WHAT do you think of Michael Owen?
It’s a question that has been popping into my head pretty frequently over the past couple of weeks for various reasons. I’ve noticed myself subconsciously referencing him on multiple occasions and, when I do, the collective reaction from Liverpool FC supporters seems to be fairly negative.
Let’s get the main sticking points out of the way so that we can move on to talk about the substance of this piece. I know he chose to leave Liverpool to join Real Madrid. I know he played for Manchester United. I know he liked to play for England. I know he’s not Robbie Fowler.
I also heard his voice emanating from my car radio last week advertising a personal injury law firm (which made me wonder whether he’s running out of cash). Each of those things are varying dents to his reputation and legacy, depending on how much weight you attach to each one.
But the reasons I’ve found myself referencing him are far more important than any of the above points in my view.
Owen was a winner.
Owen broke into the Liverpool first team when he was 17 years old and started scoring goals regularly at the highest level of football. As a child. When he left Liverpool to join Madrid, he did so knowing that his competition to get into the first team were Raul and the original Ronaldo (while he was still the greatest striker on the planet). Owen backed himself to get into that team ahead of one of the biggest legends in Madrid’s illustrious history and a Brazilian genius.
So, why am I talking about him this week, of all weeks?
Subscribers might have heard me mention my opinion on our players’ collective approach to dealing with referees on the TAW Player “Review” show, in particular their reaction to dealing with Jon Moss after our best player inadvertently put his size nines in the side of a goalkeeper’s face. You might even have seen me debating the point on Saturday afternoon with various people on Twitter.
For those who have read my articles regularly and listened to my views on Anfield Wrap podcasts, you’ll hopefully agree that I generally try to keep a fairly balanced and reasonable view on all things football related. It’s a game of opinions and, often, of mystery, with us not really knowing what’s happening behind the scenes and doing our best to analyse and comment on whatever’s happening by piecing together snippets of information. I respect most opinions that differ to mine and accept that lots of them are equally valid to whatever my take on the relevant point is.
But my view on this topic is very different.
I don’t think there are varying ways of looking at it that are equally valid. I don’t think that if you disagree with me you might be right and I might be wrong. This, in my mind, is an absolute fact of football, and of competitive sport in general.
If any team or any individual wants to be successful at the highest level, they need to be ruthless in every aspect of what they do. They need to find every element of the sport in which they can gain an advantage over their competition and exploit that element as far as they possibly can, even if it only represents a 0.1 per cent marginal gain. They need to change the colour of the nets if it helps them and hinders the opponent. They need to make their opponent’s dressing room uncomfortable and their experience of playing them unbearable.
Most importantly, they need to influence, as much as they possibly can, the one man on the field who makes key decisions that will help or hinder their season.
There were people arguing with me on Saturday via 140 characters of a nonsensical social media network that there was nothing Liverpool players could have done to prevent Sadio Mane being sent off after his challenge with the Manchester City goalkeeper.
That is absolute nonsense.
You only have to watch the debate that has raged between supporters and pundits alike, including the esteemed double act of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville, to see that it was far from clear cut that our most influential player should have been shown a red card for his challenge on Ederson.
Even in the most clear cut of situations, there will be a doubt in a referee’s mind about whether or not he should reach for his pocket containing the red card rather than opting for the easier choice of the yellow card pocket. Referee’s aren’t stupid, as much as we might like to think that they are. They know that if they send off a player in any game, but especially in a game between two of the top clubs that is being watched by millions all around the world, they will be criticised for ruining the game.
They know that the likes of Neville will be lining up to hang them out to dry, talking about how little common sense they have and how they don’t understand the game, regardless of the strict interpretation of the rules. They know that there will be endless examples of a similar incidents in which another referee, or even they themselves, made a different decision.
All of which means that in the five seconds that elapse between the incident taking place and them reaching for a card that could make or break a game, and ultimately a season, they are open to being influenced.
If you disagree with me, I worry that you are not aware of how easily we humans are being influenced during every moment of our lives. I worry that you are buying things that you don’t want to buy and doing things that you don’t want to do. If you don’t think that our brains are easily manipulated, try this little test and let me know how you get on.
