On the day that Michael Owen announced his retirement from football at the end of the season, Ste Speed provides an in-depth profile of the former Liverpool forward.
Of all the Liverpool players over the last decade there is nobody who divides supporter’s opinions as much as Michael Owen. He seems to be a player that fans either love or hate, often passionately.
I fall more into the former category and I have had plenty of heated debates with Owen detractors over the years. Over the course of this article I’m hoping that my reasons for my support of Michael Owen will be clear. I understand why there are plenty of people out there who dislike Owen, especially since he joined Manchester Utd, but I cannot forget what he did for us even though I cannot forgive his decision to go to Old Trafford.
Michael Owen was born in December 1979 (the day before my second birthday!) in Chester, which is on the border of North West England and North Wales. His father, Terry, was a professional footballer who once played for Everton. Therefore like many other future Liverpool players (Carragher, Fowler, McManaman) Michael grew up as an Everton fan. He was a well known player as a kid in North Wales and went on to break a number of local goal-scoring records.
When he was thirteen, Michael became eligible to sign schoolboy forms for a professional club. After being courted by the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Man Utd, Michael signed for Liverpool in 1993. When he was fourteen, he was accepted to the prestigious FA School of Excellence in Lilleshall, which he attended for two years. Upon his return from Lilleshall, Michael signed youth forms with Liverpool and graduated to the youth team, coached by Steve Heighway. Michael was the star player of the youth team during the 1995/96 season in which Liverpool won the FA Youth Cup. The side contained other future first team players such as Jamie Carragher.
Michael signed professional forms with Liverpool in December 1996 as soon as he turned seventeen. He made his debut in May 1997 in an away game against Wimbledon, coming off the bench to score a goal in a style that became a trademark. He used his pace to run on to a pass before clinically beating the keeper in a one on one situation. It was a dream start to his first team football career and from that moment on the goals seemed to come naturally for him.
Michael went on to be Liverpool’s top scorer in every season from 1997/98 until 2003/04. In his first full season with the club he hit eighteen league goals and was voted the PFA Young Player of the Year. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough for Liverpool to win any honours during what was Roy Evans final season as sole manager.
World Cup 1998
In the summer of 1998 Michael became a football superstar thanks to his performances for England at the World Cup in France. He made his World Cup debut as a substitute in the final group game against Romania. He made an immediate impact by scoring the equaliser for England and then hitting the post before Romania went on to win the game 2 – 1.
It was in the quarter final game against Argentina that Michael scored the goal that changed his life. It was one of the best goals ever scored by an England player and a superb individual goal. Michael used his pace to beat the Argentine defenders before chipping the keeper. Unfortunately for England, they went on to lose the game on penalties and David Beckham had stolen all the headlines by getting sent off.
After the World Cup ended, Michael had become a sporting superstar and at this stage he became a public property. His popularity with the British public was reflected in his award for BBC Sports Personality of the Year for 1998. It is my opinion that it was at this time Michael lost some of the support from Liverpool supporters who began to think of him as more of an England player than just a Liverpool player. In the pre-Beckham mania era, he was without any doubt the most popular footballer in England and he seemed to lose a lot of rapport with a section of the Liverpool fans. Once he became popular with fans all around the world he somehow seemed, to a lot of Reds fans, to cease to be the sole property of the Kop.
Lack of Fan Affinity
Michael has made no secret of the fact he was hurt that sections of the Liverpool fans never sang a lot of songs for him and take him to their hearts like they did with other players such as Robbie Fowler. I’ve heard people suggest it’s because he wasn’t a local lad like Fowler, but I completely disagree with that one. Michael comes from the same area as Ian Rush and Rushie is clearly one of the most popular Liverpool players of all time.
I also feel that had Michael remained at Liverpool and stayed injury free he could have been the player to get closest to Rush’s goal scoring record. In recent times I’ve lost count of the number of arguments I’ve had with people about Michael Owen caring more about England than Liverpool. The amount of goals he scored for Liverpool, especially in major games and the enjoyment in his face every time should be more than enough evidence to support the fact that he loved playing for Liverpool.
During the 1999/2000 season Michael started to have injury problems that would go on to blight the rest of his career so far. He suffered hamstring problems that season which would hinder him throughout the campaign. In the summer of 2000 he finally got proper medical help and was placed on a weight routine to strengthen his hamstrings. After a disappointing European Championships in the summer of 2000 (during which he scored against Romania again) Michael came back to Merseyside like a man on a mission to improve on the disappointing previous season for Liverpool.
