Steve McManaman, The First British Galactico
Though he was an unlikely superstar in many ways, Steve McManaman was the harbinger of the Galacticos era. Here’s how the scampish former Spice Boy ushered in a lavish age at Real Madrid.
Though he was recognised as a supreme talent during his early years at Liverpool, few would have earmarked Steve McManaman as an international phenomenon. Disregarding the common perception that he was perpetually on the cusp of fulfilling his true potential, his public image in the late nineties was hardly ideal when it came to marketing him as a continental megastar. While his youthful good looks, angular features and lustrous auburn curls may have leant themselves to the limelight, the man they nicknamed 'Macca' was also one of the central figures of the 'Spice Boys' clique, at least according to the tabloids. While there was a certain lurid ostentation to the gang made up of McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp, David James and the like, there was also a fundamental naffness to their antics, with cream suits, underwear modelling, binge drinking and bawdy Christmas parties up there with the worst of their supposedly Biblical excesses. They may have lived a gaudy form of celebrity hedonism on Merseyside but they were also somehow guileless and ungainly, a bunch of young Brits with more money than was prudent, bad taste in abundance and questionable fashion sense.
McManaman's association with the Spice Boys meant that, while he was a stalwart of the Premier League at a time when the value of the brand was booming, he was also seen by many as a nonchalant tearaway with a reputation for mischief and a troublesome streak. Whether or not this reputation was deserved, it made him an unlikely signing for an image-obsessed club with many times the exposure of Liverpool, not to mention even more by way of neuroticism, pressure and absurd expectation. Regardless, when McManaman got into a prolonged contract wrangle with his hometown club from the summer of 1997 onwards, it was Real Madrid who emerged as the frontrunners for his signature. Guus Hiddink, then manager of Los Blancos, saw through the veil of tabloid prurience to the player who had been named in the 1996-97 PFA Team of the Year, who would finish his Liverpool career with 66 goals in 364 appearances and who, on his day, was one of the most creative wingers in the English game.
As one of the last few signings made under the tumultuous presidency of Lorenzo Sanz in 1999, McManaman technically preceded the Galacticos era as inspired by the ambition of Sanz's successor, Florentino Perez. He would get a taste of the club culture at Real almost immediately, though, with Hiddink relieved of his managerial duties before McManaman had arrived in Spain. Having outlasted his first manager before he had even kicked a football at the Bernabeu, McManaman found himself joining up with a team in the midst of a major crisis. Before he arrived, Raul famously said: "The dressing room is a cesspit of lies, treachery and whispers. I feel sorry for new players like Steve McManaman coming into the club… if McManaman thinks he is coming to one of the world's top clubs, then he has made a big mistake." This was a premature diagnosis of Real's decline, of course, but it was certainly true that the club were in some difficulty, haunted by the spectres of waning domestic dominance and financial trouble, this despite having won the Champions League as recently as 1998.
Only when Perez defeated Sanz in a presidential election in the summer of 2000 would the Galacticos era begin in earnest, with the club's revamped finances allowing them to acquire Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and co. for enormous fees. McManaman had much to do before he could call those players his teammates, however, with several months of slog under John Toshack ahead of him before the merciful return of Vicente del Bosque, this in a season where – owing to their substantial debts – Real had been forced to move on several stars including Christian Panucci, Clarence Seedorf and Davor Suker. Though McManaman started well with Real, assisting the winner on his debut against Mallorca and scoring the following week against Numancia, the team would slump to eighth place in the league by November, at which point Toshack was swiftly dispensed with. Real would fall to a shocking 17th a few weeks after his dismissal, but with Del Bosque in charge they would eventually climb to a relatively respectable fifth, and McManaman would even have the chance to claim the first European silverware of his career.
In stark contrast to their domestic woes Real excelled in the Champions League, down in no small part to McManaman's influential performances out wide and in attack. It was anything but a perfect campaign – Real lost three times to Bayern Munich, twice in the group stage and once in the semi-finals, inching past the Bavarians on aggregate – but Los Blancos nonetheless earned a trip to the Stade de France for an all-Spanish finale against Valencia. With Real 1-0 up through a first-half goal from Fernando Morientes, the game looked to be heading to a tense conclusion before McManaman pounced on a loose clearance, flicking a volley into the bottom corner from just outside the box. It was a goal which encapsulated his playing style: audacious, attention-grabbing, insouciant with a touch of impudence; an expression of pure Maccachismo, if you will. In an instant, he had sealed his place as a club icon and fan favourite, also becoming the first English player to win the Champions League with an overseas club.
