Friday, July 24 – 1998
Of all the transfer rumour, informed or otherwise, which inevitably has reached a frenzy in this limbo period between the World Cup and resumption of the domestic season the most significant story concerns Steve McManaman.
It has been widely reported that Newcastle are ready to make a £10 million bid to Liverpool for McManaman. On the face of it the tale might appear just another in a long procession of speculation which this week linked Manchester United with Patrick Kluivert, Arsenal with Alen Boksic and Tottenham with Dunga.
But the McManaman story is different. Quite apart from the fact that it#s an English international, rather than a foreign star, being courted by a Premiership club, it raises two crucial issues. One for Liverpool and another for the domestic game in general.
From Liverpool’s point of view it is the first test to see just how coordinate the entente between “joint managers” Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier really is.
For the rest of the Premiership clubs it poses the intriguing question about the post-Bosman transfer market. In this era of complete freedom of movement at the end of a player’s contract, the dilemma for clubs is not so much when is the right time to buy, but when is the right time to sell.
Let’s take what the McManaman issue could mean for Liverpool. According to gossip, McManaman is increasingly “unhappy” at Liverpool and has shown little inclination to seriously consider the offer of a new contract. Evans who helped nurture McManaman through the Anfield ranks, has consistently said he wants him to stay and will go out of his way to convince the Liverpool board that they must meet the player’s terms.
Conveniently, with McManaman linked so strongly with Newcastle, those terms have been advertised. “Sources” close to McManaman have said Newcastle would be willing to pay him £1,2m for five years and offer him nearly half as much again in bonuses if he helped them win the Premiership.
Evans might well think that#s worth paying to help Liverpool receive former glories. But will Houllier? If he doesn’t then who will the directors listen to?
And from McManaman’s point of view, who does he go to about a situation which has been festering since last summer when it emerged the club were prepared to accept a £12m bid from Barcelona. Evans or Houllier?
The same goes for the rest of the Liverpool players on the training field and in the dressing room. If they are dropped, who do they confront or whose shoulder do they cry on?
The official line, of course, has been that Evans and Houllier will do everything from team selection, to tactics, to transfers by consensus. The players need to know who the boss is and so does the boss. Double act management teams have been spectacularly successful, Mercer and Allison, Clough and Taylor, Dalglish and Harford, but only because the terms of reference were clear. Everyone at the club knew who the “gaffer” was.
But they have failed when there has been no such distinction as Alan Curbishley – Steve Gritt and Colin Todd – Roy McFarland have all recently admitted.
An axis of Evans and Houllier on equal terms is destined to go the same way because it’s hard enough for one man to stand by his own mistakes, but simply too much asking him to stand by someone else’s.
And the way Liverpool handle McManaman’s current situation demands strong and single-minded leadership which cannot be cluded by compromise because there is so much money at stake.
With one year left on his contract, Liverpool must soon make a simple choice. They either offer McManaman the sort of financial deal he knows he can get elsewhere and thus tie him to club for the next five years. That would mean the club taking on a commitment of anything up to £10m.
Or they take the money now, and use it to recruit the players they still need to win the Champiosnhip.
Given that McManaman has hinted he harbours aspirations of playing abroad and knows full well he could sit tight, coast at Liverpool for the rest of this season then fly to Italy next summer able to negotiate the earth without a huge transfer fee over his head, the answer seems obvious.
If Newcastle are serious and McManaman likes what they have to offer – given his inconsistency he ought to be – then Liverpool must take the money.
Such pragmatism might not go down well on the Kop, but to address the second significant strand of this McManaman situation, it is exactly the hard headed calculation every top club must now start to make.
Once a player is within 18 months of the end of his contract they either trash out a new one or sell him on no matter what flak they will get from the fans. As it stands at Liverpool, though, if McManaman is sold, who will the Kopites turn on?
But should such a backlash occur it could well act as the catalyst to sort out the messy managerial marriage the club have created. For Liverpool’s prospects this season I would suggest the sooner the better.
(Copyright: Daily Express, 24-07-1998, by Rob Shepherd)