2001 – a dream year
2000/01 was Michael’s best so far in his career as he scored 24 goals as Liverpool won the incredible treble of League Cup, F.A. Cup and UEFA Cup. Robbie Fowler spent periods of the season out through injury and Michael formed a prolific partnership with Emile Heskey who scored 23 goals. Michael missed the League Cup final victory over Birmingham City when Robbie Fowler was chosen up front. The 2001 F.A. Cup Final is often called ‘The Owen Final’ thanks to his two late goals to win the trophy for Liverpool.
Arsenal had battered us for the majority of the game and were deservedly 1 – 0 in the lead with just minutes remaining. Unfortunately for Arsenal these were the days before Michael Owen became injury prone and was an incredible match winner, especially in big games. He scored from a corner to level the game and then came the winner with one of my favourite goals ever.
I barely had time to discuss the goal with my mates when Berger hit a long ball over Arsenal’s midfield. We saw Owen sprinting onto it but thought that clearly Adams and Dixon easily had him covered. How wrong we were as the entire season flashed before our eyes when the ball crept past Seaman and into the corner of the net. It is moments like this that will always make me a Michael Owen fan no matter who he plays for (except when he plays against Liverpool).
We barely had time to finish celebrating when just four days later Liverpool faced Deportivo Alaves in the UEFA Cup Final in Dortmund. Liverpool won the game 5 – 4 with an extra time golden goal in what most people agree was the greatest UEFA Cup Final of all time. Michael played well in the game and his most important contribution was in winning the penalty for Liverpool’s third goal. He was put clean through on goal when the Alaves keeper came rushing out of his area and grabbed at Michael’s legs. Owen brilliantly managed to remain on his feet until he got inside the area and then went down to force the penalty. How the goalkeeper managed to stay on the pitch I will never know.
Michael started the following season, 2001/02, the same way he had ended the previous one (domestically) by scoring at the Millenium Stadium as Liverpool defeated Man Utd in the Community Shield. Michael then went on to score just seconds after the second half kicked off in the Super Cup Final against Bayern Munich. Liverpool won that game 3 – 2 to hold an incredible five trophies at the same time. Just a week later Michael tormented the Bayern Munich goalkeeper Oliver Kahn again, by hitting an amazing hat-trick as England beat Germany 5 – 1. There were three other Liverpool players in the England side that night, Steven Gerrard, Emile Heskey and Nick Barmby. Gerrard and Heskey scorered the other two England goals and this prompted many Liverpool fans to dub the result afterwards, Liverpool 5 Germany 1.
European Football of the Year
Michael’s incredible year was completed in December 2001 when he was awarded the prestigious Balon D’Or to become the first ever Liverpool player to become European Player of the Year. His year was completed on December 21st when he scored his one hundredth goal for Liverpool in a league game against West Ham Utd. Liverpool went on to finish second in the Premiership in 2001/02 and Michael hit a career best 28 goals in 43 games.
He scored two goals during the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, despite playing through the pain of injury. In his autobiography, Michael talks about receiving pain killing injections before every game.
He repeated his best goal tally the following season, 2002/03 with another 28 goals including his one hundredth Premiership goal against West Brom. He also scored in the League Cup Final when we defeated Man Utd 2 – 0, with Steven Gerrard scoring the first via a David Beckham deflection.
Michael’s final season for Liverpool, 2003/04 was interrupted by injuries and speculation was constant about his future as he would only have one more season remaining on his contract. Despite all the distractions he still managed to finish as Liverpool’s top goal scorer with 19 goals. During this season Michael also broke Ian Rush’s European goal scoring record in September 2003 during a 1 – 1 draw with Slovenian side Olimpija in the UEFA cup.
During his final season Michael was linked with a number of other clubs as contract talks seemed to be stalling. Michael stated publicly that he wanted to stay at Liverpool and yet no announcements were coming from within the club regarding a contract extension. At the end of the season Gerard Houlier was fired and Rafael Benitez was appointed as Liverpool manager.
Departure from Liverpool
Rafa’s first task as manager was to fly to Portugal and meet up with Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard who were there with the England squad for the 2004 European Championships. Gerrard was being heavily linked with a move to Chelsea at the time and Michael’s new contract had still not been signed. After a late change of heart Gerrard chose to stay with Liverpool but unfortunately Michael Owen was to depart in August 2004 when Real Madrid came in with an offer which he chose to accept.
