On the day Michael Owen announced his upcoming retirement from football, Aaron Cutler looks back on the former Liverpool striker’s career.
When Michael Owen departed Anfield for Spain in 2004 he threw his legacy into question. Many supporters both recognised and appreciated his great feats in Liverpool red and wished him well. Just as strong however was the legion of fans who felt betrayed. Indeed for months the striker had pledged his allegiance to the cause without ever signing a new contract. That impasse eventually led to a cut price exit – with a mere £8 million hardly enriched by the addition of Antonio Nunez. The package itself represented scant reward for a player widely regarded as one of the football’s hottest properties.
Antipathy towards Owen was palpable if not sweeping, until of course he joined Manchester United in 2009. At that moment he essentially cut all ties with LFC, turning his back on an affiliation that began at twelve years old. It may be a sad incitement of football rivalry but the fact is on the day his retirement is announced, precious few reds fans will toast his career. It could and perhaps should be very different…
Anyone who grew up in the 90s will remember what a barren period it was for Liverpool. Sure, we played some quite dazzling football under Roy Evans and were always lodged somewhere within the top four. Nevertheless year-on-year we came up short, invariably to Alex Ferguson’s all conquering United. It was the era of Brit Pop and the Sky’s ‘reinvention’ of the beautiful game which propelled footballers to superstardom. At Anfield we had the infamous Spice Boys gang – freshly tailored in their cream suits and never far from the tabloids. Robbie Fowler was our key asset – the deadliest striker in the country, capable of reducing even Arsenal’s seasoned backline into quivering wrecks.
Around 1996 rumours began to emerge that we had a new kid on the block, hardly the air to Fowler’s crown but a baby faced accomplice. Michael Owen had been banging in goals galore for the youth and reserve sides and at 17 was on the cusp of a first team debut. Once paired with ‘God’ he would end our title draught.
His bow came at Selhurst Park on May 6 1997. With Fowler injured, Owen was drafted into the squad and came on as substitute with 60 minutes to play. With Liverpool trailing and their title hopes fading, the teenager made an instant impact. Latching onto a Stig Inge Bjornebye through-ball, Owen kept his nerve to slot coolly beyond Neil Sullivan. The reds lost the game but a star had been born.
His second goal came at the same ground on the first day of the following season. Despite objections from Danny Murphy, Owen took responsibility from the spot and dispatched a composed penalty.
With his strike partner sidelined for practically the entire campaign, Owen stepped up quite brilliantly that first full season. His pace terrified defenders, as did his sheer single-mindedness in front of goal. Despite being just 18, he was mixing it with the best defenders in the land and coming out on top. His 18 league goals (23 in all comps) earned him that season’s golden boot and the clamour for him to be involved in England’s World Cup squad grew by the day. He had already won his first cap that February in a friendly against Chile, an achievement he followed-up with his first top-flight hat-trick against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
Of course the plane for France 98 took off with Owen on-board and his life would never quite be the same again. His wonder goal against Argentina sent the world’s media into a frenzy and turned the youngster into an overnight sensation. To his credit he knuckled down and continued to produce the goods for Liverpool.
A marvellous hat-trick at St. James’ Park early into the next campaign underlined his predatory instincts. Owen silenced any doubters claiming he was a one season wonder by plunging another 23 goals. However overall Liverpool toiled badly, with the club’s disastrous idea of joint-management ending in Roy Evans’ resignation and a seventh placed finish. To compound matters Owen sustained a career defining injury away to Leeds that April, tearing a hamstring which would sideline him for around eight months. Many claim he was never quite the same player, with his blistering pace now curtailed.
He missed around half of the following campaign as Gerard Houllier guided his new-look reds to fourth. The 2000/01 season however would go down as Owen’s finest – as Liverpool recorded a famous cup treble, whilst also finishing third to win Champions League qualification.
Partnered with Emile Heskey, Owen racked-up 24 goals in all competitions – including a late double to snatch the FA Cup from Arsenal’s grasp. Having been completely outclassed for 80 minutes, the 21 year old single handedly clawed his side back into proceedings before astonishingly winning the trophy with a left footed strike across David Seaman. His herculean efforts were duly acknowledged on the continent, as he was crowned European Player of the Year (Ballon d’Or) – ahead of the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Pavel Nedved.
