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Football: The hardest decision of my life; STEVE McMANAMAN TALKS EXCLUSIVELY TO ABOUT HIS MOVE TO SPAIN.

STEVE McMANAMAN spoke of the torment at leaving his beloved Liverpool last night as he agreed a staggering pounds 15million deal with Real Madrid.

The Liverpool star's advisers shook hands on a five-year contract in Spain last night that will make him the richest export in British soccer history.

The England midfielder - who will pocket nearly pounds 58,000-a-week - admitted: "It's been the hardest decision I've ever made to leave Liverpool, and it makes me very, very sad.

"I think people have realised that it has taken me so long to decide my future because I found it so hard to leave the club and the magnificent fans. But I have always said that I wanted to move abroad to test myself on the very highest stage, and I don't think I can turn down the opportunity now."

While McManaman's advisers were thrashing out the finer points of his contract, the Bootle-born star - 27 next month - was back in England in a Coventry hotel preparing for Liverpool's Premiership game today.

But he is likely to meet Madrid officials tomorrow to sign a "pre-contract", subject to a medical, which will commit him to joining when he becomes a free agent in the summer.

McManaman will continue to play for Liverpool until the end of the season and will not join Real until his Anfield contract expires on July 1.

Madrid will have to honour the contract agreed - even if he gets injured playing for Liverpool.

But the Spanish club are prepared to gamble in order to prevent their bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona and top Italian clubs like Juventus and Inter Milan from snapping him up.

McManaman added: "I am the right age to move, and this is a fantastic prospect for me. Real Madrid are the European and World champions - they are a magnificent club.

"The package they have offered me is a fabulous one, and I feel very honoured that they wanted me so much. In the end, I think the time is right for me to move. I have given everything to Liverpool over the 12 years that I have been there."

He is the first high-profile British player to be allowed a free transfer under the Bosman ruling.

His adviser, ex Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller, has secured an astonishing deal that will net him a basic wage of at least pounds 3m-a-year.

But Madrid are happy to pay that huge salary because they believe they have saved at least pounds 13m on a transfer fee.

Liverpool will not receive any money because of the Bosman ruling which allows players nearing the end of their contracts to negotiate with interested clubs from January 1.

Real president Lorenzo Sanz has targeted McManaman for more than a season, seeing him as the cornerstone of a revamped side at the Bernabeu, alongside stars like Redondo, Hierro, Suker, Panucci and Seedorf.

McManaman was also prompted into moving by the fact he has slipped out of the England reckoning.

He played just 18 minutes during the World Cup finals, and he knows that he must start winning trophies in Europe to impress Glenn Hoddle.

McManaman agonised long and hard over a move and only put off a decision until now because he found it hard to turn his back on the club which he has served since he was 15.

He had the chance to join Juventus before Christmas, but could not make the decision to leave Liverpool in the lurch when they were struggling so badly. But after 12 years at Anfield, he has decided that he must prove himself at the very top, citing Zinedine Zidane as a top player who wanted to test himself on a big stage.

A switch to Spain, though, will mean he will get more freedom than in Italy's Serie A.

And he said: "There has been some criticism of me for looking abroad, but I hope the fans can see that I am only looking to improve myself. Players like Zidane, Bergkamp, Kluivert and Karembeu all moved to Spain or Italy because they felt they would test themselves at the very top.

"It has happened at Liverpool before, with the likes of Kevin Keegan, Graeme Souness and Ian Rush all moving abroad.

"Gerard Houllier has been magnificent to me, and he has left the door open at any time for me to come back, which is a great gesture."

McManaman, though, is genuinely upset at having to leave his home town behind, especially after close pal Robbie Fowler signed a new deal with Liverpool only last week, that will keep him at Anfield until 2003.

Fowler admitted that he was saddened by the impending departure of his team-mate.

The pair have come up through the ranks together and roomed together for both club and country.

Fowler admitted: "It will be a sad day when he goes but then you have to respect Steve's decision. Of course we would all like him to stay because he is such a wonderful player, but he's been at this club for 12 years and only he can say if it is the right time to leave.

"All the lads wish him well, and we're sure that he will make a big impact in Spain when he does go there next season because he proved at Liverpool what a good player he is and he is only going to get better."

Houllier was philosophical about McManaman's decision to sign a "pre- contract" with Real, and his attitude clearly suggests that he is hoping the player will return to Anfield after his spell in Spain.

The French coach understood the player's decision to go abroad and said: "How can I say anything else when I have come abroad myself to further my own football career.

"I respect his decision and he will leave here with my good will. I understand why he is leaving and I will do my best to make sure that all the Liverpool supporters understand as well."

Goalkeeper David James admitted that he will miss McManaman and said: "Steve is a great player, and when you lose an England international then of course it is a blow, but we wish him well."

MACCA FACT FILE

1972: Born Bootle, February 11

1989: Taken on as a trainee by Liverpool from school (left).

1990: Signs professional forms at Anfield.

1990: Makes league debut in the 1990/91 season, coming on as a substitute for Peter Beardsley in the 2-0 December home win over Sheffield United.

1991: Makes second Liverpool appearance, again as substitute, on the final day of the season as Liverpool finish runners-up behind Arsenal.

1991: Full debut for Liverpool against Oldham on opening day of the season in a 2-1 home win. Scores first goal for Liverpool in next game, a 2-1 defeat at Maine Road against Manchester City.

1992: Wins an FA Cup winners' medal as Liverpool defeat Sunderland 2- 0 at Wembley.

1994: Makes international debut for England against Nigeria in November.

1995: Scores both goals and named man of the match as Liverpool beat First Division Bolton 2-1 in the League Cup final (right).

1996: Beaten FA Cup finalist as Liverpool lose 1-0 to Double-winners Manchester United. Named in the 22-man England squad for Euro 96 by England coach Terry Venables. England knocked out in the semi-finals by Germany after a penalty shoot-out.

1998: Named in World Cup squad for France 98 but a plays a minor role.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 30, 1999
Words:1244
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