A lot of Liverpool fans still feel that Michael had screwed the club by not signing a contract before leaving. As he only had one year left on his contract, Liverpool were in a weaker bargaining position than Real Madrid and they only received £8 million (plus Antonio Nunez) for a player who was worth at least double that amount. In my opinion I don’t feel that Liverpool did enough to convince Michael to stay and perhaps they should have been quicker to sort out the contract earlier than they did.
Steven Gerrard has since stated the problems he had with the Liverpool board to sort out his contract in 2005 and I have a feeling that Owen may have had the same problem the year before. I have heard plenty of people describe Michael as being ruthless and this is something I disagree with. He is an ambitious person and opportunities to sign for Real Madrid don’t come around too often, and the chance to test himself in a different country must have been too tough to resist.
Despite spending most of his time at Real Madrid on the substitute bench I would consider Michael’s one season at The Bernabeu to be a success. This is because he finished the La Liga season with the best ratio for goals scored against minutes on the pitch. He scored 16 goals overall, with 13 in the league.
Return to Liverpool?
In the summer of 2005 Michael was once again in the news with speculation that he would be leaving Spain after Real Madrid signed the Brazilian strikers Robinho and Julio Baptista. It’s an open secret that he wanted to rejoin Liverpool and that Rafa Benitez was keen to bring him back to Anfield. The main stumbling block appeared to be the transfer fee with Real Madrid rumoured to be asking for a fee in excess of £11 million.
Liverpool were unwilling to pay that much for a player they let leave for less just twelve months earlier. According to the journalist Guilleme Balagne in his book ‘A Season on the Brink – A Portrait of Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool’, Rafa and Michael were in secret negotiations right up until the last day of the summer transfer window. By this time Newcastle Utd had offered £16 million for his services and Real Madrid were putting the pressure on to get him to accept that offer. Realising it was too late to sort out the transfer at that late stage Rafa asked Michael to wait until January when Liverpool could reopen negotiations. However fearing he would be left on the Real Madrid bench, hindering his chances with Liverpool (and the England World Cup squad) Michael made the decision to join Newcastle Utd instead.
Michael spent three seasons at Newcastle Utd with most of it being spent injured. He broke a metartarsal bone in his foot on New Years Eve 2005 and missed the next four months, only returning for the last two weeks of the season. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany he seriously damaged the cruciate ligament in his right knee in the first minute of England’s final group game against Sweden. This injury kept him out for the majority of the 2006/07 season, with his comeback game not until April 2007. In the summer of 2009 he decided not to repay the loyalty of Newcastle‘s supporters by staying with the side to help them back into the Premier League after they were relegated.
Instead he shocked the football world, and angered and disgusted Liverpool supporters by joining Manchester United. Michael had his reasons for joining our bitterest enemies and I understand why he chose to go there. However just because I understand those reasons doesn’t mean I have to like them and I may never forgive him for it.
His two seasons at Man Utd were mostly spent on the subs bench with the occasional personal highlight such as a winning goal in the Manchester derby and a hat-trick in the Champions League. He was released from the club at the end of the season in 2012.
He was linked in the press with a few clubs as he was a free agent and eventually joined Stoke City. His time at Stoke City has been similar to his time at Man Utd in which he is a squad player only playing occasionally when he is fit.
During his time as a Stoke player Michael started doing a lot of media work, mostly for the BBC acting as a pundit and commentator on Match of the Day and appearing on Five Live a fair bit as well. Due to his decreased playing time in combination with his work on TV and radio, it came as no surprise when he announced his intention to retire from playing at the end of the 2012/13 season. It’s a shame that a player who came onto the scene as a teenager with so much incredible promise was essentially finished as a world class player when still in his mid twenties. Thirty three is a young age to retire in the modern game but perhaps the sheer number of injuries as well as his outside interests in horse racing and media work have made the decision for him.
Michael Owen scored 158 goals for Liverpool in seven seasons which is a terrific return considering he regularly suffered with injuries. He scored goals that won us trophies and he gave us all plenty to cheer about during periods when there was nothing else to get excited about. These are the reasons why Michael Owen will always remain one of my LFC heroes, even though I no longer love him. Despite many people not appearing to appreciate his services to Liverpool as much as I do, he was still thought highly of to be voted in at number 14 in the series ‘100 Players Who Shook the Kop.’