Michael Owen: rich in talent, poor in judgement?
Eight years ago, in the days when Wayne Rooney had no need for a wig, and when Sven-Goran Eriksson had no need to worry about his job prospects, Michael Owen was one of the top five strikers in the world. He had the scoring record, the wealth, the myriad mansions, and the media attention to prove it.
Owen had added some sparkle to an otherwise standard 1998 World Cup, he won five medals with Liverpool in 2001, and later the Ballon d’Or, and he had just left Liverpool for a lucrative move to Real Madrid. He looked what he was: new money. In Germany, they were still discussing Owen's hat-trick for England in Munich on September 1, 2001. If Owen had developed a body-odour problem, people would still have gathered around him for inspiration.
What could possibly go wrong?
Public relations – that is what could go wrong. For all his attributes as a player and for all his charm as a man (yes, he can be pleasant company), Owen is a public-relations disaster. Perhaps he always has been.
Some Liverpool supporters have never forgiven him for the manner in which he moved to Real Madrid in 2004. Even before then, there was always the view that Owen was more interested in playing for England than he was for Liverpool. Some Newcastle United supporters have never forgiven him for his poor performances at St James’ Park. If you fly to work on a helicopter, as Owen did, from his home in Cheshire, you do not have the luxury of indifferent form. And there was his move to Manchester United which ended in perpetuity any hopes he had of being a Liverpool legend.
Rumours were rife at the end of August 2012 that Owen would be returning to Liverpool, to provide Brendan Rodgers with much-needed attacking options. But, really, there was more chance of Boris Johnson running a marathon in a Ronald McDonald suit. The real world follows certain patterns, and Owen returning to Anfield would have been counter to the natural order.
Too old. Too injury-prone. Too expensive. Too unpopular.
Public relations should not matter so much, but they do. This is 2012. Politics is perception, and Owen’s politics have been so poor since 2004 that he allowed external influences to affect his career. He should have become England’s record goalscorer. Maybe he should even have been part of Liverpool’s triumph in the Uefa Champions League final in Istanbul in 2005. When Liverpool fans taunt Owen with chants of “Where were you in Istanbul?”, they are telling him something important: you were not as good, or as big, as you thought you were; you left to win the Champions League and look what happened; we won it without you.
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.
For all Owen’s attributes, I would put him below Robbie Fowler, Ian Rush, Roger Hunt and even Fernando Torres in the pantheon of Liverpool goalscorers. Fowler was a more natural finisher; Rush a better all-round player; Hunt a better team player; Torres a better mover off the ball. Owen certainly would go nowhere near my personal all-time Liverpool XI.
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 one stunning goal for United, against Manchester City in September 2009, but he also aroused cynicism from some 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 32, but, in football terms, he is an old 32. No serious observer has regarded him as a great striker since he pulled up during the 2006 World Cup in Germany (when, frankly, he was not even close to being fit). His career as a significant player is over. At the time Brendan Rodgers confirmed that Owen was not part of Liverpool's present, never mind their future, rumours surfaced that Everton might be interested in the striker. On one level, the benefits to club and player would have been obvious, but I believe Owen to be nowhere near the standard of Everton. David Moyes is building a fine team, full of talented players who do not shirk hard work, and - even in spite of Everton's financial problems - there are all the signs of a club moving forwards. Owen evokes too many images of the past.
Stoke might be a better option, and his move there will revive his partnership with Peter Crouch, which flourished for a brief period in 2005-06 at international level. But Owen will need to stay fit and he will need to adapt his skills to Stoke's direct style.
Yes, he is rich; yes, he is famous; yes, he was brilliant for nearly a decade. But the story of Michael Owen is a tragedy because it is the story of somebody who never had the judgement to match his talent. He did not realise it at the time, but when he left Liverpool in 2004, he needed the club more than the club needed him.
Time has been Owen's enemy, but he is not unique in that regard. Perspicacity, or the lack of it: that is Owen’s real problem.