His fine form continued into the following year, as Houllier guided the reds to a second placed finish and the quarter finals of the Champions League. Owen helped himself to another 28 goals, a total he matched the following term despite a widely expected title challenge falling flat. A League Cup triumph over United was a rare highlight that testing season, with Owen scoring a memorable winner deep into stoppage time.
His final year at Anfield was tinged with disappointment. 19 goals was another healthy return but Owen’s body language was poor – and smacked of someone yearning for pastures new. His long-running contract stand-off continued to drag-on, with Houllier’s sacking signalling the end of an era.
One of Rafa Benitez’s first tasks as incoming boss was to fly-out to England’s Euro 2004 base and present his vision to Owen, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. All three claimed to have bought into the Spaniard’s meticulous thinking but when Real Madrid made tentative enquiries about Owen’s availability his commitment vanished. An unused substitute for Benitez’s first game away to AK Graz, he left the club the next day – claiming he wanted to win major honours.
Of course the great irony is it was Liverpool and not Madrid who went on to win the European Cup that season. Owen won nothing in Spain and was reduced to a limited role behind Raul and Ronaldo. A widely mooted return to Anfield the following summer was gazumped when Newcastle blew us out of the water with a £16 million bid. Rick Parry, for all his faults, knew full well that selling someone for £8 million and buying them back for double the price made no business sense. And so Owen moved to Tyneside and began a huge descent.
His spell in the North East was an unhappy one, plagued by injuries and culminating in relegation. A free agent going into 2009/10 he decided to take-up Sir Alex Ferguson’s offer of a final hurrah – to the dismay of Kopites everywhere. Already tarred with accusations of greed and smugness, betrayal was now added to that list.
So how will history judge a man we once called St Michael?
In truth he should be regarded as a Liverpool legend. His strike record of 158 in 297 appearances is phenomenal, while his overall goal ratio is bettered by only four Liverpool players. His heroics at the Millennium Stadium to win us the FA Cup were incredible, as was his knack of scoring vital goals in big games. Remember Roma away in 2001? His double at Goodison in 2003? Numerous strikes against United? Furthermore he graduated from The Academy and was one of our own, if only for a brief period before the England circus swallowed him up.
Yet on the flipside he always seemed aloof – more concerned with his international career and almost robotic compared to the scaly-wag style of Fowler – who The Kop adored. He also always seemed destined to try his luck abroad, rather than commit his entire career to the club as Gerrard and Carragher have. He left under a cloud, sulking in a similar vain to Torres some years later and just like the Spaniard must regret that decision every day. His love for horse racing also seems to have outweighed his love of football in recent years.
See also: An in-depth profile of Michael Owen
In fairness to him once a free agent he had a choice of Stoke, Wigan and United. The most blinded of Liverpool fans will admit there was hardly much competition but even so, he knew opting to join our fiercest rivals would destroy his legacy.
No longer will he be invited back with open arms such as legends Ian Rush, Roger Hunt and John Aldridge. No longer will he rank high in countdowns such as the upcoming 100 Players Who Shook The Kop series. Never again will his name be sung by reds supporters. Indeed the ill-feeling towards him was best evidenced when whispers about a possible return emerged last summer. Online forums and radio airwaves were packed full off irate Scousers demanding any interest end immediately.
And for what? A title winner’s medal for a season he played next to no part in? A role that would be classed as bit-part at best, invisible in truth? Only he can tell you whether that was worth it.
In many ways his is a sad story. Michael Owen had the world at his feet ten years ago and a culmination of bad injuries, bad advice and bad decisions brought-about the end of his career far too soon. He practically retired four years ago and today’s announcement has been met with such satire you forget what a wonderful talent he once was.
Owen’s great mate Jamie Carragher will bow-out on the same day, May 19. If history had been different they may have left the Anfield turf and the sport itself together following our game with QPR that Sunday. As it is, only one will receive an emotional ovation from The Kop. I’ll tear it up for Carra, while Owen will not even cross my mind. And there lies the difference.