Fading from the light: the career of Michael Owen

12 Jan

It was the late nineties.  Britain was cruising the stratosphere powered by the twin-burners of New Labour and the Spice Girls.  Wannabe had usurped Wonderwall as the nation’s anthem and the former bass player of Ugly Rumours was making good on his promise that things could only get better.  The credit crunch was still miles away and your parents were busy bleeding the country dry on cheap debt and a state-sanctioned housing bubble.  Most notably of all, for no apparent reason, Brian Moore had started referring to Paul Scholes as Paul “Shoals”.

These were prosperous times.  King Tony and Scary Spice were leading us through the longest fiscal expansion in post-war history.  And just when we thought things really couldn’t get any better, along came a young striker from Chester who mustn’t have weighed more than nine stone soaking wet.

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He looked like a school prefect and he sounded like a trainee accountant.  You could have passed him off as a normal kid in any sixth form college in the land were it not for two things: he was faster than a greyhound and more lethal than a drawer above a bed with no stops on it.

But it was Owen’s sheer pace off the mark that really grabbed you by the lapels.  There’s “quite nippy”, then there’s the sort of speed at which your face drops when you realise Ben Stiller is in the film you’ve paid to see.  Owen was the latter.  In a game where battles are typically won and lost on inches, Owen always seemed to be miles ahead of defenders.

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Football was a doddle for Lilleshall’s most famous graduate.  Maybe too easy.  There was something unerringly nonchalant about Owen’s goal celebration against Argentina in ’98.  It was completely out of sync with the scale of the occasion and, as importantly, what it meant to the rest of us.  Five seconds after it went in, I was under a pile of bodies that would have made Ulrika Johnson blush.  Owen, by contrast, just sort of trotted off with his palms out in front of him, like it wasn’t much of a thing.  Believe me when I say I’ve celebrated goals in training a lot better than that.  In retrospect, you wonder if he mightn’t have celebrated it a bit more…

———-

Of the many retirements and farewells that were announced at end of the 2012/13 season, the one that touched me the most was Owen’s.  That seemed to be in contrast with the feelings of the majority of the footballing public, whose heartstrings were tugged in other directions.  Tears flowed in the streets of Manchester when Paul Scholes announced he was off again for the second time.  Commercial departments went into state funeral mode when David Beckham confirmed that he, too, would be hanging up his boots.  Even Steve Harper was visibly overcome with emotion as the Toon faithful sang his name during the 39th minute of his last game for Newcastle.  For all the gourmet platter of well-wishings on offer, very little was divvied onto the plate of Michael Owen.

Owen, by then, was at Stoke.  A club he hadn’t exactly had much time to build up an emotional bond with.  Potters fans gave him a bit of a clap at the end of his final game, but we’re talking here about men weaned on ex-javelin thrower midfielders, two metre strikers and centre-backs who snap shins for a living.  It was asking a bit much asking for them to get dewy-eyed over some short bloke with a good disciplinary record, especially one who’d only turned out for them on nine occasions. 

What saddened me was that nobody seemed to care very much.  Owen, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, isn’t roundly loved by the nation.  He’s a bit of a Liam Gallagher figure, in that he was once adored by all, but this has been slowly whittled down to the point where it now feels like it’s just me.

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He’s not even particularly well liked by the teams he played for.  Indeed, he’s probably less liked by them.  Liverpool fans never recovered from Owen having the nerve to swap Harry Kewell, Igor Biscan and El Hadji Diouf for Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo.  Not that Owen’s new paymasters were desperately appreciative either.  In keeping with what appears to be a Spanish tradition, Real Madrid proceeded to play one of England’s best strikers out on the right-wing.  And despite scoring more goals than he had starts for the Bernabéu club, Madrid still took the view that Robinho and Julio Baptista were better bets, so Owen was shipped back to England. 

