MICHAEL OWEN’S announcement this week of his retirement from professional football at the age of 33, brought in equal measure, howls of derision and hoots of laughter from the same Liverpool supporters who once proclaimed a wonder kid of half that age. How did this happen? Sixteen and a half years is a long time in life, even more so in sport, but it took a fraction of that extended football existence for Michael Owen to descend from hero to zero in the eyes of The Kop.
The boy from Hawarden, born in Chester but schooled at Liverpool FC since the age of 12, burst onto the scene on a spring night at Wimbledon, his goal in 2-1 defeat scant consolation on the evening the Reds surrendered outside hopes of the 1997 Premier League title with just one match remaining. Owen made an immediate impression under the Selhurst Park floodlights – one of startling acceleration born of a sinewy, underdeveloped frame inside a baggy, red jersey. That night, he became the youngest goalscorer in Liverpool’s history at the age of 17 years 143 days.
To seasoned watchers of the club, Owen’s entrance came as no surprise. His name had resonated in the Anfield corridors ever since he scored a virtuoso goal for England Schoolboys against Scotland at St James’ Park. After a remarkable solo slalom from the half-way line, he skipped past the last in a series of desperate lunges to lash a right-foot shot into the top corner.
Only months before his premature arrival on the first-team scene, consecutive hat-tricks against Manchester United and Crystal Palace propelled the adolescent Reds into an FA Youth Cup Final against West Ham. Absent from the Upton Park first leg, Owen’s equaliser in the return game led to a 2-1 triumph as a Hammers’ side featuring Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard were vanquished. Owen – and a notable team-mate in Jamie Carragher – celebrated Liverpool’s first FA Youth Cup, hoisted on the back of his 11 goals in 5 matches. If further proof was needed of his suitability for scoring goals for the Kop, he bore a boyhood parallel with the great Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler – Evertonianism.
After a summer during which Roy Evans presumably tried to feed him up on Shankly’s legendary diet of steaks, a still-spindly Owen was in the starting line-up, alongside experienced new arrival Karl-Heinz Riedle, for the first game of the new season. The venue was again Selhurst Park, baking under a demonic August sun. As the pitch-side temperature nudged 100 degrees, Owen kept cool to slot home a nerveless penalty and secure Liverpool a share of the opening day spoils.
In the temporary absence of Robbie Fowler – injured, but still at the peak of his powers – Liverpudlians could scarcely believe their luck. Another goal machine had evidently rolled off the Melwood production line. The fans, quick to recognise such a raw talent, serenaded the teenager with a tune steeped in the history of slavery, as “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” became Michael Owen Scores the Goals. Hallelujah.
In the next away game, another calm strike at a rain lashed Ewood Park and an exuberant, unrehearsed, celebration – his white number 18 a blur on the back of a dancing red shirt in front of an adoring Darwen End – cemented a growing crush bestowed by the faithful on this new kid on the block. Three weeks later Owen silenced a Glaswegian cauldron with a UEFA Cup opener at Celtic Park – his absurdly cool finish a prime example of unthinking, nerveless youth.
Remarkably, the little striker had to wait until November for his first league goal at Anfield; a tap-in to complete a 4-0 rout of Spurs. Owen’s emergence masked an indifferent start to the season as Liverpool lay sixth, but such was the verve and promise of this amazing young talent that as Christmas approached, it was the image of Michael Owen that began to appear on the dubious Liverpool merchandise sold by the street sellers outside Anfield.
The author of this piece was sufficiently seduced, or should I say taken in, to award the middle names “Michael and Owen” to my first-born son on 22nd December 1997. Fittingly, Owen scored both the Liverpool goals either side of his birth. When the Christening came round on a Sunday in February, this proud – nay smug – Liverpool dad was basking in the glow of an Owen hat-trick at Sheffield Wednesday the day before. When the priest read out those middle names, Reds guffawed and Blues winced.
*The moral of this particular little tale is to confirm that pride comes before a fall and in later years the words “deed” and “poll” have cropped up time and again during dad and lad conversations.
Of course, none of us had a crystal ball to foresee any of Michael’s future employers; and as the 1997-98 season drew to a close the only dilemma Owen presented was that his fearless brilliance was beginning to rival the sainted Robbie Fowler for our affections. An impetuous but nasty foul on Peter Schmeichel, not long after scoring a Reds equalizer, saw Owen receive an Old Trafford red card which, if anything, saw his adulation elevated to a new plane. Meanwhile, Fowler sat out the final third of the season after falling badly on his ankle during the Anfield derby.
With a World Cup approaching, Owen’s inclusion in the England squad for France ’98 was inevitable. It was only later we discovered Glen Hoddle was barking mad, but only a certified loon could ignore the joint-top Premier League goalscorer (18 goals). So, the Liverpool teenager carried “the hopes of a nation” with his hand luggage on the plane to Marseille. He sat out the opening win against Tunisia, but came off the bench to equalize against Romania in a losing cause in the second group game. England progressed to the knock-out phase by virtue of a win in their last game against Columbia only to draw the might of Argentina in the round of 16.
