McManaman keeps feet on the ground

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Disappointingly he looks just the same. You’d half expect Steve McManaman’s transition from pilloried scapegoat for English ineptitude into gilded European champion to have bathed the player in a kind of miasmic glow. Instead he still looks more like a gangly 5000m runner from Widnes than a footballing aristocrat.

Tonight he will be given licence to roam Wembley in search of a role for Euro 2000, perhaps slowed a little by the weight of expectation. If he can help Real Madrid win one European Championship, maybe he can help England win another, some suggest, hurdling several obstacles of logic.

McManaman’s confidence has been boosted by that victory in Paris, although he is a player who has always had a quiet faith in his own ability. "I’ve seen all the stuff in the papers, and thanks for that," he said yesterday, "but the people who know me know I’m not the sort to get carried away."

Tonight he has been given the mythical "free role" in an England side constructed to give full rein to McManaman’s abilities. "He’s earned the right to have that chance at this level," Kevin Keegan said. "In the past I’ve compromised him, so against Ukraine, we’ve said ‘we’ll fit in around you. You’ve earned that chance’."

Keegan insisted McManaman’s role would be "go where you want, do what you want". The player himself said: "People go on about a free role, but whenever it looks like that, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a job to do within the team. You still have your players to pick up, your responsibilities."

McManaman wasn’t inclined to be too analytical about past failures in an England shirt, laconically reminding us that he wasn’t given many chances under Glenn Hoddle, and pointing out that in his three Euro 2000 qualifiers, England had taken seven points.

"My performances could have been fantastic, and they weren’t, but it’s the team performance that has always mattered for me," he said.

"You do want to play all the time in a settled side, but at this level it’s not always possible to do that. And sometimes it is hard to play alongside people who you’ve only played with in training a day before. It’s only in a tournament like this that you can feel part of a team."

McManaman admits his horizons have been broadened by a year in Madrid, particularly his approach to life off the field. With England, he may also welcome the opportunity to work with a coach who respects his assets. Under Terry Venables at the last European championship, McManaman enjoyed an excellent tournament. Keegan’s pronouncements suggest the player will be given every opportunity for a repeat.

Steven Gerrard, McManaman’s old Liverpool colleague, will feature against Ukraine, in his preferred position of right midfield. The news of his inclusion came on his 20th birthday. "I was speaking to Michael Owen about it," he said, "and he told me to do what I’ve been doing for Liverpool."

Gerrard is nursing a surreal ambition to become "Paul Ince’s predecessor", although for the time being he’s happy to pick up tips in training from the player whose performance against Brazil seems to have secured his place in the squad.

Nigel Martyn will be in goal and both Dennis Wise and Owen, certainties for the final 22, will be rested. Otherwise Keegan attempted to remain coy about his starting XI, knowing it might betray his final squad.

Keegan will break the news to the unlucky six members of the squad this afternoon, in advance of the match, making it public an hour after the match. He has already decided which men won’t be travelling to the tournament, though he appreciates the need to secure their readiness to be on stand-by.

Logic suggests that David James was always surplus to requirements, Gareth Barry and Nick Barmby were willing reserves, while Jamie Redknapp and Ray Parlour’s dubious fitness will not be risked. That leaves only ambiguity about Keegan’s choice of strikers.

Emile Heskey’s abilities are familiar enough to Keegan, while Kevin Phillips has statistics on his side. Tonight Robbie Fowler can stake his claim, suggesting that barring upset or injury, Andy Cole’s habitual scowl will be getting darker.

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