The ’90s may have been relatively lean years in terms of silverware for the club, but academy graduate Steve McManaman consistently represented one of the leading lights prior to his 1999 free transfer to Real Madrid.
He would depart for Spain with only 1992 FA Cup and 1995 League Cup winners medals to show for his time at Anfield but there were numerous memorable moments aside.
Over the course of 364 appearances for the Reds, he would score 66 goals and register 85 assists while usually playing as either a winger or an attacking midfielder.
A gifted dribbler and natural athlete, whose stamina was consistently noted, his range of attributes perhaps made it unsurprising that he broke into the first team at an early age.
Born in the Kirkdale area of Liverpool on February 11, 1972, he had actually grown up as an Evertonian before he joined the Reds’ youth ranks at the age of 14.
His senior debut came at 18, when he made a substitute appearance for Kenny Dalglish’s men in a 2-0 Anfield victory over Sheffield United on December 15, 1990.
There were a couple more outings from the bench that season before he truly established himself under Graeme Souness in 1991/92.
51 appearances, 11 goals and 10 assists from the wing reflected that. His first strike for the club proved to be a consolation in a 2-1 league defeat at Manchester City – who he would finish his career with – on August 21, but his 10 others that campaign all contributed to either draws or wins.
His most memorable display of that term arguably came at Wembley in May 1992, though. Still only 20, he teed up Michael Thomas’ thunderous opener in the 2-0 FA Cup Final victory over Sunderland, and his energetic bursts down the right were a constant threat throughout.
His next two campaigns were considerably disrupted by injury – although he still chalked up a combined 74 appearances, nine goals and 15 assists – before 1994/95 saw him again hit his stride in a new position under Roy Evans.
McManaman was effectively given a free role behind the two strikers – most commonly Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush – in Evans’ 3-5-2, and he thrived.
It was a position that appeared to maximise his stamina, dribbling ability and creative capacity.Embed from Getty Images
There were nine goals and 12 assists over 55 appearances in all competitions in ‘94/95.
Two of those goals came, memorably, in the 2-1 League Cup Final victory over Bolton Wanderers on April 2. Both strikes followed typically mazy runs and represented a measure of the talent – and confidence – possessed by the then 23-year-old.
That was followed, in ‘95/96, by 10 goals and 20 assists in 53 games as the Reds finished the season in third.
He was then a regular within Terry Venables’ England team that reached the semi-finals of Euro 96. It was a summer which arguably marked the height of an international career that brought 37 caps and just three goals.
Understandably, there is an enduring sense that McManaman’s potential was never truly fulfilled at international level. He would score against Portugal at Euro 2000 during Kevin Keegan’s time in charge but, in between, Glenn Hoddle struggled to fit him into his team for the 1998 World Cup.
Even so, the Scouser remained a key component of his club side until his departure in the summer 1999.
1996 had seen a potential title challenge peter out and the 1997 season, sadly, would prove a similar story as the Merseysiders eventually finished fourth.
There were 10 more goals and 10 more assists in 51 games overall but the relative lack of silverware persisted.Embed from Getty Images
Upon John Barnes’ departure in 1997/98, McManaman took on the vice-captaincy and pushed on once more.
There were 12 goals and 11 assists in 46 this time, including a stunning individual effort at Parkhead against Celtic in the First Round of the UEFA Cup.
Once more, though, it was a season which ended without tangible reward for the club, and Gérard Houllier’s arrival as joint-manager in the summer of 1998 was at least partly in response to that.
By then, McManaman had only a year left on his contract. There was a firm desire within the club to organise an extension, but there were apparently concerns that it could lead to a collective heightening of player wages and, in the end, such an agreement never materialised.
Instead, McManaman signed a pre-contract agreement with Real Madrid in January 1999, by which stage Houllier was in sole charge after Evans’ November resignation.
Somewhat understandably, he felt a new deal could have prevented him from testing himself abroad during his peak years, but it was undeniably disappointing for Liverpool to lose one of their homegrown stars – especially on a free.
Arguably, though, it was a move which worked out well enough for both parties in the end. That departure arguably simplified elements of Houllier’s restructuring of the squad and the culture over the next couple of years, which led to the treble of 2001.
McManaman, meanwhile, became a hugely popular figure at the Bernabeu. He won the Champions League in 2000 – where he scored in the final – and 2002, alongside La Liga titles in 2001 and 2003.Embed from Getty Images
His involvement in such successes was another measure of the, at times, under-appreciated talent – and strength of will – that he possessed.
He spent the final two seasons of his career at Manchester City up to 2005 and he has since become a prominent figure within the football media, where he is currently a pundit and co-commentator for BT Sport.
Alongside this, he continues to assist in the development of youth players at Liverpool’s Kirkby Academy, and is regularly spotted at u23 and u18 matches.
Could he himself have achieved a little more at Anfield? Perhaps. Although the club was not at its strongest while he was.
Nonetheless, McManaman’s contribution to the Reds’ past, present and future should not be underestimated.
(Statistics from http://www.lfchistory.net).
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