Debutant ready to play with the big boys

 

Michael Owen was 10 when England reached the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup and Paul Gascoigne cried. It is hard to believe that Owen has ever shed a tear, since his personality reflects the coolness of cucumbers rather than the daftness of brushes.

Tonight, at some stage of the friendly against Chile at Wembley, the 18-year-old Liverpool striker will become the youngest player this century to be capped by England. The previous youngest, Duncan Edwards, was also 18, but four and a half months older when he came into the national side against Scotland in 1955.

Owen looks young, but has the composure of a 30-year-old who has looked at life from all sides. His manner is both impressive and unnerving. Some footballers never quite grow up. Owen appears to have graduated from boy to man without wasting too much time on youth.

At the start of last season, he was an associated schoolboy at Anfield, signing professional forms towards the end of 1996. He made his first Premiership appearance for Liverpool as a substitute against Wimbledon in May last year, coming off the bench in the 57th minute and scoring in the 74th.

Goals have been Owen's business since he made an under-11 team shortly after his eighth birthday. Born in Chester, he broke Ian Rush's record of 72 goals in a season for Flintshire Schoolboys by scoring 92. So far, at every level, he has found the net on his first appearance.

Already this season, he has scored 14 times for Liverpool and shares the popular view that his best goal to date was the carefully-controlled volley that beat Newcastle United in the Premiership at Anfield three weeks ago. However, he is quick to point out that creating goals is as important for him as scoring them.

"I've always liked to get round the back of defences and get crosses in for other people," he said yesterday. "When I burst on to the scene, not many people saw that, they just saw the goals I was scoring. But during the season, people have taken notice of the goals I've set up as well."

"He keeps his head up," said Hoddle, "and any player who plays with his head up will create goals as well as score them himself." Yet at the beginning of the season, after Owen's penalty had secured Liverpool a 1-1 draw at Wimbledon, Roy Evans said that this was something the player still had fully to appreciate. Clearly Owen is a quick learner.

Certainly Hoddle has no reservations about playing him tonight. "I think he's got just the right temperament to play for England now. He's shown me no sign at all that he can't handle it. We've groomed him in the last couple of get-togethers and already he feels at home."

Alan Shearer, forced into the role of spectator during his six-month recovery from injury, has been equally impressed by Owen. "He doesn't seem to be fazed by anything or anyone," the England captain observed. "His pace is a big asset, as well as his goals."

"I don't think I've seen that many natural goal-scorers who are able to attack defenders with the ball like Michael does," Hoddle added. "Normally, you find that in wingers like Ryan Giggs rather than out-and-out strikers. A lot of players are quick movers, but not so quick with the ball at their feet."

For Owen, everything has come with a rush. "I never thought at the start of the year it would come as quickly as it has," he said. "I've always had the idea of being an international, but not as quickly as this.

"I don't think age comes into it. A lot of people go on about my age, but I'm just one of the team at Liverpool. I don't think they treat me as a youngster just coming into the game.

"I'll be a bit nervous tomorrow night, I was before I played my first game for Liverpool, but it won't affect me."

Owen is no angel. Already he has been sent off in England's colours, collecting a red card in an under-18 international. "I was being close-marked," he recalled. "Every time I got the ball, they knocked me down, so I lost my temper for one split second, jumped up and caught one of the opposition in the midriff. I realised it was a stupid thing to do, and I've learned from it."

Hoddle is keeping an open mind about the likelihood of Owen making the World Cup squad this time. "I'm not putting pressure on the lad," he said. "Just let him enjoy himself. At the moment, I wouldn't expect him to be in the squad. He's 18 and he has another 10 years to play in World Cups and European Championships."