4 March 2001: Steve McManaman had to endure months of frustration on the sidelines before becoming a key player at Real Madrid. Now happy on and off the pitch, he gave Amy Raphael an exclusive tour of the Spanish capital – and explained his unexpected role as Sven-Göran Eriksson’s travel agent

Real Madrid have won again and Steve McManaman is first into the players’ lounge at the Bernabeu stadium. On his way in, he acknowledges the bank of jostling photographers and journalists with a wink and a grin, then shies away from the sudden white light as dozens of cameras flash. Inside, he greets his girlfriend Victoria with a kiss and accepts the beer waiting for him. After gulping it down in two mouthfuls and seeing Victoria’s empty wine glass, he goes to the bar.

‘Una mas cerveza e uno vino tinto, por favor.’

By some remarkable trick of international language, his guttural Scouse makes the Spanish accent near perfect.

A few moments later his mobile rings. It’s his dad. ‘All right, da,’ he says, smiling. ‘Yeah, it was a good game. Of course I started. Liverpool did okay yesterday, they beat West Ham 3-0. Yeah, I know, Robbie called me to say he’d got two.’ As he finishes the call, Roberto Carlos appears. McManaman says, sotto voce: ‘I love him to bits, but I bet he’s wearing one of his dodgy Versace shirts.’

Indeed he is: a ridiculously shiny black shirt and black suit loose enough to disguise his extraordinary thighs. Carlos kisses Victoria on both cheeks, standing on his tiptoes to reach her – at 5ft4in he is a good four inches smaller than her. He winks at McManaman and goes to the bar to order a beer.

As McManaman discusses the evening’s plans with Victoria, Jorge Valdano, Real Madrid’s director general, nods at him. Luis Figo wanders in and sits in a corner on his own. He is not going anywhere this evening, only back to his rented house, but between his knees is a Louis Vuitton suitcase. He makes no attempt to go to the bar but smiles as other players – Ivan Campo and Claude Makelele – pass on the way there.

It is only 8pm – still far too early to eat in Madrid, even on a Sunday – so McManaman suggests a few drinks at a nearby hotel. As we leave, the press shout his name. He knows how important it is to keep them happy, but instead he signs autographs for a group of patient fans. The group grows bigger, but he’s had enough. ‘Time for another beer,’ he says, taking Victoria’s hand and striding off to the car.

That Steve McManaman should still be sharing a players’ lounge with the likes of Roberto Carlos and Luis Figo is something of a miracle. Having joined the club in the summer of 1999, his first year involved a lot of watching Real Madrid and not much playing for them, a spell on the sidelines that included three months out injured. Gradually, he began to establish himself in an improving team – and the season reached a glorious climax for both when he scored a marvellous goal against Valencia in last year’s European Cup final, a game in which many made him man of the match.

Yet if McManaman then thought he finally belonged at Real, the feeling was not to last long. While playing a peripheral part in England’s disastrous Euro 2000 campaign a few weeks later, he learnt that the club’s fans had voted in a new president, Florentino Perez. Central to Perez’s campaign was the astonishing promise to sign Luis Figo – the best player at Barcelona, Real’s hated rivals, and the only club in Spain capable of matching them in terms of stature, support and tradition.

Even more astonishingly Perez was able to pull off the coup, though in doing so the club had to set a world transfer record of £37m. And therein lay the problem. For despite being one of the world’s most famous clubs, Real are also its most indebted, reportedly owing more than £110m. The arrival of Figo meant there had to be cost-cutting and, with his weekly wage said to exceed £70,000, McManaman became an expendable luxury.

So, a year after signing McManaman on a free transfer from Liverpool, Real Madrid did everything in their power to offload him. Stories appeared every day as to his likely destination – Lazio, Manchester United, even Middlesbrough. The coach, Vicente del Bosque, insisted the Englishman was no longer part of his plans.

The new season approached and with it came the final humiliation: not only was McManaman out of the team, he wasn’t even given a squad number. Yet McManaman knew he possessed the trump card: Real couldn’t actually force him to sign for anyone else. He had a contract that took him to 2003 and he intended to honour it.

He was also gaining the upper hand by behaving with extraordinary dignity, refusing to throw tantrums or even to criticise Real Madrid. He carefully maintained he loved the club, the city, its supporters, and became something of a hero to Real’s fans and admired even by Barcelona’s.

The club began to soften its attitude; they had managed to sell another popular player, Fernando Redondo, to Milan but realised McManaman was there to stay. In September, he was given a squad number. He was still spending most games on the bench but the public were behind him; in the city centre, he was stopped every few steps by fans begging him to stay.

He hinted at an interest in Lazio and said: ‘There’s not a chance I will be sitting on that bench after Christmas having started two games. Not a chance.’ His confidence proved well-founded. As the season progressed McManaman began to get a game more regularly. And the team in which even Figo had initially looked out of place began to gel. By the time McManaman was orchestrating the destruction of Leeds United in the Champions League in November, it was clear that Real Madrid were destined to be much better than they were last season – when they may have been European champions but only finished fifth in the league.

McManaman remains reluctant to talk about those dark times in the summer and early autumn, though it is clear his experiences of isolation and frustration left a scar even on a personality as bubbly and upbeat as his. He much prefers to concentrate on the present, to look forward to the possibility of another European final. He will, however, dismiss last summer’s speculation about his return to England: ‘I’ve joked that I’d rather play for Outer Mongolia or Torquay than some Premiership side. I did speak to Bryan Robson on the phone but I was never interested in going to Boro. I admire Robbo but I had no intention of going home.’

He can’t remember the day Del Bosque changed his mind; he simply says that the coach doesn’t talk very much, but that once you get in the first team, you tend to keep your place. Diego Torres, a reporter with El Pais, sees no reason why McManaman should lose his place. ‘He’s a very intelligent though not very skilful player. He can manage the Real Madrid shirt because he can read the game so well. It would be difficult to send him to the bench now because he is so appreciated by his team-mates; they all want him to play. They respect him. They know he can defend as well as attack. In a world of stars he is an incredibly unselfish player.’

Yet, such is the Byzantine world in which McManaman finds himself, Torres thinks this might not be enough. ‘Macca is also the third highest paid player, after Figo and Raul. He earns 700m pesetas (£2.6m) a season. The club wanted to let him go last summer, and I think they will try to sell him again this summer – because their long-term policy is to cut wages.’

If they do, they can expect another furious response from their fans, many of whom were less than impressed by Redondo’s departure. Torres adds: ‘McManaman doesn’t speak Spanish fluently, but he’s a natural communicator and he socialises well. He’s expressive, he has charm. Most of the other players – Raul, Figo, Hierro – are dull and serious, but Macca laughs all the time. He changes the atmosphere in the dressing-room. He was very important in the final in Paris; the most important player alongside Redondo. Not just for the goal he scored but because he proved what a great tactical mind he has. He was fantastic .’

McManaman’s phone rings again. It is Michelle from the FA. She says Sven-Göran Eriksson will be coming over the following week to watch Real Madrid play Lazio and wonders if McManaman can recommend any hotels. ‘The Ritz is okay; I stayed there when I arrived in Madrid. I think Eriksson might like it there, it’s very central and right next to the Prado museum…’ She asks how he is getting on and he laughs. ‘Since October, I’ve played in every bloody game, but no one at home realises. I’ve been playing very well, but they think I’m struggling to get a game.’

When he finishes the call, I ask if he expects to see Eriksson. He shrugs. ‘I don’t expect so. He’ll probably just come and go. I was cool about him being made manager. The players wanted Venables back but that obviously wasn’t going to happen.

‘Everyone knows what the England job entails and it’s more than just picking a squad of 20 players. They’re never fit for a start. Then having a relationship with all the Premiership managers, let alone having to please the press and the fans. It really is a job and a half.

‘I don’t really feel as though I’ve got a point to prove with England, but I haven’t had that many games. I scored in Euro 2000 and then I was injured. It’s very frustrating sitting on the bench, thinking you could make a difference if only you were playing. You might not actually be able to change a game, but you always have to think you can.

‘I was shocked when Kevin Keegan resigned. I had been in the stands during the game and when I walked in, the dressing-room was silent. I had to ask Robbie [Fowler] what was going on. Keegan had been pretty emotional. I think he said he’d tried but that he hadn’t been able to get a good result. He said that as he walked off the pitch all he could hear was the fans shouting abuse. Everyone seemed really disappointed; we’d just got beaten by Germany in the last ever game at Wembley in the first game of the World Cup 2002 qualifiers. The weather was terrible. Then he came in and made his announcement. We were upset, but we knew we had to play Finland four days later. We knew we had to get back to business.’

When I first interviewed McManaman – over lunch – six years ago, we met up with Robbie Fowler, went for a drink, and didn’t stop till past midnight. I was worried his hangover would get him into trouble; he simply got up an hour earlier to run off the beer. McManaman has remained much the same ever since, still the boy from a Kirkdale council house who dreamt of playing for Everton, still the boy who turned down a scholarship to the city’s most prestigious private school to sign up with Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool.

His first pay cheques were around £60 a week and although he is now a multi-millionaire, able to buy his father and sister a house each, he cares little for the celebrity lifestyle – in Liverpool he used to give his best mate Gordon a bundle of cash at the start of a night out, so he wasn’t seen buying all the drinks. He still sees Gordon and other old friends and he’s exceptionally close to his family – since his mother died just before he left for Madrid, he counts his father as one of his best mates.

As we travel to the centre of Madrid in Victoria’s silver VW Beetle, McManaman is in high spirits. Dido’s ‘Thankyou’ (the track sampled on Eminem’s ‘Stan’) is on the stereo, the team have won and the night is young. He is laughing about Trigger Happy TV and keeps asking how many times he has to listen to ‘Dodo’.

He gets out of the car and heads towards the bar, La Taurina. With bull’s heads hang ing from the walls and tiled images of el toro, it is a shrine to bull fighting and, though McManaman has never been to a fight, he talks with some passion about how to kill the bull. A television shows highlights from the weekend’s games, including Stan Collymore’s first appearance for Real Oviedo. Collymore, who played with McManaman at Liverpool, jogs slowly across the screen. McManaman smiles and shakes his head. ‘Do you know who he’s going to play up front with?’ He starts laughing. ‘A bloke called Oli.’ He pauses for effect. ‘Stan and Oli. Hahaha.’

His phone rings again. It’s David James, another former team-mate, who now plays in goal for Aston Villa. ‘ Hola amigo! I’m in a bar in Madrid!’ he says, imitating Dom Joly on Trigger Happy TV. ‘What you speaking Spanish for, Jamo? Oh, you’re learning Spanish, German and Italian just in case? Yeah, I know Growler scored two against West Ham.’

A group of lads approach, asking for a photo and autographs. Others stare and point across the bar. The waiter is so nervous he knocks a glass of beer on to the floor. A plate of jamon arrives and while picking idly at it, McManaman lists the attractions of living in Madrid. ‘Here you can drink all night, have some breakfast and pick up your paper on the way home. As long as the team is winning, it’s not a problem to go for a meal and have a few drinks after a game. And we play some fantastic football here.’

He smiles, nostalgic for a brief moment. ‘Liverpool was great, but it’s not as though I left when I was really young. I came here when I was 27, after more than 10 years at the club. Liverpool is a tiny city compared to Madrid. The lifestyle here is completely different – most places in Liverpool shut at 2am.’

At Christmas, when the Primera Liga has a week-long break, McManaman returned to his home city and watched Liverpool play Arsenal. He got a hug from manager Gérard Houllier, a handshake from the chairman and kisses from the backroom staff. Then on Boxing Day, he did something he hasn’t been able to do since his father used to carry him over the turnstiles when he was a young boy; he went to watch Everton. He sounds particularly pleased that he was offered 20 per cent discount in the souvenir shop.

The most successful club in the world has a ramshackle training ground five minutes’ drive from the Bernabeu. For such a glamorous club, the club once supported by Franco, Real Madrid has the most basic training facilities; two old pitches, an old concrete building housing the changing rooms and a Portakabin outside for the press. It is a set-up which would embarrass the average First Division club in England.

A few hundred fans jump up and down in the sharp February wind as they watch McManaman, whippet thin and white as paper, laughing with Roberto Carlos. After an hour in which McManaman doesn’t stop laughing and joking, the players drift off to the showers.

Driving in his BMW from the ground to his house, McManaman listens to Fatboy Slim and talks about the myth of the Primera Liga, or at least of Real Madrid. ‘People think we train much harder over here, have a stricter diet, watch endless videos of the opposition. But I get up, miss breakfast, drive to training, stagger around and go home. The English press used to talk about Liverpool being the Spice Boys and Roy Evans used to get a load of stick for being too much of a nice guy, but that’s the biggest load of rubbish.’

