This post was written for the excellent The Equaliser‘s My Favourite Footballer series.
I wasn’t a big fan of posters as a child. It didn’t help that my room was incredibly tiny: wall space was at a premium. Nevertheless, I made an exception for one player. Twice. A picture of a home-grown teenager in Liverpool red sat on my wall next to a horrific hand-drawn image in an England shirt. His eyes were the wrong colour and I had misjudged the lining up of his arms with the bottom half of his body, creating a valley on his shoulder where I had gone down then up to correct my mistake. However limited my artistic skills were, he was instantly recognisable by the number 20 on his chest.
Whatever problems I had with posters wasn’t an issue when it came to football shirts. I had plenty of replica shirts, but the most worn one was a fake hand-me-down polyester England number 20.
Unlike some of the players named, Michael Owen’s meteoric rise and subsequent climbdown doesn’t really need recounting. Even those with only a passing interest in football would probably be able to give a basic outline of the story.
Born in Cheshire to former Everton forward Terry Owen, Owen caught the eye of England’s best clubs by smashing Ian Rush’s goalscoring record at Deeside Primary School. His starring role in Liverpool’s 1996 FA Youth Cup win proved he was destined for bigger things and he made his debut a year later at the tail-end of the 1996-97 season, scoring in a 2-1 loss against Wimbledon. An injury to Robbie Fowler forced Roy Evans to throw Owen in at the deep end and Owen took his chance spectacularly, finishing as the Premier League’s joint top scorer with 18 goals and voted the PFA Young Player of the Year.
He was impossible not to love. The way he calmly pushed the ball into the net with the outside of his foot, his twisty runs and the way his shirt was always a few sizes too big for him. He looked like a mischievous little boy against men, making him an instant hit with a childhood me.
His fantastic first full season meant international glory beckoned, and Owen was called up to Glenn Hoddle’s World Cup squad. A goal in a pre-tournament friendly against Morocco increased the calls for him to start for England at the World Cup as well as making him England’s youngest ever goalscorer. He didn’t start the first two games in France, but his cameo goal as a substitute against Romania won him starts against Colombia and, famously, Argentina.
A carefully cushioned pass from Beckham with the outside of his right thigh, shrugging off the wrestling arms of JosÃ© Chamot, his legs are moving twice as quickly as everyone else’s and his strides are half the length; moving past a stationary Roberto Ayala, he sets himself up perfectly to slot the ball over Carlos Roa. It was one of those moments that imprint themselves on your memory forever. It is Tardelli’s scream or Pele’s pass to Carlos Alberto. A loss for England was a win for Michael Owen.
He continued on his road to glory the next season scoring 23 in 40, but Liverpool were only able to finish 7th, with Owen ending the season with a hamstring injury. Liverpool managed to qualify for Europe the next season despite Owen being out injured for long periods, still managing 12 goals.
Fit again for the 2000-01 season, Liverpool won a treble of trophies. Owen’s finest moment came in the FA Cup final: he robbed Arsenal, plain and simple. They had dominated Liverpool for 90 minutes and, somehow, Owen scored two. He was unnatural. The next season Liverpool finished second and Owen got 28, then the same number in 2002-03. For England, he scored a hat-trick in their 5-1 demolition of Germany. He became Liverpool’s first Ballon D’Or winner and England’s first for twenty years.
Owen’s season in 2003-04 had been plagued by injuries, but he had still managed 19 goals – not enough to stop Gerard Houllier from being sacked but enough to prove he was brilliant as long as he was fit. Then he left.
He was Liverpool’s top scorer for every season he had been at the club, a Ballon D’Or winner, and yet he fled to Real Madrid for Â£8m and some winger called Antonio Nunez. This wasn’t meant to happen.
Despite my disappointment, I followed Owen’s time in Madrid closely. When he played, he scored – the problem was he didn’t play. He wasn’t a Galactico, he had no business starting ahead of Raul or Ronaldo. An impressive substitute, he still managed 16 goals and had the best goals to minutes ratio in La Liga, only for the arrival of Robinho and Julio Baptista to signal he wasn’t welcome anymore.
The way was paved for a scintillating return to Liverpool. Songs were sung for him at the European Supercup game against CSKA Moscow and everything seemed set. But Benitez baulked at Real Madrid’s asking price: why had a player worth Â£8million a year ago doubled in price when he had hardly played? The deal collapsed, Owen panicked and went to Newcastle, where he got immediately injured. Upon his return to Anfield, he was jeered with chants of “where were you in Istanbul?” After rushing back from injury to be fit for the World Cup, he injured himself in the first minute of the group stage clash with Sweden and was out for a year. Upon his return, he struggled, culminating in Newcastle’s relegation under his captaincy.
As I watched and understood the game more, Owen became less and less impressive. I didn’t enjoy watching him play anymore; injuries had eroded his talent, he was a has-been. Freddie Shepherd offered to “carry him back” to Liverpool himself, but when the possibility of him returning to Anfield arose, I didn’t want it to happen.
Owen’s problem was entirely of his own making. There was little sentimentality in an Owen return: he’d ensured the club received little from his transfer by running down his contract then expected them to come and pick him up when it didn’t work out. Compare that to Robbie Fowler, who had been forced out of the club by the emergence of Owen: where was God in Istanbul? In the crowd. Fowler’s return was merited for the way he had treated Liverpool, he was a club legend. Owen was not.
On top of this, there was another side to Owen I had overlooked as a child. Re-watching his superb performance against Argentina in 1998, I noticed how quick he was to go to ground – an element shown against the same opposition 4 years later, when winning Beckham his “redemption” penalty, which I had wrongly demonised poor Mauricio Pochettino for. I probably have a higher tolerance of gamesmanship than most people, but it isn’t a positive character trait whichever way you paint it.
What happened a year ago only made his demotion in my eyes more complete. The record-breaking Ballon D’Or-winning striker in what should be the prime of his career had to release a brochure to convince clubs he would be a worthwhile investment. Hull were interested apparently. He had become an embarrassment, a once supremely talented punchline to a joke. How had it come to this and could it get any worse? Oh, yes. He joined Manchester United. If his pathetic brochure hadn’t ruined my view of him, the confirmation of him as a greedy mercenary had. His desperate attempts to force his way into the England set-up was predictably ended by a hamstring injury. In a year, the flaws of my childhood hero had become painfully evident.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Michael Owen stopped being my favourite player, but it’s safe to say that before his move to Man United he was fairly far down the list and, with his subsequent move, he quickly tumbled further down, like the elephant man down the ugly tree. It’s also incredibly hard for me to name who would be my favourite player presently, and so my favourite player is Michael Owen circa 1998, when he was still an exciting striker and I was an easily excitable child.
Rather than a solitary clip of Michael Owen, here’s two which sum up my feelings towards him better than one ever could: