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Steve McManaman: One-on-One

Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder Steve McManaman answers readers' questions in FourFourTwo back in October 2004, when he was playing for Manchester City.

It's fitting that FourFourTwo meets Steve McManaman at Salford's Lowry hotel rather than the usual Mancunian footballer hangouts, such as the Living Room or Circle Bar. He was always perceived to be a player apart, infamously one of the lads on occasions but usually associated with the thoughtful minority in the game, as shown by his well-regarded Times columns or in the exemplary ambassadorial manner in which he conducted himself in Madrid.

In person he is a slightly perplexing presence: in his responses he is eager to be analytical and intelligent yet is also clearly guarded, presumably knowing from past experience how a stray quote in a moment's thoughtlessness can make back-page headlines. He has a confident air of self-possession yet is unafraid to admit to doubts and uncertainty and can often seem touchily defensive when he has no need to be. He's also excellent at keeping a straight poker face when confronted with some of your naughtier questions...

Did you have girl's hair as a kid?
The Stretford Ender, via email
When I was younger I always had long, very blond ringlets and as I've got older, my hair has got darker but it's stayed long. I mean, if it was cut short, I'd look like a matchstick or something...

What's with all the childhood Everton fans – you, Robbie, Michael Owen – signing for the big rivals? And what would you advise Wayne Rooney to do?
Jeff Shawcross, Sydney
I think that when I was about signing age – those other lads are all a bit younger than me, by the way – Liverpool's youth policy was much better than Everton's. When I was younger I was desperate to sign for Everton but they weren't as forthcoming as Liverpool. For a young player, 15 years old, your chances were so much better at Liverpool. As for Rooney, he's obviously a great player. It's difficult as he's had a great Euro 2004 and, as we know, Everton are going through problems of their own. Being an Everton fan I would like him to stay and learn his trade a bit better. But you can't really advise anyone in that position anymore as there's so much going on in the background that you don't know about.

Is it true that when you score a header in training (even when you were at Liverpool) you shout "Latchford!" after Everton legend Bob Latchford?
Matthew Guinan, Liverpool
Yeah, but only at Liverpool. At Real they didn't know Latchford so it was probably Bobby Charlton.

What was the best practical joke you witnessed during your Anfield career and who was the biggest target for such pranks? 
Danny Hayes, via email
Normally the one who got played upon most was Jason McAteer, who was a great laugh, a bit crazy and, well, as people know, not the cleverest of lads! Sometimes you don't know whether he's really super-intellectual and just having all of us on. When I was younger and used to knock around with the likes of Ronnie Whelan and John Barnes, we'd go for Steve Nicol-type characters. It was always the ones who weren't perhaps as outwardly intelligent as others.

'Spice Boys' – how much did that tag piss you off?
Annie End Red, Liverpool
At the time it didn't. It's laughable now as they were actually having a dig at players who were modelling at the time – I wasn't really one of them, incidentally – and those who did various interviews with various newspapers, although there are hundreds of them at it these days, of course. It was an easy tag to apply at the time as Liverpool didn't win the league. The Spice Boys at one time consisted of eight or nine players and the press just used to change the personnel as they fancied. It was unfortunate� because when we finished third in the league we got a lot of stick for it. At the time I felt very sorry for some of the lads involved. But it didn't bother me personally as I was playing very good football at the time.

Admit it, you lot could really take the piss with Roy Evans in charge...
Steve Wilson, Birkenhead
Again, there's another myth blown out of all proportion. When we finished third and people saw us having a laugh and a joke, they thought we didn't care. Nowadays, when you finish third, everyone is thrilled to bits – look at Chelsea and United last year. Everyone's excited about qualifying for the Champions League. Under Roy Evans we did that a lot, and did it by playing fantastic football, but because there were a few young lads who liked to enjoy themselves at times, people had misconceptions. As far as I'm concerned Roy was a fantastic manager and excellent person, and I can't speak highly enough of him. I think he's had a lot of bad press since he left and he was an unlucky manager.