Unfortunately, they might as well have labeled the crate “damaged goods”, as by this time Owen’s hamstrings had filed for Chapter XI.  Nobody told Newcastle, though, so they were pretty miffed when broken fragments of the striker washed up on the Geordie shore for a record fee.  Scouse sensitivities were then further angered by Owen going on to join a hated rival and, being a famous ex-Liverpool player, Manchester United fans never really liked him in the first place anyway. 

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This lingering rancor seems to have deprived Owen from being remembered quite as he ought to.  It’s not that he’s been forgotten – there isn’t an Englishman alive who’ll ever forget St Etienne – it’s just that we seem to have divorced the man from the moments.  He’s a hero denied hero status; trammeled by a collective desire to pass his greatness off as just something that happened in our lives; joyous but unearned, like a lottery win. 

The moments are all there.  Owen was our shining light against Argentina twice, he killed Germany in Germany and he gave us hope against Brazil.  He won a cup final in ten minutes, and in 2001 was judged by a panel of experts to be the best player in Europe; better than Zidane, even.  Michael Owen the person did that.  Not some sort of transcendental emotion that lives on in the collective English conscious.  Michael Owen.  The chubby fella on BT Sport who likes horses.

So let’s stop praising the moments and start praising the man.  Say it with me.  Michael Owen was England’s brightest star of the last thirty years.  Not Wayne Rooney.  Not Paul Gascoigne.  Michael was it.  The great white hope.  He’s debatably England’s greatest ever striker, yet a recent BBC poll didn’t even have him as one of the options.

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The premature foreclosure of Owen’s career was, in footballing terms, a tragedy.  A tragedy brought back into sharp focus in 2015 when Wayne Rooney, cigarette and giant lollipop in hand, ambled over the line to become England’s highest ever goal-scorer.  My mind immediately thought of Owen and how that record should have been his.  Had he remained remotely seaworthy, Owen would have sailed past Bobby Charlton’s 49-goal mark at the same speed he used to race past Emerson Thome and Linvoy Primus.  With a clear run at it, something near 70 goals might have been achievable.

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It wasn’t to be.  But with the death of the dream should not go the reality of what Owen was: the most feared Englishman of a generation.  The guy you absolutely one hundred per cent wanted the ball to fall to when it properly mattered.  Here at Too Good we have every confidence that we could embed video clips into this webpage if we wanted to. Every confidence. But Owen’s moments were so important you’ve seen them all a million times anyway.  So instead we’ll settle for a quote from Owen himself in the build-up to the 2011 Champions League final…

United were up against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Broken beyond repair and long past warranty, Owen was something like the third-in-reserve striker in Fergie’s list of substitutes.  It was frankly a miracle he’d gotten as far as the bench.  Despite this, on the eve of the game, Owen decided to tell the press that he “still felt he had one last big goal in him”. 

I couldn’t help but smile.  Here was a man who barely met the physical requirements of an office five-a-side game anymore.  Yet he still fancied his chances of getting on the end of something on the biggest stage of all.  Still thought he could anticipate a ball no-one else did; get a toe in before anyone could track him.  And the hairs on the back of my neck pricked up because, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I still bloody well believed him

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In the end, Owen never got on the pitch that day.  His prophecy did prove correct in one respect, though.  He did only have one last goal in him.  Not exactly the big one he’d dreamt of, mind.  A close-ranger for Stoke against Swansea.  A rather meaningless 90th minute consolation in a rather meaningless 3-1 defeat.  It was his first goal in nearly a year and a half, and to be his last.

It scarcely seemed fitting.  But then not much of Michael Owen’s career past the age of 25 was.  Having tantalised with so much promise, the brightest star of the golden generation had shone most briefly of all.  Owen’s achievement as the only English Ballon d’Or winner since the advent of the compact disc is likely to stand untouched for quite some time to come.  But, as D:Ream themselves might have tunefully opined, things really could have been so much better.

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Owen’s career went from bad to worse.

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