Though McManaman's fortunes would wax and wane over the course of his next three seasons with Real Madrid, he nevertheless managed to carve out a niche for himself at a club which was undergoing a profound transformation. He worked his way into the collective psyche at the Bernabeu, and would come to be associated with the Galacticos philosophy despite being a premature arrival at Real. His goal at the Stade de France was certainly a part of his burgeoning legend, but he somehow captured the imagination of the Galacticos generation even with the glamour of Real's new arrivals to contend with. When he was sporadically displaced from the side by some tactical shift or distinguished new signing, he would fight for his place with a cool-headedness which was not necessarily characteristic of his time at Liverpool, while he used his not inconsiderable charm – a weapon he wielded far more adroitly than most other ex-Spice Boys – to conquer the affections of the notoriously fickle Spanish press.
There may have been a sense in which cultural differences worked in McManaman's favour, with a persona and lifestyle that the press back home might have considered cause for criticism – inherently tied up, as always, with the obsessive scrutiny of England players – seen as quirky and quintessentially British by the media in Madrid. To the Spanish observer, McManaman was an exotic import as opposed to a wayward scamp from Merseyside, and so the cocky Bootle lad found a place for himself among the lavish spending, cultured football and general opulence of a club which was fast reestablishing itself as Europe's premier destination. There was also a sense in which McManaman matured at Real, not only as a man but also as a player. His evolution from Spice Boy to Galactico seems almost natural in hindsight, reflecting as it did the increasingly global outlook of European football, but so too did McManaman the ingenious young winger become McManaman the intelligent playmaker; McManaman the metronome; McManaman the versatile midfielder; McManaman the man who subtly excelled wherever Real wanted him to play.
In Macca's second season in Madrid, he made 42 appearances in all competitions as they won La Liga for the first time in four years, this despite his omission from the squad at the start of the campaign and attempts to offload him to, amongst others, Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Manchester United. With Florentino Perez wanting to trim the wage bill after the hefty outlay on Luis Figo, McManaman looked to be one of several players whose time at Real would come to an untimely end, but his determination to stay and prove his worth convinced Del Bosque to make room for him in the side. Madridistas were similarly adamant that McManaman should remain with the club, and fans were known to greet his goals with a flurry of white handkerchiefs, a testament to his cult hero status. He paid back their support with interest, claiming his second Champions League winners' medal at the end of the 2001-2002 campaign – scoring a delicious chip against Barcelona en route to the final against Bayer Leverkusen – and another La Liga title the season after.
As well as earning his place on the pitch alongside some of the world's greatest players, McManaman fitted in with his fellow Galacticos outside of football. He became close friends with Ronaldo and Figo, among others, and his influence in the dressing room was cited as one of his most important contributions to the team. Del Bosque told The Guardian in 2015: "He was a caballero, a gentleman, a stupendous guy; he always had a smile, he never complained, he was great, a leader. He related to everyone very well; he united people." Again, this showed his growing maturity in comparison to his divisive antics at Liverpool, but also his individual take on the megastar mentality. He may not have been the most expensive or high-profile of the Galacticos, but he inspired an affinity among fans and teammates which made his exorbitant wages seem worthwhile.
In the end, as is only fitting for a true Galactico, it was the internal politics of Real Madrid which did for McManaman's career at the club. Caught up in a power struggle between Perez and Del Bosque, he was sold to Manchester City in the summer of 2003 and – reunited with David James and Robbie Fowler, suffering from mixed form and once again exposed to the merciless censure of the English press – was widely perceived to have lapsed back into his old Spice Boy ways. There was an element of truth in this, with a News of the World sex scandal involving him and Fowler only stoking the fires of bad publicity, but there was also an element of Galactico bashing, not least in the common criticism that he was too rich and complacent to succeed at City. Though his time at Real had certainly made him obscenely wealthy, recurring injuries and advancing age were obstacles which made for an inevitable fall from grace.
While he may not have the cultural cachet of Zidane, Figo or Ronaldo, it is telling that McManaman is still spoken about in the same breath as those titans of world football. Stereotyped for much of his career in England as a gifted scally whose promise was destined to go unrealised, he is remembered in Spain as precisely the opposite, a diligent and adaptable servant who brought flair, endeavour and silverware to the team. One might argue that McManaman's ego – or indeed his wage packet – gave him greater motivation at Real Madrid than in England, though it would perhaps be fairer to suggest that he was a mercurial footballer who happened to thrive in the rarified environment at the Bernabeu. He may not have been globally acclaimed like the Brits who came to Real after him, but in his enormous value, diverse talents and voracious appetite for glory, he arguably embodied the Galacticos philosophy just as much as Michael Owen, David Beckham, Gareth Bale and all the rest.