It’s August, which means technically, it’s still the silly season in La Liga. But as the season draws nigh ever-so-gently, we have the opportunity to step away from everything that is currently happening both on and off the pitch. A break from the transfer talks, the season previews, and the scrutinization of Rafa Benitez’s tactics. A chance, to take it back - all the way to the turn of the century.
Madridistas are spoiled to the riches with legendary players in every era - a luxury that makes for the best of debates when it comes to all-time starting 11 talks. But there are many players who rarely get recognition - the players who bind the team together. These are players who will never get the same acclaim as their superstar counterparts.
When you think about unsung heroes of the galactico era, Claude Makelele’s name immediately comes to mind. And rightfully so. A man of short stature and strong as an ox, Makelele was a rare breed - the type of player you bet your money on to stop an opposing maestro and mark him out of the game completely. No one really knows just how many years Florentino Perez set the club back by selling the French defensive midfielder, but my guess is five.
But, I’m really not here to talk to you about Claude Makelele.
In the Summer of 1999, Real Madrid was going through turmoil - management was under fire and the club was in a financial crisis. The team had failed to defend its Champions League crown, getting knocked out by Andriy Shevcheno’s Dynamo Kyiv in the quarter finals. To raise funds; Davor Suker, Pedja Mijatovic, Christian Panucci, and Clarence Seedorf were all loaded off. After failing to win a major trophy, then head coach Guus Hiddink was sacked and replaced by John Toshack.
And somewhere in between all of this mayhem, Steve McManaman was signed. A signing that was mixed with excitement and melodramaticism.
As Raul quite explicitly stated:
"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."
Nevertheless it proved to be one of the most important signings the club has ever made. A generational talent with a silky smooth elegance to his game. Tall, slender - much like Zinedine Zidane - and could dribble his way out of almost anything. He was always involved in the attack, always thirsty to be conducive to the offensive flow of the game. Never shy.
A glorious debut in Mallorca
It was Steve McManaman’s first match for the club, and he immediately impressed - providing a gorgeous one-touch through-ball lob to Fernando Morientes in injury time to equalize the game.
Two minutes later, Raul received a pass from Guti from outside the area - hitting it first time into the far post of the goal. Because, that’ s just what Raul does. Just like that, after being down 1-0 in the 90th minute, Steve McManaman’s introduction off the bench sparked an unlikely comeback. It was the kind of wizardry that foreshadowed his entire tenure with Real Madrid - one that saw him be an important player year-after-year, no matter how many galacticos were added to the squad.
Perez arrives, waves of tribulations come with him
One year after McManaman’s successful debut season, Florentino Perez arrived at the helm - launching wave after wave of tests at the Englishman. There were many positions that needed an upgrade at the time of Perez’s arrival - but the right wing was not one of them. That’s the flank McManaman occupied and wreaked havoc all year.
But there’s always room for Luis Figo. There has to be. Luis Figo was an iconic footballer and game-changing player. He’s the crack the club so badly needed - the crack that the club hadn’t had in years. Figo became a complementary player to Raul and put a dagger in Barcelona’s hearts. The latter was a bonus.
At the time of Figo’s arrival, no one expected McManaman to stay, or have a prominent role with the team. The excitement of Figo’s arrival was met with anger and resentment as Florentino Perez sold off a living legend in Fernando Redondo, and completely put aside Steve McManaman who was one of the most vital players on the team.
But McManaman was a versatile player. He played many games in central midfield just ahead of Redondo - similar to the role James Rodriguez plays and the one Di Maria had under Carlo Ancelotti. In Paris on the night of ‘El Octavo’, McManaman slotted in as the second central midfielder alongside Redondo in a deftly efficient 5-2-1-2.
Del Bosque trusted in Macca’s versatility. The Englishman refused to leave and decided to fight for his place. He was rewarded for his loyalty. Del Bosque placed McManaman on the opposite flank, and the Figo-Macca tandem become one of the deadliest wing combos on the planet. Two players on opposite flanks who possessed fearless dribbling skills - both amped with flair, pace, and playmaking abilities. In this system, Real Madrid stretched the field and played some of its most beautiful football in years.