He plays with the key ring dangling from the ignition; on it is a silver cup displaying the figure ‘8’ for the number of European Cups won by Real Madrid. ‘It is more relaxed here than it ever was at Liverpool. The manager trusts us. Players have a glass of wine or a beer the night before a match. Only one, but still. I think that if you’ve got fantastic players who want to win every game, in the end nothing else matters.’

He pulls up at the lights and leans out of the window. ‘This is our local loon,’ he says nodding to a fan. ‘He’s always hanging around by this intersection after training… All right, Bruno, mate?’

Bruno puts his face up close to McManaman’s. ‘I’ve got you a souvenir, Macca,’ he says, producing a programme from Sunday’s game and salivating with excitement. He has another programme which he asks McManaman to sign.

‘How many times do you need my autograph?’ mutters McManaman, but not particularly seriously.

‘Que pasa, Bruno?’ He asks, grinning. The lights turn green. ‘Hasta manana, Bruno.’

Bruno waves at the car, a delighted smile on his face.

McManaman shakes his head. ‘Whatever time we turn up at the airport after an away game, Bruno is always there waiting for us. Always. I gave him one of my old Liverpool shirts and he was made up, but of course in some ways it’s just made him worse.’

The car draws up at the villa which McManaman shares with Victoria on a huge private estate north of the city and 10 minutes’ drive from the airport. A six-bedroom marble palace with an outdoor pool (which McManaman has used just once), it is rented from the club – they recently bought a villa of their own in Majorca.

Victoria is just home from work. A qualified barrister, she now teaches English law to Spanish students. She met McManaman in a night club in Liverpool seven years ago while studying for her A-levels. She was reluctant to see him again – she was working hard and not very interested in going out with a footballer – but her mother talked her into it. She fell in love with him, she says, very quickly. Victoria loves Madrid – she speaks fluent Spanish, as well as French and German – but not as Mrs Steve McManaman. She loathes being thought of as the trophy girlfriend, and tells her students her boyfriend is a plumber.

McManaman lies back on a white leather sofa, turns on the television and smiles. Time to tune into the one aspect of English life he cannot leave behind. Horse racing. Victoria tuts and goes off to make tea. ‘I love my racing,’ he says. ‘When I retire, I’m going to go and watch my three horses as often as I can. Between looking after the kids, of course. I’ve agreed with Victoria that when we have kids, she will continue working as a barrister and I’ll be a house husband.’

When is he thinking of retiring? ‘I’ve probably got another five or six years if my legs hold up,’ says McManaman, who was 29 last month. ‘I very rarely missed games for Liverpool – I even played two full seasons – and last season I played 60 games for Real. I’ll always be fit to a certain extent because of my skinny body. I can still run around all day. It’s whether I can still hack it in five years’ time with all these young lads coming on who will run past me calling me “old man”, just as I used to do when I was young.’

On some days McManaman is convinced that once his playing career is over he will be finished with football. On others, when he realises how easily he becomes bored when there’s no Champions League game mid-week and Victoria has returned to Liverpool to visit her family, he considers a future in management. ‘Of course I’ll miss football incredibly . But who knows what might happen? I might be offered a youth team job at the end of my career or I might just be sent packing. Growler has always said he thinks I’ll make a good manager… Could you imagine me and him running Liverpool one day?’

Towards 11pm we arrive at a restaurant in central Madrid. A converted theatre designed by Philippe Starck, it is still half-empty. McManaman says it’s a beautiful building but he can barely work out the difference between the urinals and the wash basins.

His phone rings again and this time it’s Robbie Fowler. They talk for five minutes and when he says goodbye, McManaman sports a childish grin. The waiters are too discreet to stare, but they keep looking at him out of the corner of their eyes. He orders pasta with lobster and a steak, then more beers – ‘when in Spain, do as the Spanish and have lots to drink’ – and shares a crème brlée with Victoria.

Finally, at about 3am, we leave the restaurant. Dido is still on the stereo. McManaman pulls up outside my hotel and gets out to say goodbye. Victoria gets out too, and as ‘Thankyou’ begins again, she takes her boyfriend by the hand and starts slowly waltzing. A taxi driver looks at this young couple holding each other close on the pavement. Suddenly he recognises one of Real Madrid’s star players. He smiles and shakes his head in disbelief.