wing press plunged face-down into a puddle of its own outrage.
“The papers had a field day over that,” he recalls. “I came back from that trip and was blamed for wrecking one of the plane seats… which I didn’t do. We made an effort not to talk to the press after that.”
Steve doesn’t give many interviews – even now he no longer plays. He feels burned by headline-hungry hacks who he reckons have ruined sports news for everyone.
“Back in my day, you’d see a journalist in a bar, he’d buy you a beer, you’d have a moan, he’d have a moan and you knew it would all be fine. There was a mutual trust. But the chase for the headline’s got to the point where you’d pick up the paper the next day and it’s completely not what you said.”
He gets increasingly animated. “The British press always want action; they want a player dropped, they want a manager sacked. It just festers and I’m sick of it. So now nobody speaks to anybody anymore – that’s why interviews you read today are so mundane and boring. You’d might as well not bother interviewing players at all anymore.”
Steve suffered no such negative exposure in the Spanish press after he signed for Real Madrid in 1999 on a free transfer from Liverpool. On the contrary, the media there loved him and took every opportunity it could to put his name in print, whether he scored a goal or had a haircut.
“The worst I got from the Spanish press was being compared to Nicole Kidman which didn’t bother me at all,” he laughs. “She is a very beautiful woman.”
Indeed, the move turned out to be the best of his career. “My decision to go to Spain was simple,” he says. “I wanted to play Champions League football and in those days, only the top teams from each league got in.”
Within a year, he realised that dream, becoming the first English player to win the tournament with a foreign club. It was in the 67th minute of that game that he scored that outside-of-the-boot volley that every “Madridista” remembers but him. Two years later, he won it with Real again. Over four years in Spain, he also won La Liga twice, making him the most decorated English footballer to have played abroad, with UEFA itself stating that “of all England’s footballing exports in the modern era, none was as successful as McManaman.”
With more players than ever moving overseas to taste the foreign game – most recently Frank Lampard to New York City FC, Ashley Cole to Roma and, of course, Gareth Bale to Real – Steve is keen to laud the benefits of a broader playing horizon for English footballers.
“Every player should play abroad if they can, so long as their family circumstances don’t get in the way,” he says. “I loved everything about Spain – the way of life, eating late, the siestas, learning the language – it suited me down to the ground. Not only that but I had the opportunity to play with some of the best players of all time, such as Zidane, Figo, Raúl and Ronaldo.”
Though, it did at times, he explains, feel like a travelling circus. “We must have visited a trillion countries on the pre-season tours, hardly ever training, just waving and smiling and signing autographs like Mickey Mouse and Friends,” he says. “But that’s the business of modern-day football I suppose.”
It was also in Spain that Steve learned the ugly side of football. “Diving has infected the game in some parts of the world and it needs to be stopped – I hate it, you hate it, she hates it, he hates it,” Steve rants, jabbing his finger at a couple walking past the window outside. “I don’t think it’s so bad in England. Yes it happens, but when it does, you are instantly vilified when you do it – look at Ashley Young, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale. But in Spain they are given the slightest touch and they fall over. It’s cheating and it’s embarrassing. If I were a manager I wouldn’t have it in my team.”
The football manager was once a terrifying bastard; an ironman of the dugout who stood on the touchlines bellowing, spitting and casting fear into the hearts of players and fans alike. He didn’t just command respect, he personified it. Then something strange happened with the birth of the Premier League. He became a figure of public scrutiny; a chew toy for a ravenous press pack forced to squeak with every squeeze. Now his job seems more of a televised public performance and his social life one endless press conference of excuses.
“I often think to myself, it’s a strange old time in football at the minute,” says Steve. “The pressure on managers is complete nonsense, utter madness. You used to get more time. But nowadays you lose a few games and there’s a chance you are going to get sacked. Banners in the crowd, papers calling for your head. I don’t like it. It’s disrespectful. And it’s happening too often. I used to want to be a manager when my playing career ended. Now, I wouldn’t do it for all the money in the Premier League, let alone the world.” Suddenly Steve looks at his watch. “Is that the time?” he cries. “I’ve got to go and pick up the kids. The wife’s away and I’m on school run duty. I’ve got a carol concert to go to in an hour. And then I’ve got to get back, bath the other kids and put them to bed.”
As he stands up and dusts down his suit, we wonder if he tells his children of his career and his travels. We wonder if they are impressed with what he’s achieved.
“Nooooooo!” he snorts. “My kids are eight, five and two. They’re still young. I actually had them when I stopped playing football so they don’t remember me as footballer. But I’m not that bothered to be honest. I have to go.”
Well, your kids may not remember your playing days, Macca, and nor may you; but we do, whether you like it or not.
“That was when I was a baby in ’95, that was. We’d just won the League Cup at Wembley. We won 2-1 and I scored them both. So it was really important to have scored twice at Wembley. And in my right hand is the Man of the Match trophy. That was a great day.”
Fowler Coke Celebration
“Robbie had got a lot of stick from the press for his alleged partying and decided to simulate snorting the touchline. He regrets it. It was silly. I picked him up because I could see what he was doing was wrong. He got fined thousands of pounds. He’d taken so much abuse that day, I think he snapped.”
“Gazza had just scored a wonder goal against Scotland in Euro ’96 and clearly wanted to wind the press up a bit more after they mauled us for the dentist chair pictures in Hong Kong a few weeks earlier. Of course, you’re supposed to have three bottles, which is why Teddy Sheringham and Gary Neville all joined in. We could only find one water bottle. Still, we thought it was funny at the time.”
Champions League Winner
“Have I got chewing gum in my mouth there? Honestly. Don’t know where I got that from. But I look happy. In fact, I do remember feeling happy after the game. I’d just won the Champion’s League for crying out loud. I was showing off my medal saying ‘Look at what I’ve just won’.”
That's My Goal
“There’s Nicolas Anelka getting out of the way, there. And look at the right angle of my leg [laughs]. What tekkers! It was a really nice goal, actually. It wasn’t the greatest goal I ever scored, although it was pretty good, but it was certainly the most important.”
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Photography by: Dan Medhurst
Words by: Matt Blake
Additional Photography by: Getty, Action Images