Did you and Grobbelaar continue the fisticuffs in the changing room at Goodison? And did he use his shaky-leg tactic to psyche you out?
Tom Leigh, Birmingham
No, not really. It ended there and then. A couple of slaps and punches and there it ended. And yeah, his spaghetti legs absolutely terrified me...

Do your mates look like other Scooby-Doo characters?
Billy Graham, via email
Yeah, the wife looks like Daphne. One of my mates looks like Thelma... nah, not really. It's just me with the uncanny resemblance. To the dog, I think.

That dentist's chair: who imbibed the most? And did anyone puke?
Barry Murray, Basingstoke
[Laughs] Puking?! Certainly not. Who drank the most? It was probably much of a muchness really. When people are trying to pour several bottles down at once, it's physically impossible to drink a lot, so I think people drank for about a second, got drenched and then quickly got out.

What really happened on that Cathay Pacific flight back from Hong Kong with England?
Adam Gilsenan, Stourbridge
I got the blame for it in certain newspapers – people put two and two together as it was my TV and table that was broken – but Gazza broke them: he owned up to it all in his autobiography. I didn't even see it. All I remember is a 13-hour flight back from bloody Hong Kong: I don't normally sleep on planes and I couldn't watch telly or eat my food because I didn't have a table!

Is it true that you said, "Joining up with England is like joining the Moonies" during Hoddle's reign? And that he never forgave you?
Andy Kerr, Hove
No. God, no. Another fantastic myth.

Who was the worst England manager you worked under and why?
Sarah Kelly, via e-mail
[Chortles at length] Well... [lengthy pause] They were all different. I think I probably least enjoyed my time when Glenn Hoddle was the manager. But I wouldn't say he was necessarily the worst. He had his ways of training and ways of acting and all managers have different ways of doing things; it's the same with club managers. Sometimes when you join up with England and you don't play as often as you did under a certain other manager – then you'll think it's terrible. I loved going to play with England. For instance, I did get to go to the World Cup even though I only played for 17 minutes. That kind of experience leaves an indelible mark on your mind. So I don't really think of it in terms of "worst"; but going to the World Cup and not playing much was a big thing for me, really, and that was under Glenn, of course...

How did you feel when you first found out about Real Madrid being interested in signing you?
Tim Fuller, via e-mail
Very excited�. There were other teams interested in me as well: a couple of other Spanish clubs, a couple of Italian clubs. I was probably one of the first to go on a Bosman, and every man and his dog tried to get hold of me at the time. Everyone was suddenly an agent and everyone was coming to the training ground, phoning my dad, phoning me... everyone wanted to get in on it. At the time I just wanted to play in Spain: I think Real had just won the World Club Championship in Tokyo and they'd won the European Cup the year before, so they were officially the world's best team. It's a hell of a hard decision to have to make, to leave your friends and family at home, but it's an amazing buzz to find out you're wanted by the world's greatest team.

Were you aware when you were at Liverpool that Fergie wanted to sign you for United?
John Denton, Macclesfield
No, not really. People used to say that he liked me or he might say nice things about me in the press but that was about as much as it got. I never knew that he wanted to sign me. I knew that there was a mutual admiration between us at the time but that was all it ever got to.

On the "Who's The Daddy" scale of being The Daddy, how many Big Daddies would it have taken to out-daddy you when you scored that goal for Real against Valencia in the 2000 Champions League final?
Dave Burton, Southport
[Sniggers] God knows, you know... you score a goal in the final and you win the game quite comfortably... it was a good volley and I think I played well, so I don't think anyone could have out-daddied me in that game!

Patatas bravas or patatas ali-oli?
Vicki Smith, Ealing
Ali-oli, definitely. I always knew I had to get into the food and the lifestyle so I got in there straight away – late nights, drinking a lot of beer and wine. It wasn't hard! But there's the huge language barrier. I had a few lessons in England before I left. My Real team-mates knew I was trying to adapt even though I couldn't converse with them, but the fact that I sat with them and had a beer and laughed at silly things they did showed that I wanted to be accepted. When you're playing in an English team and foreign lads come in and try and do that, you really appreciate it. If you don't try, you'll amount to nothing.

