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Friday, Oct. 3, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

England could use experience, skill of McManaman in lineup


LONDON -- When Sven-Goran Eriksson names the England squad this weekend for the decisive Euro 2004 qualifying tie in Turkey on Oct. 11 it is a safe bet that Steve McManaman will not be included.

Christopher Davies

Now back in the Premiership with Manchester City, McManaman has been English football's most successful export, playing in 11 finals during his four years with Real Madrid.

Among those were two in the Champions League, the first against Valencia which saw the winger volley a stunning goal.

Nobody, not John Charles with Juventus in the late 1950s or more recently Gary Lineker (Barcelona), Liam Brady, Graeme Souness, David Platt and Ray Wilkins in Italy has won more.

If medals are the yardstick, then McManaman, who helped Real to win the Spanish League, Spanish Cup and Champions League, is top of the list. He earned universal respect and, indeed, an absolute fortune with Real, yet in England Macca is still seen as an enigma.

Good enough for the best team in Europe but not for his country -- it is a football contradiction that will no doubt take up a chapter or two in the book McManaman is preparing for next season.

So why was McManaman able to claim a regular -- if not automatic -- place in the Real team alongside Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Raul and other galacticos, yet be ignored by Eriksson for the past 18 months?

The suspicion is McManaman's display against Albania at St. James' Park two seasons ago was the catalyst for his international downfall.

Word has it Eriksson was not impressed by the player's application and preparation in training, while when he came on as a substitute, he spent the first five minutes trying to tape up a ring on his finger instead of tying the Albanian defense in knots.

This, apparently, did not go down well with the Swede, who believes such taping should be done before a sub goes on rather than after.

Since then McManaman has been in the international wilderness and it is likely to stay that way even though England is far from blessed with an abundance of wingers.

In fact, McManaman is the only candidate for the down-the-flank type of winger who takes on (and usually beats) the opposing fullback.

The impression is the entire squad would have to be injured or struck down with food poisoning before the former Liverpool player would get a call up.

And even then Eriksson would first search for alternatives.

McManaman's early form for City has been excellent, a reminder of how good a player he is and that he doesn't necessarily need Zidane, Figo and the rest of football's equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters to make him look outstanding.

It is obvious his four years in Europe's best league, La Primera Liga, has benefited McManaman in many ways.

He is more tactically astute, faster than in his Liverpool days, while the experience of his Spanish adventure has made McManaman a better professional in every sense.

Apart from the occasional lapse in taping a ring.

IT HAPPENS regularly in the National Football League when owners relocate their franchise after receiving a better offer from another city but Wimbledon's move from London to Milton Keynes, about 95 km north of the capital, caused an uproar.

It isn't football and it isn't British.

What it is, however, is good business sense. Wimbledon has been dying a slow death in recent years and the alternative to Milton Keynes was extinction, though some would have been happy for the latter.

Wimbledon rose to the top -- literally as it led the old first division at one stage -- at its decrepit Plough Lane Stadium, its natural home in the southwest London borough of Merton.

With no scope for modernization, the 1988 F.A. Cup winner moved to Selhurst Park to become the tenants of Crystal Palace in southeast London, where the Dons owner Sam Hammam sold/betrayed the club (depending on your view point), leaving with, apparently, £30 million before buying Cardiff City.

While Wimbledon was a Premier League club, one wondered why a Norwegian consortium would be interested in buying a concern with very limited potential -- no ground of its own and a training ground that was open to the public?

It didn't make sporting or business sense, but then football operates on its own weird and wonderful rules at times and best not to probe too deeply.

Talk of a move to Dublin never materialized -- "we are a club with no market and Dublin is a market with no club" was an unconvincing argument and football regulations would never allow such a transfer anyway.

But it was a good story and generated the publicity that Wimbledon, the nomads of English football, were looking for a new home. Again.

With Merton Borough unwilling to help with a new stadium there was only one answer -- to find a town that would welcome a club whose attendances were down to triple figures.

A consortium led by pop producer Pete Winkelman found Milton Keynes happy to adopt the first-division club -- albeit the club in last place -- and after a year of talks involving the Football Association, Football League and seemingly just about everyone except Tony Blair and George Bush, Wimbledon made its debut at National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes last Saturday, when the MK Dons (as they will probably be known officially next year) drew 2-2 with Burnley.

It was a strange environment, and not just because the artificial turf had been replaced by the real stuff.

There were around 8,000 fans present -- 7,000 more than at some recent "home" games at Selhurst Park -- which prompted Wimbledon manager Stuart Murdoch to say: "The players were so shocked to hear applause during the warmup they thought the Pope had arrived. We've given them earplugs for the next match."

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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