The Ballad of Michael Owen

When Michael Owen was 17, he made his first team debut for Liverpool in the Premier League. Small, boyish and wearing a kit that looked two sizes too big for him, he proceeded to tear Wimbledon or Crystal Palace or whoever it was a new one with his blistering pace and tireless work rate. I don’t think he scored and I’m too lazy to check, but the point was this: he’d arrived.

Fast forward 12 years and he cuts a forlorn figure leading the line for Newcastle, who are on the brink of relegation and long past the point of oblivion, in footballing terms. If ever there was a club in need of a coup d’état, it’s them. The usual clichés about a rich club that find themselves at the wrong end of the league table are all true – terrible signings, bloated wage bill, idiot owners and makeshift management – but Owen’s presence there adds insult to injury. His own injuries, mainly, as that times a couple of moments of poor judgement look to have terminally fucked his career.

The trouble started when Rafa Benitez took over an ailing Liverpool side who’d run their course under previous manager Gerrard Houllier, picking up a number of cups but no league titles, the prize Liverpool fans most covet since their inability to win won in the past two decades. Their record of 18 titles will be equalled this year by their fiercest rivals and biggest club in the league, Manchester United, after a particularly suicidal league campaign this season.

Owen decided that Liverpool didn’t have the stuff to move forward, so Benitez – ever a pragmatist – quickly shipped him off to Real Madrid for £8m. He was more than double that, but his contract was running down and when it was up, he could go for nothing. Real Madrid got a bargain – or at least they would, had they actually needed him. Once it became apparent they didn’t, he got few chances to shine in an alien league and the partisan press on his back. Branded a ‘junk’ signing, rumours persisted that the knee operation he had during his last days at Liverpool strengthened his durability at the cost of some of his trademark pace. He was still in his prime, though, it’s just the environment in Madrid became unworkable for him.

Meanwhile, back in England, Benitez somehow dragged a Liverpool team full of losers and bumpkins like Djimi Traore and Igor Biscan to the Champions League final. Granted, it’s anything but a league of Champions since they let the two four teams of every major league in Europe and safe-proofed the big guns with a table format instead of the do-or-die tradition, home and away leg approach of the old European Cup competition, but their unlikely victory against Chelsea in the semi-final – Owen gave studio analysis from English TV and spent the wrap-up looking like he was going to be sick with shock at what he’d inadvertently done – and even more unlikely victory against Milan in the final crowned Liverpool champions of Europe. To make things worse, he would be barracked by fans who respected rather than loved him when he made a humiliating return to Anfield for Newcastle two years later.

Owen’s return to the Premier League was inevitable but didn’t come cheap. Liverpool weren’t going to spend £16m on a player they’d sold for half that, Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd just plain didn’t need him and so it was left for Newcastle to weigh in with their deep pockets and delusions of grandeur.

Playing in front of a shit midfield in a team that constantly leaks goals through its awful defence, the times Owen has been fit and played for Newcastle over the past three seasons have been one long gulp from a poison chalice. Just like when David Beckham foolishly stranded himself in the USA, England games are now Owen’s only salvation, but England’s ruthless new coach Fabio Capello doesn’t pick players on their reputations, unlike his two predecessors. Before his international fall from grace and the arrival of the indomitable Wayne Rooney, people were talking about Owen breaking Bobby Charlton’s top goal scoring record. He’s still only nine short, at the age of 29.

He’ll undoubtedly leave Newcastle at the end of the season on a free transfer, but both his stature and his wage slip will suffer a blow in the process. Still, unlike Robbie Fowler, a fellow Liverpool icon who fell on footballing hard times after he left the club, Owen’s hunger for the game cannot be questioned, he still carries himself without a shred of ego and he has everything he once did an attacking arsenal that made him world class when he was 18 and scored THIS GOAL, apart from his biggest asset: his speed.

Still, the situation is not unsalvageable. If he stays in England he’ll end up at another bloated mid-table club like Spurs or Manchester City, but with regular games and no injuries he may just redeem himself. It’s a shame he’ll never win another trophy, though.



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