Pick a popular song that someone you live with would know well. In their presence, but without being overt about it, whistle that song while going about your day. A little snippet here, a part of a chorus there. And see how long it takes them to start singing or whistling the same song. When they do, ask them why they’ve started singing it or why it had popped into their head. Nine times out of 10 they’ll have no idea. It’s seeped into their subconscious without them knowing.
Influencing a referee is far less subtle but no less easy to do.
The reason I started this article by talking about Owen is that I just happened to see a clip of a game in which he was playing for Manchester United against Burnley in the Premier League in 2009. Patrice Evra went past the opposition’s full back in the penalty area and was clipped, and Owen appealed for a penalty like it was a World Cup final and his life depended on it. The referee paused for two seconds, then pointed to the spot.
Now, there is obviously the chance that the referee would have given a penalty anyway. But in those split seconds between the incident occurring and him making his decision, the fact that lovely Owen, England international and elite footballer was convinced it was a penalty will have had an influence on what the referee thought. I’ve seen it time and time again. Steven Gerrard winning freekicks because of his influence, going to ground then looking straight at the ref with a look of “I’m Liverpool and England’s Steven Gerrard and you’d best give me a fucking freekick”.
For those who don’t like the image of Manchester United’s players during their recent glory years surrounding referees to forcefully influence their decisions, my favourite ever example of this version of the dark arts is a story told by John Fashanu when he was playing for Wimbledon alongside Vinny Jones (when he was an awful footballer rather than an awful actor).
Jones made a tackle which was a yellow card all day long, even back in the days when you had to practically decapitate someone to get booked. It would have been his second yellow and, therefore, his dismissal from the game.
After he made the challenge but before the ref could reach for a card, Fashanu stood in front of the official and calmly explained that it was a rash challenge but not one that justified a second yellow. He said that he’d have a word with Jones and tell him to calm down.
The ref, having got to know Fashanu before the game when the striker chatted to him about his wife and kids, agreed to let this one slide as long as “Fash” kept the fiery midfielder in check. He agreed, then walked over to his teammate, purportedly to tell him to calm down, and said (without the ref being able to see him) something along the lines of, “keep going mate, we’ve got them rattled here”.
Whatever else happened in that game, Fashanu made sure that his team didn’t lose an important midfielder by having that little chat with the one man on the field with the most influence.
Now compare that to our players on Saturday. If you think there was no time to influence the referee or that his mind couldn’t be changed, watch the footage back and see how many Manchester City players immediately start trying to influence his decision after the incident has taken place.
Otamendi is making gestures with his studs while pointing to his head, while Fernandinho is in the official’s face gesticulating towards his poleaxed teammate. Do you really think he was saying to the referee that Ederson was fine and Mane should just be booked?
Meanwhile, Mane himself is silent and Roberto Firmino is walking along with his hands behind his back. If I am the referee in that situation and there was any element of doubt in my mind, the fact that the City players are certain it’s a red card and the fact that the Liverpool players are not making any counter point would be enough to allow me to reach for the red.
If in that situation Firmino was Owen, he would have been straight over to the referee, pointing out that it was an accidental collision, not intentional, Mane was going for the ball and every other possible thing he could think of to convince the ref that it should be yellow, not red.
While he was doing that, it would have bought enough time for other influential members of the team to get between the referee and the opposition players to at least make sure that they couldn’t influence him to give a red, while persuading him in the nicest possible way not to “ruin the game”.
I agree that no matter what the players do, the ref might produce a red card anyway. He might be steadfast in his belief that it’s a red card offence and not be swayed to the contrary. But, at the very least, as a human who is as easily influenced as the rest of us, it would create a small element of doubt in his mind, which would mean that later in the game when one of our lads goes around Otamendi or Fernandinho and they clip his legs, the appeals for a second yellow are more likely to fall on receptive ears, with a referee keen to even up the match.
You might not like any of this. You might want sports to be played in the nicest possible way with no one trying to influence anything that the referee does. If that’s the case, you’re a bit like Fenway Sports Group hoping that the Financial Fair Play rules would actually mean something and would level the playing field for them against the lads with more buckets of money. You’re living in cloud cuckoo land.
We live in a world in which our opponents are seeking every little advantage they can get, and if we don’t join the party we’re always going to be left as the mild-mannered runners up rather than the ruthless winners who leave no stone unturned in our quest for glory.
I know what I’d prefer us to be.