The man from Marca wastes no time in cutting to the chase. “Which one do you want to win?” he inquires and, albeit briefly, Steve McManaman looks to concoct a delicate, diplomatic, fudge.
“The best team,” replies the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and England winger. “It’s very difficult for me, I’ve a huge amount of friends in both camps, I adore both teams and I want to see everybody happy…”
Fortunately, it does not take McManaman long to remember he has always found perching on fences uncomfortable. “But,” he continues, smiling at a longstanding pal from one of Spain’s daily sports papers. “I think if you had to push me hard one way, my affiliation with Liverpool at this moment is a little greater. I still work in the academy and I’ve got a huge affiliation with a lot of players, so I’ll go that way. And Real Madrid have won it 13 times and Liverpool six so I think Liverpool deserve another win. Maybe it’s their turn after Real Madrid beat them in the 2018 Kyiv final. ”
As McManaman limbers up for BT Sport punditry duties at Saturday’s Champions League denouement in Paris, the memories come flooding back.
He was in Madrid as recently as Tuesday, renewing old acquaintance at Real. “A lot of people, like the physios, are the same as when I was there and they’re still my friends,” he says before revealing his latest return coincided with a special anniversary.
On 24 May 2000 he scored a career-defining and superlative-defying 67th-minute volley in the Champions League final against Valencia in Paris. It put Real 2-0 up and, once Raúl added the third, glory beckoned.
“I hadn’t realized the date,” he says. “Scoring that goal was great but it was only important because it enabled us to enjoy the last 20 minutes; whereas two years later when we won the Champions League again [2-1 against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow with McManaman replacing Luís Figo after an hour] we were hanging on for dear life and the last 20 minutes were terrifying. ”
McManaman is 50, the same age as his mother, Irene, when she died of breast cancer in 1999. “The 2000 final was 10 months after my mum passed away and my father was in the crowd,” he recalls. “Meeting him afterwards was emotional.”
It marked the end of the winger’s first season in Spain after 272 games for Liverpool and life was changing fast. “At the time my wife [Victoria, a barrister] and I did not have children so we settled into the Madrid lifestyle really well, ”he recalls. “We learned the language and enjoyed the different culture. I’d grown up in Liverpool and not traveled a lot so it changed me. I love Spain; the fact I constantly talk about Madrid and that we’ve had a house in Mallorca for 22 years shows my adoration for the place. It certainly made me grow as a person. I’m still in touch with all my old Real Madrid teammates. We have a WhatsApp group and I see a lot of them at veterans’ games. “
Now a father of three, McManaman travels frequently to Spain from his base in Cheshire where that academy work at Liverpool has seen him heavily involved with the development of, among others, Trent Alexander-Arnold.
On trips to Madrid he often bumps into an Argentinian resident of Spain’s capital. “Fernando Redondo’s a lovely fellow,” he beams. “In my first Champions League final I was in a sort of central midfield two with Fernando, somewhere I’d never played before. Redondo was an incredible footballer, treated very unfairly at Madrid. He left that year Florentino Pérez came in [as president] and there was a lot of unrest. ”
Pérez initially tried to sell McManaman, too, but the Englishman resisted assorted moves before re-establishing himself as a key component of Vicente del Bosque’s team. “Carlo Ancelotti’s style is very close to Del Bosque’s,” he says. “The way Carlo operates is perfect for Real Madrid. He’s very relaxed and lets the players get on with it. They do not want an aggressive, abrasive coach who causes problems. He’s a superstar manager.
“I remember being nervous before the 2000 final but my teammates were used to the pressure and so relaxed. They were having massages, playing music and enjoying a beer at 1am. In England we’d been in our rooms at 10.30pm the night before a big game so I thought it was the most extraordinary thing but, that’s Spanish life, they do that kind of thing. “
McManaman admits he did not expect Real to beat Chelsea in the quarter-finals, let alone Manchester City in the semis. “On paper, they’re weaker than in 2018,” he says. “But this team always proves you wrong. Luka Modric’s almost 37 and shouldn’t be as good as he was four years ago but he’s probably on a par. He’s a wonderful, amazing, phenomenal footballer whose pass for Rodrygo’s goal against Chelsea at the Bernabéu was pass of the season.
“There’s something special about Real Madrid and the Champions League; you can never write them off. They and Liverpool are amazing – and Jürgen Klopp and Carlo are both fantastic managers and very nice people. I could not wish for a better final. ”
Watch BT Sport’s exclusive coverage of the Uefa Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid live from Stade de France from 6pm on Saturday. For more info, visit btsport.com