From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.31 :: Aug. 01, 2009
Instant success. Michael Owen (left) celebrates with his teammate Ryan Giggs after scoring a goal against Malaysia during a friendly match.
“Feel free to take your gissa-job brochure, your equine fixation and your miserable face anywhere daft enough to employ you. We are already looking forward to your duet on the KC Stadium pitch with Phil Brown. No shame, no guts but a bulging portfolio.”
With these words Newcastle United’s leading fans’ website, NUFC.com, said farewell to Michael Owen, the man who supposedly brought his boots to Tyneside, but not his heart. Manchester United said hello to Owen in a way only football’s greatest global brand could, bathed in adulation as warm and clinging as the air above the Bukit Jalil stadium.
It was technically an away fixture, but most of the 85,000 were decked in red and the majority of the Malaysian team and their manager admitted to supporting United. Owen played only the last half-hour of an entertaining 3-2 win, but the sound Bukit Jalil made when he scored the final goal, that of a vast onrushing train amid a cascade of flashbulbs, showed it was enough.
The stadium opened in 1998, the year Owen arrived. The year he silenced the rhythmic, menacing howl of the Argentine fans in St. Etienne. The year he became only the second footballer since Bobby Moore to be voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year — Paul Gascoigne was the other. The year he became every mother’s favourite sporting son.
The man “daft enough” was not Brown, he of the embarrassing pitch-side singing on the day Hull City survived and Newcastle were relegated, but Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager football has known. Somehow, it would not have been right had Owen turned out for Hull or Stoke City — the two clubs who publicly declared their interest once his management company, somewhat unwisely, produced a 34-page brochure detailing his talents. No football man needed to be told what a one-time European Footballer of the Year is capable of and Stoke and Hull are fine clubs but not pastures for thoroughbreds, which is what Owen still considers himself to be.
“The one man in world football who you would want a good opinion from is the one man who signed me,” he says of Ferguson. “There are some clubs who like to come out and say they want to sign you. It gives the fans a lift that they are going for a player like Michael Owen but I could have gone to a number of other clubs who were going about things quietly.”
He gleams when he talks of Manchester United, as if he cannot believe the horizons that have just opened up. Had Newcastle avoided relegation, had he re-signed and had he been able to endure the farce into which St. James’ Park has sunk, Owen would have been limited to another grim struggle against ordinary football.
“When you sign there are that many things you think about,” he says. “You think of the players that are alongside you; you think about playing at Old Trafford and the men who are going to create chances for you and then you wake up the next morning and think: ‘I could win the league or the Champions League’. It just goes on and on and you become a very excited young man. And I am still young.”
Of the Liverpool side in which he made his debut in May 1997 only David James is still playing in England, while the team he scored against, Wimbledon, no longer exist. His career in English football is only slightly shorter than Gary Lineker’s and he is not yet 30. He first met Ferguson more than 15 years ago.
“I was quite nervous,” he laughs. “You get different types of players, some come through early, others late, but I was one of the better kids hence I went round to quite a few clubs. I met Glenn Hoddle at Chelsea and George Graham at Arsenal. It was nerve wracking — even then Manchester United were a top, top team. But I had been at Liverpool from an early age and been living away from home at Lilleshall (the FA Centre of Excellence). Liverpool allowed me to travel and live at home. I didn’t want to move away and Manchester was just that little bit further.”
There was no prospect that Steve Heighway, who nurtured the talents of Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, would have allowed him to go anywhere other than Anfield. Heighway’s great gift was to constantly tell the three boys how good they were. Gerrard, always tangled up in self-doubt, needed the reassurance. Owen, for whom confidence is a constant companion, never did.
He will need his self-assurance when Manchester United visit Anfield in October. To some, seeing him in that shirt will be too much, although the wound would be deeper if it were on Gerrard’s back. When he first trotted out at Anfield in Newcastle’s colours, he was mocked with chants of “Where were you in Istanbul?” Watching the greatest European Cup final on television in Madrid, presumably.
