This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of Steve McManaman becoming the first Englishman to win a European Cup for a foreign team.
He remains the only Englishman to have done it. He also remains the most successful Englishman in terms of trophies won abroad, and at Real Madrid he remains the one English player who doesn’t in any way divide opinion: everyone feels he was a success.
The 3-0 Champions League victory over Valencia on May 24, 2000 was his finest hour. Madrid took the lead in the first ever final between two Spanish teams at the Stade de France when Fernando Morientes turned in Michel Salgado’s cross in the first half.
In the second period a Roberto Carlos throw was headed out to the edge of the area from where McManaman volleyed, both feet off the ground, past Valencia and Spain keeper Santi Canizares. The goal was crucial because Valencia were the better team at the time. It was minute 66 and game over. Raul would race away to get the third with quarter of an hour remaining.
McManaman had arrived on a free transfer in the summer of 1999. And he was smart enough to do everything he could to make his acclimatization as smooth as possible.
He arrived a month before the start of preseason to find a home for him and his wife so there was no living in a hotel for months on end. He was already a fan of Spanish football. He took Spanish lessons, embraced a new rhythm of life and his wife found work teaching English law to Spanish graduates.
It wasn’t long before he had one of the standard experiences for any Madrid player – he saw the coach sacked. John Toshack was fired after 11 games and in came Vicente del Bosque to guide the side through to the end of the season. Losing an English-speaking coach might have been a set-back. Del Bosque spoke no Spanish and had a natural inclination towards the club’s Spanish players but he loved McManaman.
‘Macca’ as he still calls him was, in Del Bosque’s words: ‘a gentleman with a capacity to be a leader because of his ability to get on with everyone’.
His memory of McManaman highlights the way he is remembered slightly differently in Spain than in England.
In England he will always be the wiry winger who could trick his way past any defender. But in Spain he was often more reliability than flair. He was the intelligent, hard running player who never gave the ball away and changed his game to suit the demands of the team in every game.
In that final in Paris he was playing in midfield. The team on the night had Fernando Morientes and Nicolas Anelka upfront and Raul in an advanced role just behind them. That left McManaman and Fernando Redondo in midfield against a Valencia side with five in the middle.
He was the best player on the pitch in the eyes of so many who watched the game, and with the potential to be swamped in the middle of the park, for Madrid’s sake he needed to be.
Figo turned up the following season and he played less but still got half-an-hour, replacing Figo, in the 2002 Champions League final and although he had a bit-part role in the 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park, Real Madrid were only in the final thanks to a superb goal he had scored in the semi-final against Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
There were plenty of league Clasicos too, including the Figo flying pig’s head game when he admitted being no more keen to take corners than anyone else in the side as the whisky bottles, golf balls and even mobile phones (they were a lot cheaper back then) were thrown on to the pitch.
By the 2002-03 season he was being edged out but there were still a few memorable performances and he put in a selfless and intelligent display at Old Trafford as Real Madrid knocked Manchester United out of Europe. Real Madrid were 3-2 up in the second half when he was taken off, and ended up losing 4-3, going through on aggregate.
As McManaman told Newstalk’s ‘Off The Ball’ last May if you did well at Madrid you got treated ‘like an absolute king’. That was true right to the end.
After winning the league in the 2002-03 season – his second title to go with the two European Cup winners medals – the team went out to celebrate. After enjoying the city’s hospitality, he was the last man standing with Brazilian team-mate Ronaldo.
He told ‘Off the Ball’ last May about how he had invited his former Liverpool team-mate Robbie Fowler and Fowler’s painter and decorator brother-in-law over for the game that would see Madrid crowned Champions.
He tried to coax Fowler onto the open-top bus parade throwing him a ‘2002-03 league winners’ T-shirt. There followed a sit-down meal at 2am and a 5am visit to a nightclub with McManaman’s driver eventually having to come into the club and give him his keys because it was, by that time, 9am and he had to go to his day job.
‘Then we were all off round to Ronaldo’s,’ says McManaman, playing pool but struggling to see the balls because of the smoke machine in Ronaldo’s party-room.
Legend has it that when he woke up on Ronaldo’s floor there was a sense of relief – if he was with the big man at least there would be no rollicking from the club who had organised the town-hall pleasantries for that day.
McManaman and Ronaldo were not exactly all present and correct at the start of those meet and greets with the mayor. Some have re-written history since to suggest that the night of revelry was why Madrid moved him on.
The truth was his fate had already been sealed. He had kept his place in the side despite the signing of Figo, and then despite the signing of Zinedine Zidane. When David Beckham arrived in 2003 there really would be no room left for him in the plans of new coach Carlos Quieroz.
He rode off into the sunset with an armful of medals and, without him, Madrid went three years without winning a serious trophy.
He is still fondly remembered in Madrid. And he will be on Sunday when the club reflects on that Champions League success in Paris and his volley that wrapped up their eighth European Cup.