Sublime striking talent as game as they come but adverse to playing the game
Michael Owen peaked early, but he also peaked often
A 14-year-old Michael Owen in his Liverpool kit. Photograph: PA Wire.
Michael Owen celebrates scoring for Liverpool in the 2000/01 season.
England's Michael Owen beating Marko Rehmer (right) to score his hat-trick and England's fourth goal against Germany during the Fifa World Cup Qualifiers. Photograph: PA
Selfish, cold, detached and robotic are frequent descriptions from those who have viewed Michael Owen from afar and struggled to warm to his clinically matter-of-fact public persona. Those who have worked with Owen tend to buy into a very different narrative.
This, after all, is a man who, minutes after being told he had ruptured the cruciate ligament in his right knee during the opening minutes of the 2006 World Cup match against Sweden, texted Glenn Roeder, his club manager at Newcastle United, to apologise for the inconvenience.
Appointments were made with Richard Steadman, the celebrated lower limb surgeon, in the United States and Owen was told his knee would be reconstructed using an allograft - namely a cadaver’s tendon – as opposed to an autograft from his own hamstring.
A year recovering
After spending a year recovering, Owen hired John Green, a specialist athletics coach, to teach him how to sprint again, but all most Newcastle fans saw was a player who, preferring to commute from Cheshire, did not engage with the local community on Tyneside.
He regarded his job at St James' Park purely as scoring goals and did not see the point of gaining acceptance as some sort of adopted Geordie. Always unsentimental about his profession, the 33-year-old will have made the decision to retire at the end of this season, when his contract at Stoke City runs out, with a sense of brutal realism.
Although he has said he was “born to score goals”, the finest English forward of his generation resolutely refused to romanticise his uncanny knack. “Scoring goals gives you a 10-second buzz but I wouldn’t describe it as joyful,”Owen once said. A dedicated trainer, he has always taken understated pride and pleasure from his craft but his ability to compartmentalise football as a job seems to have offended some.
A passion for breeding racehorses has almost certainly offered Owen more excitement than football in recent years, but his medical history suggests it would be extraordinary if his career had not sometimes felt like a chore.
Set against the wonderful highs of scoring 40 times for England - including that goal for England against Argentina as an 18-year-old at France 98 - while winning 89 caps and playing for Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle and Manchester United, there have been many grindingly dull moments.
Most have involved hours of slow rehabilitation from the assorted injuries and operations that have blemished the career of the 2001 European Footballer of the Year. “He’s cold, he’s a killer,” said Sven-Goran Eriksson after Owen demolished Germany courtesy of a Munich hat-trick during a 5-1 England victory that year.
But even in his pomp, the days when Owen scored 158 goals in 297 appearances for Liverpool, his hamstrings began playing up, necessitating frequent visits to the Munich clinic of renowned repair man for crocked footballers Hans Muller-Wohlfahrt.
In May 2010 Owen, newly recovered from the hamstring surgery that had ended his first season at Old Trafford, reflected on the summer that awaited him: “I’ll be working with the physios every day to try and get back for next season,” he said. “They’re giving me two weeks off for a family holiday but that’s it.”
He explained it was the price he had to pay for pushing his body to the limits during a season in which he had claimed a winning goal against Manchester City as well as scoring in the League Cup final.
Such equanimity was possible because Owen hit heights most rarely approach. Rather than saving the best until last, Owen peaked early.That goal in the 2-2 draw against Argentina in 1998 made him a national hero in England.
Glory years ensued under Gerard Houllier at Liverpool, including two goals in the 2001 FA Cup final against Arsenal. Then, in 2004, Rafael Benitez sold Owen to Real Madrid. Driving to the airport to collect British newspapers and struggling to learn Spanish, he looked a slightly uneasy galactico.
Outright predators were going slightly out of fashion and an €18m move to Newcastle reflected contracting options. Owen would play under six managers during four unfulfilled years on Tyneside and one, Kevin Keegan, reinvented him as an attacking midfielder.
“Michael can keep the ball all day, sees a pass and knows when to release it, he’ll score lots of goals from deep and, if he can stay fit, he'll play on in midfield until 36 or 37,” he said. “I didn’t realise what a good footballer Michael was before.”
Keegan had arguably hit upon the perfect epitaph for Owen’s fabulous yet sometimes underrated career.
He will be missed far more than many people may imagine.