“Yes, I used to play for Liverpool,” he says. “But there has been a lot of change; there are not the same players or the same staff as there was. I left a long time ago. There is only really Gerrard and Carragher left. I am quite mature about football; I don’t feel the need to react if people sing a song about me. It is not in my make-up.”
It is not in his make-up to doubt he will play a fourth World Cup for England. As if to emphasise the point, Sir Bobby Charlton, whose record of 49 international goals Owen once seemed a certainty to break, wanders into the room. After the great man takes his leave, Owen ponders the question whether that tally will ever be his. “I have nine goals to catch him. That’s a year-and-a- half really.”
Eighteen months in which the livid, still weeping, scar of Newcastle might heal. There is nowhere in England where a centre-forward is more revered than Tyneside. When in the summer of 2005 he came to St. James’ Park after his brief exile in Madrid, there were some 18,000 in the stadium to see him sign, more than had attended Alan Shearer’s homecoming nine years before.
He seemed in a direct line from Hughie Gallagher, Jackie Milburn, Malcolm Macdonald and Shearer himself. And yet the supporters never had a song for him, barely ever chanted his name. They objected to his £5m-plus salary, they objected to his helicopter flights home, where Cheshire blurs into Wales. To those on the Gallowgate, Michael Owen seemed a symbol of expensively-bought failure, his tally of 30 goals in 65 appearances going unappreciated as he struggled with injuries.
In the summer of 1993, Ferguson signed another player from a relegated club, but he said of Roy Keane that he was the one member of Brian Clough’s decaying regime who understood early and instinctively that Nottingham Forest were in desperate trouble and fought wildly against it. Owen, for all his reputation, appeared bewildered and impotent when faced with Newcastle’s disintegration.
One of Shearer’s first acts when beginning his doomed attempt to rescue the club was to publicly state his belief in Owen. On that night in St. Etienne against Argentina, they had kept alive an England side reduced to 10 men by David Beckham’s dismissal, making shuttle runs — one dropping deep, the other alternating as a lone striker. Ten-and-a-half years later, it was the kind of sweat-stained heroism Owen was entirely unable to reproduce. Eventually, Shearer lost faith, dropping him to the bench.
Owen’s argument is that he could not escape the mediocrity in which Newcastle, on and off the pitch, were drowning. “I would say that whether you are the best or worst player in the world you are a human being,” he reflects.
“You are affected by the surroundings, the mood of people, by confidence. I am no different. The team was not playing well, there was a manager every two minutes and unrest at board level. I don’t have to go into what was wrong at Newcastle, you can’t name many players who have played well for them on a consistent basis over the years. Everyone’s standards drop. You keep thinking: ‘This is the day I am going to score, this is the day when everyone is going to do well’, and after a while when it doesn’t happen your confidence starts draining. You are not getting a touch of the ball, you are not playing well, you are 1-0 down and it is the same old story.
“I will not shirk my share of the blame. But when I first went there up until I broke my foot at Christmas (at Tottenham in 2005) I was scoring goals. If I am in a good team, I will do well. Some players play better in better teams and I could name people, who if they played for a Liverpool, a Chelsea or a Manchester United, would get shown up because they do better in a smaller, maybe a more direct, team. But at Old Trafford they might struggle. I don’t want to say I was dragged down by Newcastle but I do believe I play better in a team full of confidence.”
The bookies seem to agree: Owen is quoted at 16-1 to be the top-scorer in the Premier League this season.
Shearer once remarked that the only way to judge a centre-forward was by the goals he scores. Had Owen played and scored more frequently, the trips back to the Welsh borders would have been seen in an entirely different light.
“You learn to understand it, but if you step back, you do think it is either strange or unfair,” he says. “But I know that if you don’t score, play well or win, you are wrong to have a helicopter and fly home each week to see your kids. You are wrong to have a business outside of football. You are wrong to plan for the future.
“If I were scoring goals, I would have been a great lad, popping home to be a family man on a Tuesday after training to see my three kids. I would be portrayed as thoughtful. If you are scoring goals, then everything is right and innocent little things like going home to see your family would not be misrepresented. But nobody is interested in listening to you when you are being relegated.”
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009
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