The forgotten brilliance of Michael Owen

It mind sound very strange to younger football fans, but once upon a time Michael Owen was the next big thing in English football.

Stranger still, but the man with a personality that makes Paul Scholes look like Russell Brand was once the saviour of English football and was a new hope for the English game as we went into the new millennium.

Now for fans born after said millennium, all they have ever known of Michael Owen is the injury plagued striker who your Dad said was a rocket when he was young and, although he had pace to burn, was the definition of a fox in the box.

The thing Owen is known for nowadays is his mind numbing punditry and co-commentary where he has become the master in stating the bloody obvious, such highlights have included “If there’s a bit of rain about, it makes the surface wet.” and “Whichever team scores more goals usually wins.”

But we aren’t here today to focus on some of Owen’s more questionable quotes; instead we are going to focus on how Michael Owen became the first English man since Kevin Keegan in 1979 to win the Ballon d’Or and why the second half of his career went downhill so quickly.

Electric breakthrough

Hardened football fans will find it hard to believe that it has been 20 years since Michael Owen lit up the 1998 World Cup with that phenomenal solo goal against Argentina.

However, before that, the pacy 18-year-old had been tearing apart Premier League defensives in the season leading up to the World Cup.

Living up to the hype that surrounded him, Owen came off the bench to score on his debut in the penultimate game of Liverpool’s 1996/97 season against Wimbledon aged just 17.

Although Liverpool went on to lose that game and surrender their title challenge to Man United in the process. Owen came out of the match as the only player with any credit; with the Liverpool Echo writing:

Only Michael Owen could emerge with any credit from a performance that mocked Anfield’s rich traditions.

The Echo went on to say that “It was a debut marked in the grand manner”.

Owen was now marked as the answer to Liverpool’s problems and the following season he delivered on those hopes.

Due to an injury suffered to Robbie Fowler, Liverpool manager Roy Evans plan of easing Owen into the first team went astray and Owen started the season as Liverpool’s No.1 striker.

Owen lit up the Premier League during the 1997/98 season and excited fans all across England with his stunning pace and quick feet, ultimately going on to win the Premier League golden boot and the PFA Young Player of the Year.

Due to his emergence as the most consistent striker in the English game, fans were clamouring for Owen to be included in the England squad for the 1998 World Cup. After making a few appearances in friendly games Owen was named in Glenn Hoddle’s side for the competition in France.

Owen scored his first goal of the World Cup in the group stages in a 2-1 defeat to Romania, impressing manager Glenn Hoddle and much to the delight of England fans Owen would start England’s final group game against Colombia.

Owen helped England to a 2-0 victory over Colombia and a spot in the last 16 against fierce rivals Argentina.

In that last 16 game Owen scored one of the most memorable English goals at a World Cup, with a brilliant solo run through the Argentinean half and with Paul Scholes screaming at Owen to pass him the ball, instead Owen rifled the ball into the top corner of the net, wheeling away a star was born that night in Saint-Étienne.

England would go onto lose the game on penalties (Owen scored his penalty by the way) and were knocked out of the World Cup.

However, Michael Owen could leave France with his head held high after showing the world why he was the most exciting player in this new generation of English players.

Consistent scorer

Having returned to Liverpool after the World Cup, all the buzz was about if Michael Owen was going to continue developing into this world class striker.

The answer was yes, as Owen continued scoring goals consistently finishing as Liverpool’s top scorer with 23 goals in the 1998/99 season.

During this time Liverpool were struggling and Owen was seen as the only bright spark in an average side, unfortunately towards the end of the 1998/99 season Owen suffered the first of what was to be many hamstring injuries.

This injury took a long time to heal as Owen’s main strength was his ability to move from static position to full sprint in seconds, this put great strain on his hamstring and he would miss large chunks of the 1999/00 season in order to get the hamstring back to full strength.

Owen would return for the beginning of the 2000/01 season helping Liverpool win a ‘treble’ of the FA Cup, League Cup and the UEFA Cup. Owen was top scorer helping himself to 24 goals.

Owen’s most memorable goals that season were saved for the first FA Cup final to take place outside of England, in Cardiff, as Liverpool were losing 1-0 to Arsenal, with less than ten minutes remaining Owen scored two quick fire goals to break the hearts of Arsenal fans in Cardiff.

Owen’s good form continued into the 2001/02 season and in December 2001 he was awarded the Ballon d’Or for European Footballer of the Year.

