Having tuned in to Sky Sports News to see the breaking story that Michael Owen had announced his retirement (when the current season ends), it may seem strange that such news does not elicit a more emotive response from me. After all, this is a player that I, like millions around the world, once idolised and loved. Perhaps it was always going to be this way though.
The first half of Owen’s career could scarcely have been better. A national hero at 18, the first English winner of the Ballon d’Or since Kevin Keegan, goal after goal after goal and universal acclaim for a young man who won trophies left, right and centre at Liverpool. He was destined to break all of Liverpool and England’s goal scoring records. He could have been a legend. He should have been a legend.
Unfortunately, a toxic combination of injuries and some horrible career choices meant that Owen’s star faded as steadily and dramatically as his once electric pace.
Sure, there were the occasional high spots in those later years; a goal in El Clasico for Real Madrid here, a last minute winner in a Manchester derby there. Good moments, sure, but they were few and far between.
On reflection, perhaps Owen, a man who always put his career first and made cold, calculated decisions throughout his playing days, would have done things a bit differently.
While some Liverpool fans may never forgive Owen’s consistently delayed contract talks and subsequent cut price defection to Real Madrid in the summer of 2004, it seems churlish to criticise a genuine world class striker at the time for moving to the Bernabeu.
Liverpool would lift the European Cup a season later while he spent most of his time watching Raul and Ronaldo from the sidelines but, on reflection, Owen’s move to Madrid was bold and refreshing. Here was an English player taking a risk and joining the most celebrated club in the world because he believed he was good enough to play regularly for them.
In theory, he was. His goals to minutes record for Real was exceptional. In reality, he was unlikely to ever displace crowd favourite Raul or Brazilian superstar Ronaldo. Owen may not have been a roaring success in Spain, but he certainly didn’t fail. He scored goals a plenty and his stock remained high when he decided to leave Madrid a year later.
A return to Anfield looked certain. Liverpool, newly crowned European Champions, had lacked a top level centre forward since Owen’s departure and Rafa Benitez was keen to bring the player back ‘home’. All summer long, Liverpool and Madrid embarked upon a tedious game of brinksmanship, haggling over the price for England’s best striker. The Kop waited with baited breath for the return of one their icons. Then, along came Newcastle.
Ah, Newcastle; where it all started to go wrong. The Geordies recognised Owen’s desperation for a move and Liverpool’s refusal to pay over the odds for a player they had lost for a relative pittance just 12 months earlier and so they swept in and made Madrid and Owen an offer that couldn’t be refused.
The answer is simple.
His decision was taken because the most important team in his life was never Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle or Manchester United. It was England.
A World Cup was on the horizon and if Liverpool and Real Madrid had failed to break their deadlock in negotiations, Owen would have been left in limbo on the Bernabeu bench. Another season with limited game time could have had a detrimental effect on his England chances. So Owen bit the bullet. He moved to a club below his level at the time to save his international career. He didn’t have the stones to call Madrid’s bluff and force them to make a deal with Liverpool, so he ended up wearing black and white.
And this is where the Michael Owen story turns sour. In Owen’s mind, Newcastle was supposed to be a pit stop, a short term solution. He’d stay there for a year, bang the goals in as he always had, ride into the 2006 World Cup with England and then a bigger club would come along and offer him the opportunity to win trophies again.
What actually happened was that Owen spent four miserable years in the north east. His first two seasons in black and white yielded just 14 league appearances as a metatarsal injury kept him out for months in his first year. Fortunately for him, he recovered just in time to travel with England to the World Cup in Germany. In a way, his main goal had still been achieved despite the injury. He was on the plane to lead England’s front line on the grandest stage of them all.
Fate again though, dealt him a cruel blow. In England’s group match with Sweden at that World Cup, Owen damaged his anterior cruciate ligament and his tournament was over. Effectively, so were his days as a world class footballer. The gamble had failed and he was no longer a huge draw for top sides but a crocked forward who would make just 3 appearances in 2006-07 for Newcastle.
His career obviously continued, and will do so right up until the end of this current season, but save for a few fleeting moments of joy, it has mainly been a tale of injuries and substitute appearances. The goals never fully dried up, that is always the last thing to leave a forward of Owen’s quality, but the pace and desire had obviously ebbed away. He may have picked up a league championship with Manchester United but his role was peripheral in that success and not befitting of a player who once had the world at his feet.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Owen’s career is that he is not really loved or appreciated for those early years any more. When he returns to Anfield he is serenaded with taunts about how he ‘should have stayed at a big club’. He should be a hero there at least, but his misguided decision in the summer of 2005 to shun the club that had helped make him has cost him that.
The move to Manchester United didn’t help matters on that front either. He was never an idol at Newcastle or Madrid and at Old Trafford he remains little more than a footnote, while he has spent more time on the Match of the Day 2 couch than on the pitch for Stoke.
Owen’s achievements in the game mean that he will, rightly, always command respect. He made choices in his career with a degree of detachment from the emotion of the game because he thought he knew what was best for him and his career. That is no bad thing, but it means that, as the clock slowly ticks down on his playing days, he won’t evoke passions in supporters’ hearts the way that other players did.
He is no Robbie Fowler in Liverpool, nor Raul in Madrid. He is no Shearer to the Geordies nor Cantona to United.
He’s just Michael Owen; a once great striker whose career fizzled out before it should have. Shame.