THERE were only three times during the recent Villa versus Newcastle game, when I realised that Michael Owen had actually travelled to the West Midlands for the day. During a game that was mostly a blur in the late May sunshine, the TV camera panned to a morose-looking Owen on the steps of the dugout. After another period of ineffectual Newcastle pressure, I caught Michael Owen doing a gentle jog and star jump routine on the touchline. Then I saw Owen doing a high five with Kevin Nolan before jogging onto the pitch.
From that 66th minute, I lost sight of him. If someone had told me that he had given a couple of minutes on the pitch, then decided to spend the rest of the hot Sunday afternoon with a gentle bit of Bank Holiday shopping around Birmingham’s Bull Ring, I would not have been surprised. I understand that watching a game on the TV will never give you a total picture of the game, but I was shocked to see a player, that I had always regarded as a bit of an idol for my age group, looking like a wretched shell of his former self. Something was not quite right. Was this Michael Owen of 2008/2009, the same Michael Owen of 1998/1999?
Michael Owen is two months older than me, and he was the first player of my age group to make an impact on the national football stage. I felt that he had gone through the same emotions at the same time as me such as the first walk, the first day at school, the first girlfriend, the first date, and his first football match. However, he had made it to the football pitch, while my football playing dreams remained just dreams.
Having debuted with a fine goal against Wimbledon in May 1997, I began to take a keen interest in him as well as Steven Gerrard. They were the standard bearers for the 1979/1980 school year at the highest level in the modern game. Owen was a shining light for Liverpool in the 1997/1998 season with twenty one goals, and helped Liverpool Football Club out of the malaise that had descended over Anfield for most of the nineties.
Despite his wonder goals (and the shimmying run against Newcastle in August 1998 is one of my personal favourites,) Owen was the victim of the classic British dilemma about whether to give a first team chance to the young players. I can remember the debates at Anfield and for England, regarding whether Owen was too young to have a regular start for the senior teams. I was crying at our black and white TV screen (colour came late to our household in deepest Essex) for Owen to be given a chance, and I was bewildered at Hoddle in a very adolescent sort of way, why Owen was being held back from the pitch during the World Cup of 1998.
My belief appeared to be vindicated on Tuesday 30th June 1998 when Owen scored that wonder goal against Argentina. I felt that this was someone of my age, playing for my country, lightening up the tournament for England. It was not just the pace that was startling. It was the swagger in the movement around the hapless defenders that did it for me. It was the sort of football that made you proud to support England, and it was difficult to believe that Owen was still only 18. I hoped that there would be more to come
I am starting to wonder whether that day was the pinnacle of Michael Owen’s career. He had the footballing world at his field, and you wonder whether club and country commitments subsequently ran his young body into the ground. For a player that thrived on pace, it would be inevitable that injuries would shave crucial seconds off his running time. For a footballing public and media who seemed to crave for Owen to produce a World Cup 98 styled wonder goal on a weekly basis, Owen was subjected to frequent criticism that was especially evident when he struggled in the 2002 World Cup and Euro 04.
Instead of dwelling on the criticism, as well as the jealous catcalls from various university colleagues who played with Owen in various mid nineties school league fixtures around North Wales and the Wirral, I prefer to think of Michael Owen at his very best. For instance, who can forget those two goals in the final minutes of the 2001 Cup Final which handed the tie to Liverpool?
Life did not work out for Michael Owen at Real Madrid, and his form has not been rediscovered at Newcastle. Owen seems to have lost his chance to be even slightly considered for the England team, and there are monthly debates about whether Owen’s predatory striker skills are out of fashion in a modern team. There are the non-footballing debates about whether Owen should be involved in buying helicopters and becoming the first Premiership player to be a pilot or involved in horse racing, having set up a Cheshire racing stable in 2007. With relegation imprinted on his CV, it is difficult to know whether the British footballing public will ever especially warm to Michael Owen again.
In writing this article, I hope that I am not writing the obituary for Michael Owen and his football career. In some ways, my hope that Owen rediscovers his footballing skill is based on the embarrassment that my age group are starting to peak and fall into plying their talents in the Championship and then the lower leagues.
At this present time, Owen’s career reminds me of my remote control car that was a present from a Christmas past. I used and used this car around the house, up the garden path, and around the local neighbourhood. I bashed the car into walls. I tried to flip the car in a ‘˜Dukes of Hazzard’ sort of way. I drove the car around complex obstacle courses that wore away the Taiwanese plastic shell. After one too many flips onto concrete paving, the care eventually broke. My father attempted to do some remedial repairs with tape and super glue, but the car was never quite the same again. By the end of the next year, I had lost interest in the battered old banger, and became fixated on another toy. I just hope that Michael Owen lasts a bit longer in the national game.