Who's the worst: Spanish hacks with acres of column space to fill or slobbering English press corps with exclusives to sniff out?
Tim Craig, Lincoln
The English press by a country mile. In Spain they write about football: if you play well, they'll say you played well, if you played terribly they'll say you played terribly. You can handle that. It's the snidey comments or the lies they make up: "A friend of the player says..." and all that – it's all bollocks. The Spanish press is going that way now too: because Becks is there, a lot of English press are there, creating competition. It's definitely got worse.

Do fans have the right to get on your back because they've paid to watch you play?
Mike Jeffrey, Scarborough
They have a right to an opinion, and I don't think anyone should be bothered by that. If you've made a bad pass, you don't need a fella behind you shouting at you to know that you've done it. But that's not a problem. It's when they overstep the mark and say things that they shouldn't, then fall back on the argument that they paid 20 quid so they can say what they want. Yet if you or your manager turn round to say whatever you want, you can be fined or punished. And if they throw something on the pitch, it's not a problem, but if a player throws it back, that's a problem. I just don't agree with the "I've paid my money so I can do whatever I want as soon as I go in there" – that's just rubbish.

Can Roberto Carlos actually get trousers off the peg, or does he have to have them specially made to fit his gargantuan thighs?
Rik Marley, Lostock
[Guffaws] Definitely has to get them specially made. He's deformed, isn't he? [Chuckles] He's a specimen and a half. His legs are absolutely huge. Two of my thighs stuck together would make one of his. Mind you, he might buy them off the peg – that's why they don't fit him.

Do you see yourself eventually copying Michael Robinson and going into Spanish TV work? Are you fluent enough?
Philip Wright, via e-mail
No. If I was going to do it, I'd need to take more lessons. When you're away from Spain, you do lose bits. I go back every summer and try and speak as much as I can and I'm going to take more lessons. If I was ever going to get into that line of work I would take lots and lots of lessons, but I have no ambition to do it at the moment.

How many mirrors does Guti own? Does he want to be Becks?
Jeff Jones, Portsmouth
Mirrors? 43! The new Becks? No, he's been doing what he's been doing for so many years. I was at Madrid for four years and even before I got there he was by all accounts the same. He's probably out-Becked Becks.

Which derby did you prefer playing in: Liverpool-Everton or Real Madrid-Barcelona?
Danny Hayes, via e-mail
Liverpool-Everton. It meant more to me because I was born in Liverpool. The Real-Barça derby was bigger and had a different fervour because of all the political and Catalonian stuff wrapped around it, but the passion of it passed me by because I didn't know the full story. The build-up was massive. They'd report from outside the hotels every half hour, they had old Real-Barça games on TV for days before. You'd be playing a week before and the press would say "Make sure you beat Barça like that next week." It was the only game that mattered. Over here the Manchester derby is great because United have always been "the enemy". It means a lot to me, actually: it's not like I've gone to Sheffield, for instance, where the Wednesday-United derby would be totally different for me. The Manchester derby match is just huge.

How frustrating was it to know that you weren't going to get a game however well you played at Madrid – "the galacticos must go on" and all that?
Adrian Brook, Lincoln
To be very honest that really only happened in the last year, and it was frustrating but you knew that it was the way that the club was going. The manager was under a lot of pressure to play certain people week in, week out. They had to be seen on the pitch as the games were being shown all over the world, so in the end it was a big thing.

Honestly now, was there a bit of you that was happy that Real Madrid won nothing in the year after you left the club?
Simon Taylor, Charlton
A bit, of course, yes. To be honest, thousands of people foresaw it: it wasn't rocket science. All the players knew what was going to happen. What you have to remember is that in the summer of last year, 10 very good players left and they tried to replace them with five or six kids who hadn't played Champions League games. The players weren't happy about it, the coach wasn't happy and those who left could see it coming. In one way it's great to say, "The year they won nothing was the year I wasn't there." But it should never have happened and it won't happen this season because they've now brought the right players in.

