This feature is part of The Fleeting Fraternity
ROBERTO AYALA WAS an outstanding, imposing presence at centre-back for Argentina. During his decorated career, Ayala impressed at Napoli and Valencia, as well as River Plate in his home country, and even won the UEFA award for Best Club Defender in 2001. Three years before that individual honour though, he found himself up against an 18-year-old Michael Owen in the last-16 of the 1998 World Cup.
It was Argentina versus England; a great rivalry renewed once again on an atmospheric and charged night inside the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard in Saint-Étienne. Argentina hadn’t conceded a single goal in their three group games and the rock-solid defensive core was largely thanks to Ayala, who had played 90 minutes in each game. His confidence was such that he felt he could take on any striker. That was until he watched Owen whizz past him in a blur.
It was a goal that made Owen a national hero and one that signified the dawning of his professional career. Watch it time and time again and Owen’s fearlessness never ceases to amaze. After effortlessly repelling the attentions of José Chamot in the semi-circle thanks to a perfect first touch and immense surge of acceleration, Owen dropped his right shoulder, leaving a bamboozled Ayala in his wake. Still, there was plenty of work to be done.
With the ball running away from goal, Owen had the option to lay it off to an onrushing Paul Scholes. But the confidence coursing through the veins of England’s blossoming centre-forward was undeniable and he stabbed the ball perfectly with his right boot, watching it sail gloriously into the top corner, leaving the goalkeeper Carlos Roa utterly helpless. When the ball rustled the top corner, a nation erupted. They had suddenly found a new lion to admire. A king amongst lions. On 30 June 1998, Michael Owen’s football career truly began.
Sometimes there are goals which sum up a player perfectly. Zinedine Zidane’s Champions League final volley for Real Madrid illustrated Zizou’s flawless technique; a breath-taking strike from a standing start, expertly swinging his left leg to connect thunderously with a deflected cross from Roberto Carlos. Eric Cantona’s chip against Sunderland at Old Trafford portrayed a player who had the nerve – and sheer abundance of natural ability – to execute virtually anything on the football pitch. Ryan Giggs’ legendary FA Cup semi-final replay effort against Arsenal encapsulated the very spirit of the Welsh wing wizard, breezing past five Gunners’ shirts deep into extra-time before launching a vicious effort into the roof of David Seaman’s net.
Owen’s strike against Argentina showed exactly why, for a while, he was head and shoulders above the rest as the most exciting young talent to breakthrough into the senior national team. A deftness of touch, blistering pace and a characteristically devastating finish, that goal had Owen written all over it.
Back in 1998, for England and Liverpool, it was fairly simple stuff. Give the ball to Owen in a one-on-one situation, and he would find the back of the net. So many young players struggle to adapt to the extreme demands of elite professional football, but Owen relished every moment in the earliest days of his career. Taking on defenders and scoring goals, Owen thrived on it, lived for it. The England and Liverpool supporters lived to see him to do it.
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The younger footballing fans among us will know Owen more as the injury-ravaged striker who appeared sporadically at Manchester United and Stoke City in the latter stages of his career, but those who can remember as far back as the turn of the millennium will need little time to recall what an immensely gifted goal scorer Owen was. To put it into context, Owen’s first full season in the senior squad at Liverpool occurred when the candles on his 17th birthday cake had barely gone out, but this boy wonder still somehow managed to score 23 times in 44 appearances for the Reds.
After John Barnes had retired, Owen was offered the number 10 shirt at Anfield. He was honoured, but slightly disappointed, as he had been holding out for the number 9. That number, however, was occupied by a certain Robbie Fowler, whose prolific rate in front of the Kop rendered it impossible for the youngster to snatch the jersey he coveted. For England too, Owen was never going to wrestle the number 9 away from Alan Shearer, so he settled for 10 for both club and country. That number, to Owen, represented iconic players such as Pelé and Maradona, but he preferred to be thought of as a strong, in-the-box predator. He had been number 9 all the way through his youth career but, in the end, it was only really a number on the back of the shirt. The real number Owen would be remembered by was the one on the scoring charts.
After just a handful of reserve minutes under his belt, Owen was thrust into the heady heights of the first team by first-team coach Ronnie Moran, who had great faith in the burgeoning talent. Experience, Moran stressed, was the key. The coaching staff at Liverpool never had any doubt over Owen at the top level, but believed it would take time for him to fully blossom. That was a perfectly rational school of thought. But Owen was no normal talent; he was born for the Premier League, and nothing was going to stop him leaving an indelible mark on the English top flight.
Owen was an unused substitute against Sunderland late in the 1996/97 season but just a week later, he was summoned from the bench by manager Roy Evans when the Reds went 2-0 down to Wimbledon at Selhurst Park. Gracing the pitch for the very first time in a Liverpool shirt was a moment not lost on Owen, but he wasn’t prepared to let the enormity and excitement of the occasion stand in the way of the task he was charged with: getting Liverpool back into the game. Showing sharpness and typically clinical finishing, Owen buried the ball after a perfect pass from Stig Inge Bjørnebye. From that point on, his career was only going on an upward trajectory.
