Michael Owen demonstrating his latter-career priorities.
With Roy Hodgson’s sensible yet somehow still underwhelming appointment as England manager, a drained Pep Guardiola sadly calling time on his glorious, frequently beautiful tenure at Barcelona and the eternally classy Raúl bidding European football an emotional farewell, it is perhaps odd to focus on a Michael Owen, a man whose late career has been so listlessly and so wilfully non-newsworthy. Still, it is striking how a man seemingly destined to become his country’s all-time record goalscorer not so long ago has instead chosen to neglect his talent, abandon his career and effectively live the life of a third-choice goalkeeper.
As the European Championships approach, it is difficult not to imagine that had Owen maintained interest in his craft that his place amongst England’s squad would be confirmed, especially as even emerging from a season of sustained slumber, he remains a far superior option to Frazier Campbell, Bobby Zamora or (God forbid) Gabby Agbonlahor. Maybe even an opening with Stuart Pearce’s little-loved Great Britain Olympic squad would have materialised, where he could potentially once more have linked-up with David Beckham, the other totemic member of his failed England generation. However, Beckham unlike Owen has sought to supplement the serenity of Major League Soccer’s elephants’ graveyard with loan spells in more competitive environs and forlorn declarations of his continued desire to represent his country. Contrastingly, Owen has done no so such thing. Owen has chosen something else. Even the façade of activity afforded by lucrative yet languorous moves to America or the Middle East have been shunned for the comfort of the Manchester United bench and his Cheshire home.
Of course, this season he has found himself in esteemed company amidst Sir Alex Ferguson’s reserves, with the majestic Dimitar Berbatov lamentably falling from favour. Still, it is difficult to imagine the balletic Bulgarian countenancing a second season of redundancy behind the vastly inferior yet more on-message duo of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Owen. True, much of this calendar year has seen him side-lined by a thigh injury yet despite that Owen has merely 4 appearances to his name this season, with only a solitary run-out in the league. Although 3 strikes from those rare appearances are testament to his undimmed eye for goal, the willingness to accept such a diminished role remains a grim indictment of his motivation.
There was little sign that it would come to this. Exploding onto the scene as a teenager, Owen made himself a global superstar with one of the almighty World Cup goals against Argentina as an 18 year-old. The world, it seemed was at his feet. Nonetheless, despite being named European Footballer of the Year in 2001 (an anointment hinging largely on a remarkable hat-trick in England’s improbable 5-1 routing of Germany) and 158 goals from 297 games for Liverpool, including a dramatic, match-winning brace in the 2001 FA Cup final, Owen’s career did not perhaps hit the heights his youthful promise predicted. A recurring hamstring injury and the sense that he was maybe too mannered, too urbane to ever really reach a rapport with the Anfield faithful (and Owen was certainly not held in the esteem that Toxteth-born rascal Robbie Fowler, his predecessor as precocious penalty-box prowler, was afforded) were perceptively detrimental to his development, as was his club’s failure to consistency compete for the game’s highest honours.
The hope was that a dream move to Spanish luminaries Real Madrid would remedy such shortcomings and confirm Owen’s place alongside the continent’s elite. However, with his route to the starting line-up impeded by the presence of the real Ronaldo, who despite a pronounced waistline and a proclivity for partying retained his predatory genius, Owen found himself entrenched amidst Los Galacticos 2nd-tier. Still, Owen’s instincts allowed him to register La Liga’s highest ratio of goals scored to minutes played yet the club’s tawdry thirst for stardust saw him dismissively shipped-out in order to accommodate the arrival of Robinho, that season’s must-have shiny Brazilian accessory. Although the player supposedly yearned for a return to Liverpool (who in Owen’s absence had become European champions) and received tepid overtures from their manager Rafa Benitez, it was Newcastle United who would ultimately seal his signature.
And on Tyneside is where Owen’s career trajectory would hit terminal decline. His reported reluctance to join, coupled with a series of serious injuries perhaps precipitated an emotional divorce from the game. True, he would return to record the respectable total of 30 goals from 79 appearances in the North-East but the Owen that returned was a very different player to the intrepid teenager who thrilled at France ’98. Gone was the searing pace of old and along with it the daring, the bravery and the notably, the enthusiasm as he adapted to his body’s arrest but what remained in his movement, anticipation and finishing ensured the prospect of a future at the highest level. Sadly, such amendments appear to have drained the joy from Owen’s game, whilst the forward has confessed that football’s tactical evolution and preference for single-striker systems threaten the future of players of his ilk.
Haunted by the fear of his impending extinction, Owen resigned himself to the semi-retirement of Manchester United’s second-string; settling for a bosman free transfer to Old Trafford and the consequent paucity of playing-time as his contract at St James’ expired. Resigned to run-down his twilight years on the fringes and stuck on 40 international goals, a total last embellished in 2007 that leaves him 9 shy of Sir Bobby Charlton’s record, a landmark that once seemed his for the taking, Owen will most likely once again be a free agent this summer. Aged 32, his ability and experience should see him targeted by many Premier League sides. Lamentably, it is unlikely any such offer will be entertained. Owen’s heart is just no longer in it.