It’s not often that David Beckham – a holder of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and general English legend is mentioned in the same sentence as Liverpool cult hero and former ‘Spice Boy’ Steve McManaman. In fact, were you to attempt to compare those two players in most pubs up and down the country, you would be greeted with confused frowns and sideways glances as if you’d just asked for a white wine spritzer at the bar. But why is that? Of course I’m referencing both players time in Spain with McManaman becoming the 2nd and David Beckham the 3rd englishmen in history to play for Real Madrid after the ‘black flash‘ Laurie Cunningham. For many in England Steve McManaman’s time in Spain is counted as a failure. The general consensus, I’m talking about Joe Bloggs in the street, is that McManaman never fitted in with the marquee signings brought in by Florentino Pérez’s reign as Real Madrid president, that he was a bit part player next to the Galactico stars of Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo et al.
When Real Madrid announced the signing of Steve McManaman on a Bosman ruling from Liverpool it was greeted with mixed reviews. The heartbeat to an attacking but ultimately shallow Liverpool team where McManaman and fellow Rosbifs Robbie Fowler flattered to deceive. Whilst McManaman’s talent was undeniable, his footballing ability was balanced out by the proposed prima donna attitude that sponsorship and TV rights had brought about during the late 90’s. The Spice Boy persona that the media had projected quite rightly made some fans nervous – Was McManaman coming to further himself as a footballer or top up his tan?
What is scary is how similar the circumstances and reaction were surrounding Beckham’s transfer to Real from Manchester Utd in 03/04 to McManaman’s in 99/00. Unlike McManaman however, Beckham had to fulfill the expectations that come with a big transfer fee and appease the shareholders worries. Beckham’s feats as a Footballer couldn’t be argued against. Part of Utd’s golden generation, six time Premier League winner, two time F.A Cup winner and European Cup winner not to mention national hero. Anyone that had watched Beckham for more than ten minutes realised that he was more than a set piece specialist and could more than hold his own in the star studded line up of Perez’s dictatorship. As the most marketable Footballer on the planet you could hear Perez laughing Mutley style all the way to the bank. However, the big question hanging over the Bernabéu was: Could the Beckham media-circus that Fergie had grown so tired of derail this match made in heaven?
Both players set out to prove their doubters wrong. McManaman started off in a rich vein of form, scoring key goals and creating plenty of chances; impressing the home crowds not just with his style but with his substance as well. Showing the ‘traditional english work-rate‘ that was never truly appreciated at Anfield, McManaman had the perfect supporting cast to finally flourish. His partnership with Fernando Redondo was almost telepathic at times and in Spain McManaman was largely free of the press and paparazzi, able to relax and settle more than before. Gone were the party going, spice boy labels now replaced with M.O.M awards and media plaudits. Beckham had left behind his familiar surroundings, a local lad just like McManaman, this was completely new for both of them. McManaman was 27 when he moved to Madrid, Beckham 28, both had achieved all they could at their home clubs and had reached a choice in their career.
Life was going well for both players. Successful debut seasons followed for McManaman winning the European Cup and La Liga title and Beckham winning the Spanish Super Cup and finishing runners up in the Copa del Rey. McManaman had scored in the final of the Euro Cup and had earned the honour of the white handkerchiefs of Madrid. Beckhams early goals had proved crucial in the league for Madrid and although the wheels were to fall off their domestic campaign Beckham had staked his claim to a starting position. Both players were subject to outside interference in their second season as McManaman saw the newly elected president Florentino Perez start his Galactico campaign, buying Portuguese midfielder Luis Figo from arch-rivals Barcelona for nearly £40m. A clear sign that there was no room for him in the club’s future plans. Beckham on the other hand was brought in exactly for that reason. He was a galactico and the calibre of player needed to bring success back to the white half of madrid – however with the arrival and departure of three managers in that season stability was a word far from the lips of the Madristas.
Despite their initial popularity and performances both fell out of favour with their current managers and found their first team chances limited. Yet again though we see a massive similarity in our vaunted englishmen. Beckham was left out by the newly installed Fabio Capello (sound familiar?) and his Réal adventure seemed well and truly over. McManaman was left out by Vicente Del Bosque. Both had served their purpose and were no longer required. Both showed true ‘english stiff upper lip’ and eventually forced themselves back into their managers plans. Both becoming integral by the end of the season.
With such similarities between the two midfielders it’s difficult to understand the different responses to their time abroad. Beckham’s time in spain, is considered by most, to have been successful and that he was eventually the victim of circumstance as Réal’s galactico’s policy eventually forced him out. Whereas McManaman’s time in Madrid is sniggered at and met with wry smiles. Is it ignorance? Is it bias? Whatever the reason, it isn’t just David Beckham that deserves recognition for his exploits abroad. Raise a glass of San Miguel to Steve McManaman.
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