Is Ronaldo really the bon viveur we're told he is? And why didn't you go to Madrid for his famous 29th birthday party?
Jon Kettle, Windsor
We only think he's this bon viveur because since Becks has gone to Madrid the press report on everything. Yes, he likes to enjoy himself but it has never affected his game. As for his 29th birthday party, I've been to loads of other parties at his house and the �only reason that party is big and famous is because the press put two and two together and came up with 50. The year before, it wouldn't have been in the English papers. And why should Ron having a party affect what people think of him?

What did you think when you got that answerphone message from Sven saying you weren't in?
Dave Owen, Reading
It was surreal. I hadn't played for England for six months. They'd had about four or five games leading up to the World Cup and I hadn't been called up to any. The fact that I got a phonecall was surreal, especially as I was at training and everybody knows you don't phone a footballer at 11 in the morning, as he'll be in training. I just thought it was all a bit weird.

What do you say when people say you never performed for England? Does it hurt?
Gary Simpson, via e-mail
No, because there are probably games where I didn't play well enough and I completely understand that. There are times when I've been good and times when I haven't; I don't have a problem when people say that – I agree with them. But it's rubbish to say that I have never played well. If you look at my England record, I started playing for England in 1994, I played in championships in 1996, 1998 and 2000 and I've only lost about three times in my England career, which is a good record. So I must have been doing something right. It's ridiculous when people say that, for example, John Barnes has never played well for England, given he won so many caps... it's rubbish.

Have you seen the Soccer AM spoof of you and Robbie Fowler philosophising over a shared garden fence? In real life, what was your last topic of conversation?
Andy Kerr, Hove
Yeah, I'm good mates with Tim Lovejoy, he's been over to Madrid to see me, and we know Helen. We're all mates so we knew it was going in and we took it in good humour. We had a laugh about it – it was very funny. Our last real conversation was today; it could have been something as simple as "We've got a game tomorrow" but I doubt it. That's the official answer! I don't know, I was probably skitting his small ears or something...

Who'd win in a fight between you and Robbie Fowler against the Neville brothers?
Steve Crayston, Blackpool
A couple of Scousers against the Neville brothers? I don't know. Me and Robbie are passive – we don't fight. If I gave you any other answer to that, it'd be in the press next week and it would be murder...

There's been much speculation about England's problem on the left wing. Who would you play?
Will Davis, Bristol
I actually don't go along with the left-sided problem. We only seem to have a problem when we don't beat teams. When we beat Germany 5-1, Nicky Barmby started and I came on in the second half, and after that game there wasn't a problem. At Euro 2004, I don't think you could say the problem was down to the left side. I think it was down to us playing better teams who could keep the ball and we couldn't. I think it's too easy to say we should have a tricky winger on the left and a tricky winger on the right, and in reality they are few and far between.

Who's the best player you've ever played with?
Steve Jevon, via e-mail
For Liverpool it would have been the likes of John Barnes, who was excellent, Jamie Redknapp was excellent, Growler [Robbie Fowler] was excellent. And Madrid: for a centre-half, Hierro was outstanding, as was Roberto Carlos for a left-back. Zidane, Ronnie, Luis [Figo]... you could go on and on, really. The likes of John Barnes, players who can dribble, have always fascinated me... I can't pick one out – it wouldn't be right because who's to say a striker is better than a centre-half? The striker gets all the glory but really the buck stops with the centre-half.

What will you do after football? Stay in the game? Concentrate on the gee-gees? Move back to Spain?
Kevin Wilkinson, Huntingdon
I don't know. Ten years ago I would have wanted to stay in the game. Now the desire's fading. The life away from football is more appealing now. I've got disillusioned with various things about football. Certain things have changed. Ten years ago, a manager's job was a great job and now it's not so nice because of all of the pressure. I don't know. I've always loved the gee-gees. I might move to Spain; I don't have children so I might have a child and then everything changes once again. It's hard to make a decision at the moment as I could easily change my mind again.

Interview: Richard Kurt. Portrait: Jill Jennings. From the October 2004 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!