However, Michael Owen’s celebrated goal in St Etienne, which needs no further description here, was the trigger for an extremely hurtful affair with the national team. In the wake of a typically “heroic” defeat for the “Three Lions”, the star of an, admittedly, pulsating World Cup encounter, was labelled “England’s Michael Owen” almost overnight.
Michael didn’t belong to us anymore; his head well and truly turned, his ears cupped to the whispers of England. The seeds had been sown for acrimonious divorce some years later. Nevertheless, just like any fledgling marriage encountering early difficulties, the cracks remained hidden for a good few years. Liverpool fans and Michael Owen were still due many happy days together. For some time the frisson endured.
As if to underline his national hero status in the summer of 1998, the opening game of the new season, with Liverpool now under the flawed Evans/Houllier axis, saw the sight of a late Owen winner at The Dell celebrated by a number of Southampton fans in the home crowd. Bizarre!
In the away game that followed, at Newcastle, Ruud Gullit’s “sexy football” was ruthlessly exposed by a Michael Owen at this electric best with a first-half hat-trick. The third goal saw Owen scamper away in trademark fashion, gliding past Philippe Albert’s attempt to chop him in half, before clipping sublimely with the outside of his right-foot into the top corner. I can vividly recall my pogo-ing celebration while my mate screeched, “Fucking hell, he’s the best I’ve ever seeeeeeeeeen!”
When I watched it back on TV to appreciate the beauty and clinical precision of Owen’s goal, I cringed at his “hand-rubbing” celebration shared with Paul Ince. Gone was joyous, uninhibited dance of last season’s tyro, now replaced by an affected, choreographed routine that was a revealing portent to future greed.
As Owen’s second full season wore on, and Evans made way for Houllier to assume total control in the dug-out, he began to suffer niggles to a hamstring until an April evening in Leeds when, accelerating on to a Steve McManaman through ball, he pulled up lame in spectacular fashion. From the distant away end, it appeared his searing burst had been curtailed by the work of a sniper in the stands as Owen ground to an agonising halt clutching his backside.
It could be argued that, after this injury, Michael Owen was never the same player. On returning to fitness he was forced to slightly reinvent his game. He worked on his weak left foot – toil that would be rewarded two years later on a sunny afternoon in Cardiff – and improved his heading. He packed on muscle to protect his flimsy hamstrings and developed an ability to shield the ball with his back to goal and bring others into play.
While a fading Robbie Fowler, still adored by the supporters, fought injury and rumour, Owen, alongside Emile Heskey, became the spearhead of Houllier’s emergent team that homed in on a cup treble in the spring of 2001.
However, those dreams looked to be in tatters with Arsenal steamrollering Liverpool in the most one-sided FA Cup Final in years. As the final minutes ticked by, Owen suddenly came to life and snatched an improbable equaliser. Galvanised, Liverpool sought a winning goal on the counter attack as Patrik Berger floated a visionary long pass in Owen’s general direction. In one seamless electric movement, Owen floated past Lee Dixon and Tony Adams, transferred the ball on to his left peg and struck his shot unerringly across David Seaman into the tiniest of specks of visible netting in the far corner of the goal. Pandemonium. A moment made all the more memorable for the writer of this piece, as I found myself enjoying a topless embrace with the Scouse fella who played the doctor in Peak Practice. It was a very warm day.
Cardiff 2001 was the zenith of Michael Owen’s Liverpool career and, cart-wheeling in ecstatic celebration, the summit of his connection with the travelling Kop. As ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley cried, Michael Owen had won the FA Cup for Liverpool “all by himself”. The trouble was, he knew it.
To complete Liverpool’s treble, continental acclaim and a UEFA Cup followed on a glorious, if rather wet night in Dortmund four days later. Owen was crowned European Footballer of the Year, the first Briton since Kevin Keegan to win the award, and his head swelled to the size of the Ballon d’Or itself.
A burgeoning England career, which would amount to 40 goals in 89 appearances for the national team reached a peak with a stunning hat-trick in Munich as five goals scored by Anfield residents stripped the Germans naked in their own back yard. Only this week, Jamie Carragher spoke of how “pumped” Owen was for this World Cup qualifier; perhaps a revealing insight into his evolving career priorities.
Robbie Fowler’s Scouse sympathisers on the Kop, concerned at their hero’s gradual phasing out by Gerard Houllier, certainly perceived an extra devilment in Owen’s play while wearing the white of England. Whether this was true is open to debate, but Robbie Fowler’s eventual exit from Liverpool, in part due to Michael’s status as the Reds’ most reliable source of goals, did nothing to assuage a growing antipathy towards the “woolyback”, Owen.
If there was an increasingly strained relationship between Owen and Liverpool’s fan base, it didn’t seem to bother him as Houllier’s team, with Fowler now departed, launched a credible but ultimately failed assault on the league title in 2002. Liverpool also reached the quarter finals of the revamped Champions League, but a hatful of missed chances by Owen in the away leg at Leverkusen put paid to a looming semi-final against Manchester United.
