Michael Owen: Irrelevant?
Michael Owen is a lover of music but one song will haunt him for as long as he has the use of his ears. Only one group of people sing it – Liverpool supporters – and it goes like this: “Where were you in Istanbul? Where were you in Istanbul?”
Flashback to August 2004. Michael Owen leaves Liverpool for Real Madrid. He wants to win the Uefa Champions League. Rafael Benitez, the new Liverpool manager, seems undeterred. He can already see signs of decline in the 24-year-old Owen.
Nine months later, Liverpool are in the final of the Champions League. They stage a comeback to eclipse all comebacks against AC Milan to win the trophy in Istanbul. Owen is pleased for his former colleagues but somewhat disorientated. The irony is burning a hole through his heart.
When Owen, the Stoke City striker, announced on Tuesday that the 2012-13 campaign would be his last, he knew that observers would divide his career into two: “the Liverpool years” and the “post Liverpool years”. The “Liverpool years” is a story of great football and good decisions; the “post-Liverpool years” is a story of indifferent football and bad decisions.
Through the kaleidoscope of retrospect, one can see that Owen hit his peak early, during the exhilarating four-year period from 1998-2002. He was the brightest star of the 1998 World Cup and the 2001 European Footballer of the Year. At World Cup 2002, he terrorised Brazil until England wilted in the heat.
After that, physical injuries and professional misjudgements took their toll. He failed with Real Madrid, aroused indifference at Newcastle United, flourished only briefly with Manchester United (most notably in the match against Manchester City in September 2009), and barely figured with Stoke City. The Greeks had already written the Michael Owen Tragedy many centuries before.
Owen should have been England’s all-time leading scorer but he fell nine goals short of Bobby Charlton’s record. Owen should have been Liverpool’s all-time greatest striker but he never touched the hearts of the Anfield faithful in the way that Robbie Fowler, Roger Hunt, and Ian Rush did.
It was not all Owen’s fault. He wanted to return to Anfield in 2006 but Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, did not seem interested. Events have vindicated Benitez but have been cruel to Owen. And, of course, Owen grew up as an Everton supporter, so let us not fool ourselves into believing that he was born with a Liver Bird tattoo on his forehead. He was an employee of Liverpool FC, not a dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast.
The funny thing is that many Liverpool supporters do not have the same feelings of disrespect towards Kevin Keegan, who left the club after Liverpool won the European Cup in 1977, or towards Steve McManaman, who left Anfield for Real Madrid on a free transfer in 1999. Perhaps it is because Keegan and McManaman always gave the impression of respecting Liverpool. Perhaps they were better politicians. But, then, neither McManaman nor Keegan joined Manchester United.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to think of Liverpool supporters as a single, homogeneous body, with one opinion and one way of behaving. Many Liverpool supporters think of Owen’s time at Anfield with fondness. At the first leg of the Arsenal-Liverpool quarter-final tie in the Uefa Champions League in 2008, chants of “One-nil down, two-one up, Michael Owen won the Cup” (a reference to Liverpool’s 2-1 victory against Arsenal in the 2001 FA Cup final) filled the air. Most Liverpool fans do not hate Owen; they just think he is misguided.
My view on Owen: I find him irrelevant.
He seems more interested in breeding horses, at Manor House Stables. He gives the impression of not much liking football. As a football player, he seems to have lost his raison d’être. That is not my problem; that is his. It is certainly not Liverpool’s problem. The club had the best of him and, for a time, did better after he left.
Injuries deprived Owen of his pace and, therefore, of his confidence. But just as the years 1997-2004 marked him out as an achiever, the years since have marked him out as an underachiever. The move to Manchester United – good professionally, terrible symbolically – was never going to work out. He went to Old Trafford knowing, probably, that he was destined for long spells on the substitutes’ bench, but maybe that is what he wanted. Maybe he realised that his body could not cope with a 50-match season. Maybe he was being clever. Or maybe not.
He scored that one stunning goal for United, against Manchester City in September 2009, but he also aroused cynicism from some Manchester United supporters for lapping it up during an open-top bus parade to celebrate winning the Premier League in 2011. "A fare dodger," some United fans called him.
Owen is aged 33, but, in football terms, he is an old 33. No serious observer has regarded him as a great striker since he pulled up during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Stoke took a risk on him and clearly made a mistake. One goal in six matches, most as a substitute, is Owen’s return with Stoke.
Owen issued a statement, which revealed the public-relations skills that, alas, he has lacked for much of his career:
“I now feel it is the right time to bring the curtain down on my career. I have been very fortunate in that my career has taken me on a journey that like many young players starting out, I could only have dreamt of . . . Most of all though, I would like to thank my family. To my beautiful wife Louise, for her continued love and support through the many ups and downs in my career and for affording me the most precious gift of all, our children.
“To my Mum who has always taken the brunt of my frustrations yet continues to keep our family so tight-knit, a trait that has formed the foundations of my own success. Her dedication to me and my brothers and sisters is immeasurable. I would like to thank Terry, Andy, Karen and Lesley for being so understanding and creating the perfect environment to grow up in. Last but not least, my Dad. We did it my old mate! From those freezing local parks to terrorizing the best defenders in the world on the biggest stages of all. I couldn't have done it without you.”
Owen is a nice bloke and sharp of mind. At his best, he was perhaps the finest striker in Europe. What he lacked was the ability to know how supporters might interpret his actions. Few Liverpool fans love him. Most Newcastle United fans find themselves indifferent towards him. Manchester United fans remember him for one goal and little else. Stoke City fans . . . they have never heard of him.