Overcoming the transfer of Luis Figo was just the first hurdle. Florentino Perez’s galactico era was well underway, and another area on the pitch which didn’t need strengthening - the attacking midfield position - was addressed anyway.
But there’s always room for Zinedine Zidane. He’s more than a generational player - he defined an era. Zidane was one of the best players that has ever lived. Zidane is a game-changer, he elevated the team to new heights, and was worth every penny of his then world record transfer free.
All true. In hindsight, Zidane was a bargain. But what of Steve McManaman? Where was he going to operate?
Once again Perez was ready to part ways with the Englishman, but McManaman refused to leave. Meanwhile, off the pitch, McManaman was winning the respect of the Bernabeu as well as the dressing room for his resilience and loyalty towards the club. Once again, he was willing to fight for his place despite all odds.
McManaman’s new role was mostly off the bench, as Del Bosque for the most part preferred to go with a diamond formation with Makelele as the destroyer and the emerging Santiago Solari on the left wing. Eventually, Macca featured 38 times that season - 4 less than the preceding one - but was a key piece of that team which won ‘La Novena’. On April 23 2002, Real Madrid traveled to the Camp Nou in the anticipation of a heated contest - the first leg of the Champions League semi-final.
Zidane’s wizardry unlocked the scoring in the second half, but McManaman came on in the 79th minute to virtually seal the tie with a lovely flick over Barcelona goalkeeper Roberto Bonano - cool as a cucumber.
Eventually, Florentino Perez’s galactico policy was too much even for McManaman’s renowned resilience and loyalty. ‘Zidanes y Pavones’ was a false promise. Pavon himself become a below-average La Liga defender, and Real Madrid were in the midst of a dark era where players were purchased for their star power rather than their need.
Ronaldo’s signing from Inter Milan the following season - although not directly competing with Macca’s position - reduced McManaman’s role even furhur. That season, although putting in good performances - most notably against Manchester United in the Champions League - McManaman played just 25 games in all competitions, starting nine of them.
David Beckham’s signing was the final straw. As good as Beckham was, he didn’t bring with him the same dominative presence that Zidane and Figo brought. Beckham truly was not needed on the pitch - even if he was needed for the business side of things.
There isn’t always room for a David Beckham.
Beckham’s arrival to the Bernabeu pushed McManaman out for good. While Beckham himself was played as a central midfielder in between Figo and Zidane, McManaman was just too far down the depth chart by that point to stay. Despite Beckham’s plea for his fellow countryman to remain at the club, McManaman was finally sold off to Manchester City in 2003 after four years of admirable service to Real Madrid.
Master of the volley
McManaman was notorious for a unique volley that was not only aesthetically breathtaking, but also potent. It was not your classic one-legged wind-up. It wouldn’t classify as a bicycle or scissor kick either. It was like a sniper - surveying the wind, zeroing in on his target. His left leg was like a left joystick, balancing and navigating the whole process, while his right leg became the trigger button.
And then boom. A laser-like cross from Roberto Carlos - the type one would surely have to bring down and control just to tame the beast-like force of the pass - becomes a one hit wonder. Quick and precise. McManaman already knows what’s happening before the ball even gets to him.
Of course, it’s one thing to do it in a rout against Real Oviedo, and it’s another to do it in a Champions League final.
McManaman will always remain known as a steadfast Real Madrid player - one that won the hearts of the Bernabeu with his humble attitude, resilience, and world-class play on the pitch which guided Real Madrid to several titles. Despite being virtually pushed out year-after-year, he always maintained a good relationship with Florentino Perez and the club as a whole - never speaking ill of anyone. Years later, Sid Lowe justifiably found a place for Steve McManaman in Real Madrid’s team of the decade.
Steve McManaman is, indeed, immortal.