By 2003 Houllier’s five year plan had begun to unravel. A League Cup win in Cardiff, courtesy of Owen’s clinching late goal fired past United’s Fabien Barthez, papered over the cracks. The following season saw some of the most stultifying football in recent Anfield memory as Liverpool limped to a fortuitous 4th placed finish, but it wasn’t enough to save an ailing Houllier his job – the Frenchman “mutually consented” from his post.
One of the incoming Rafael Benitez’s first tasks in the L4 hot seat was to address Michael Owen’s impending freedom of contract. The club had been stung previously when Steve McManaman arguably bettered himself with a gratis “Bosman” transfer to Real Madrid.
With just a year to run on his existing deal, perhaps Benitez thought a new dawn and the exciting arrivals of Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia would be enough to persuade Owen to sign a new Reds’ agreement. Rafa was wrong. Madrid came calling again, with a paltry offer of £8m, and the lure of the Galacticos saw the disaffected Owen dig in his heels. Suddenly, with Owen a sullen presence on the bench in Graz for a Champions League qualifier, the cat was out the bag. Michael Owen’s time at Anfield was over. Friendships built with the likes of Gerrard, Carragher from their juvenile days at Melwood were cast aside, and the new man Benitez left in the lurch, in favour of a lucrative move abroad. It hurt, but for whatever reason the torrent of tears that followed Fowler’s exit to Leeds never flowed at the departure of Michael Owen.
His time in Spain as a bit-part player in a Madrid cast numbering class acts Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, and “Fat” Ronaldo, saw a respectable number of goals, but mainly from the bench. The move didn’t quite work as Owen envisaged and with another World Cup looming his England place was under threat through a lack of first team football. Owen’s representatives were angling for a move back to England, ideally to the familiar surroundings of Anfield where, joyously, the European Cup now lay in permanent residence. Owen’s treachery saw him miss out on the “Miracle of Istanbul” but now, all of a sudden, he wanted a piece of the “Rafalution”. The beautiful irony wasn’t lost on thousands of jilted Liverpudlians.
Madrid’s asking price was in the region £15m – a sum Liverpool were not prepared to pay having been fleeced just 12 months previously. Benitez, at the behest of Gerrard and Carragher was willing to bring Michael back but only at the right price. Owen clearly had never played a hand of poker in his life, and desperate to secure a move back into the Premiership limelight, folded in this game of brinkmanship, when Newcastle United waded in with a bid to match Real’s valuation.
Somehow, Michael Owen had ended up as the latest exhibit on the steps of St James’ Park being paraded to a notional “Geordie Nation”. A declining, increasingly injury-ravaged Owen failed miserably to cement a place in the hearts of those success-starved Newcastle fans; hardly surprising with a return of just 26 strikes over 4 years in the North East. His return equated to each goal in black and white costing £570,000, to say nothing of an astronomical wage plus helicopter fuel as he literally whirred his way into training each day.
By 2009, Owen was Liverpool’s forgotten man; a joke figure barely registering in the minds of Kopites who were watching a Benitez team at its peak and salivating over their new love, Fernando Torres. Michael Owen, not yet in his 30’s – bounced out of Newcastle – was a free agent whoring himself around football agents with the aid an embarrassing 32 page brochure in which he comically described himself as “The Ambassador, The Athlete, The Icon.”
The once mighty “wonderkid” had clearly fallen a long way, but for our fans, if any goodwill lingered for a lad who scored 158 goals bearing the Liver Bird on his chest before their separation, Owen was about to ruin all that and deliver a Decree Nisi to Liverpool FC. Alex Ferguson must have guzzled two bottles of red reading Owen’s glossy catalogue and now the deteriorating crock was signing for Manchester Fucking United on a free transfer!
The sight of Owen, hitherto still a claimant to a place in the Anfield Hall of Fame, wearing a United shirt was a sickener. No player has transferred directly between the clubs since Phil Chisnall in 1967, but this felt a lot worse. This was the ultimate betrayal. I’ve called Michael Owen a lot of things in my time; descending from genius to traitor to mercenary, but now he’s just referred to as the “Little Shit”.
Despite a winning goal in a League Cup Final against Villa, and a dramatic derby winner over City at Old Trafford, his declining talent would never be enough to win over a United support that forever associates him with the stain of Liverpool.
Laying claim to an elusive yet highly tenuous Premier League Winners medal in 2011 through a handful of substitute appearances, Owen plumbed new depths by goading Liverpool fans with his “achievement” via the medium of Twitter.
The lad who once had the planet at his feet was let loose in the world of social media operating with the élan of a sewer rat; destroying what little remained of his credibility. For Michael Owen, formerly of Liverpool and England, such behaviour was a far cry from his sporting exploits on the fields of Cardiff, Dortmund, St Etienne and Munich.
If we are looking for an apt way to conclude on a most spectacular fall from footballing grace – at least in the eyes of those who watched this once-breathtaking, coltish talent from the steps of The Kop – perhaps there are no better words to finish with than – “Stoke City”.
Except to add – Michael Owen, you’re dead to me, and have been for a while.