While Owen was showing the potential people believed he had, there was very little talk of him ever leaving Anfield anytime soon and he signed a new contract worth £70,000 a week.

Owen would score 28 goals for Liverpool during the 2001/02 season and impressed in the knockout stages of the World Cup, putting England 1-0 up before losing to eventual champions Brazil in the quarter finals.

Owen returned to Anfield continuing were he left off scoring 28 goals for Liverpool in the 2002/03 season. However, a poor run of form saw Liverpool miss out on qualification for the Champions League and speculation about Owen’s future began to grow, with Barcelona and Real Madrid apparently interested in the now 23-year-old.

Owen remained at Anfield after reassurances by manager Gerard Houllier about the direction of the team, although an ankle injury hampered his form Owen still remained Liverpool’s top scorer for the 2003/04 season scoring 19 goals.

Liverpool finished in fourth position that season securing Champions League qualification, but it wasn’t enough to salvage Houllier’s job and the Frenchman was sacked.

After Houllier’s sacking, speculation went into overdrive that Owen would also be leaving the club.

As it turned out new manager Rafa Benitez didn’t see Owen as part of his plans and decided to leave him on the bench for Champions League qualification games to avoid being cup tied.

Having been ostracised by the new manager, Owen decided to leave Liverpool and make the move to Madrid joining Real and there cast of Galacticos, joining for a fee believed to be in the region of €8 million, which is shockingly low for a player of Owen’s standards.

Owen had now left the place where he had grown up and became known the world over, could he know cut it with the big boys at the top?

Poor decisions

Unfortunately for Owen the decision to move to Madrid in hindsight was seen as a bad move. Owen was no longer guaranteed a starting position and made most of his appearances from the bench as he could not dislodge the likes of Ronaldo and Raúl.

Owen scored 13 goals in La Liga achieving the season’s highest ratio of goals scored to number of minutes played.

In the summer of 2005 Madrid signed Robinho and Julio Baptista, Owen saw that his game time would be considerably less than the previous year and with a third World Cup on the horizon Owen decided to make the move back to England for more playing time.

Although both Liverpool and Everton were apparently interested neither could match Madrid’s valuation of Owen.

Eventually Newcastle United agreed a fee of £16.8 million for Owen and he made his return to English football after a year away. Owen began life at St. James Park well linking up with club legend Alan Shearer and scoring seven goals in the first half of the season.

On December 31st 2005, Owen broke a metatarsal bone in his foot in a Premier League game. He would undergo surgery to place a pin in the bone, in order to help speed up the healing process.

The healing process did not go as planned and in late March he underwent a second minor operation in order to be fit for Newcastle’s final Premier League games.

Upon his return from injury Owen played 30 minutes for Newcastle, before making himself unavailable for the rest of the season in order to be fit in time for the World Cup.

Owen went to the World Cup in Germany having played very little football over the previous six months. He played in England’s first two group matches, but did little of note, then in the final group match against Sweden badly twisted his right knee and was stretchered off the field.

A scan a few days later confirmed that Owen had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and would be out for up to a year.

In the years since Owen has stated that rushing back to be fit for the World Cup was the cause of his ACL injury and the cause of the injuries that were going to plague him for the remainder of his career.

Injury blighted second half of career

Owen made his return after injuring his ACL at the end of the 2006/07 season playing his way back to full fitness and began the following season brightly for Newcastle.

However, in September 2007 Owen underwent a double hernia operation and so began a run of injuries that would stay with him for the rest of his career.

Over the remainder of his career Owen suffered over a dozen injuries, mostly muscular problems affecting his thighs and groin.

Although Owen would win a Premier League title after crossing the great divide and playing for Manchester United his time at Old Trafford was blighted by injuries and ultimately the build up of all these injuries robbed Owen of the one thing that made him a king in his early years – speed.

In an interview after announcing his retirement Owen wondered what could have been if his body had been able to take on the physical demands of a top player

He blamed the hamstring injury he suffered at the backend of the 98/99 season for the injuries that would later befell him; however, stated he was extremely proud of what he did achieve and looked back on his career with no regrets.

While the boy wonder of 20 years ago has been replaced with an older, more battle hardened man, you can’t forget that for a couple of years at the turn of the century all kids wanted to be Michael Owen.

Even though know he may not illicit that same response from people anymore, he definitely inspired a generation of kids into thinking they too could be as fast as him and as clinical as he was, and that’s a good thing.

The Author

Evan Coughlan

I bloody love football

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