Before long, Owen was the talk of the footballing world. His progression at Liverpool gathered a fierce and unrelenting momentum following his introduction to the first team at Anfield. In February 1998 the youngster completed a whirlwind seven days, which saw him bag a brace against Southampton, make his England debut in a friendly against Chile and then complete his first Premier League hat-trick against Sheffield Wednesday.
Glenn Hoddle’s decision whether or not to bring the youngster to France for the World Cup was made infinitely easier by the scale of Owen’s achievements in the season leading up to the tournament. He finished as the league’s joint top-scorer on 18 – with Dion Dublin and Chris Sutton, incidentally – while finishing ahead of Dennis Bergkamp, Andy Cole and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Leaving in his wake three of the greatest finishers at that time, Owen was undoubtedly ready for the grandest stage, despite his tender age. That was the thing with him; he seemed to fly through his formative footballing years without any major hindrances. Scooping the PFA Young Player of the Year in the spring of ’98 was unquestionably deserved and a clear indication of his soaring improvement.
The World Cup was, of course, a watershed moment for Owen, but resting on his heroic laurels was not part of the plan moving forward when he arrived back at Melwood for pre-season ahead of the 1998-99 season. Suddenly the landscape of Owen’s world had changed substantially. Everyone was talking about him, wanting to talk to him. Flooded with cameras everywhere he went, Owen became aware that he had entered the realm of the footballing superstar. But he wasn’t prepared to let the intense spotlight faze him.
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When the new season beckoned, the boy from Chester was as determined as ever to hit the ground running. Scoring one and setting up the other in a 2-1 win over Southampton was an impressive start to the campaign, but he was only getting started. Two games later, Owen scored the famous hand-rubbing hat-trick against Newcastle United at St. James’ Park. That match was broadcast live on Sky Sports, giving him the perfect opportunity to showcase his exceptional finishing to millions across the UK. By the time the game ended, nobody could think of anything other than Owen. The Liverpool fans raved, the Newcastle fans shook their heads in disbelief, while reporters hurriedly sketched up their match reports hailing the young genius.
The first two were predatory; tapping in from close range after sensing a goal was near. The third, though, was something far more special. Dazzling the defence with a mazy dribble, Owen proceeded to clip the ball beautifully beyond Shay Given, sprinting away and coming to a stop, rubbing his hands gleefully as he looked to his team-mates. It was crystal clear; Owen’s confidence was untouchable. Owen’s triple blitz in a head-spinning 15-minute period immediately washed away any suspicions that he was a flash in the pan. Single-handedly dismantling the Geordie defence, he became a marked man from that point on. Marking him, as most defenders soon discovered, was easier said than done. Andy Gray famously commentated on that game: “I’ve run out of things to say about this guy.” The rest of the Premier League was beginning to share the Scot’s sentiments.
The following season Owen’s free-scoring exploits were curbed somewhat by a persistent hamstring injury, which saw the player suffer several frustrating recurrences. He missed a full five months of action at the start of the season and by January had only completed six games. Due to his absence, Liverpool struggled in front of goal and failed to secure Champions League qualification. In the next three campaigns, Owen made up for lost time.
His 28 strikes fired Liverpool to a treble under Gérard Houllier in 2001. While it was a memorable achievement for the club, Owen’s individual excellence cannot be overstated. He became the first English recipient of the European Player of the Year Award since Kevin Keegan in 1979 and such recognition prompted rumours that Owen could have been on the way to a heavyweight club like Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. It was the FA Cup final against Arsenal that season which once again showed his penchant for producing the sublime under the most intense pressure.
Whether it was the Saint-Étienne or the Cardiff, Owen seized the opportunity to shine and become the hero. With Liverpool hurtling towards a demoralising defeat, the striker turned the game upside down with two perfect finishes, snatching the trophy from the hands of Arsène Wenger in the process. It was a virtuoso late show from the striking sensation that shattered a bitter rival. Owen’s pace, agility and unerring appetite for goals decimated Arsenal, just as it had nearly done with Argentina. With Owen as the magnificent spearhead in attack, Liverpool clinched the cup in the most dramatic fashion; for him, it was the single greatest day of a career that produced countless ecstatic moments in front of goal.
Owen had been on a hot streak in front of goal and, with the added boost of having the psychological edge, the striker crushed an Arsenal side who had been utterly dominant throughout the game. Despite receiving an almighty battering, Liverpool remained within touching distance at 1-0 down. Firstly Owen pounced from a Gary McAllister free-kick, whistling a shot into the bottom corner for the equaliser. Were Liverpool happy to take extra-time at this point? Yes, but their inexorable hitman up front had other ideas.
In the dying embers of the game, as Martin Tyler risked giving himself a stroke on an unspeakably hot afternoon inside his commentary gantry, Owen latched onto a spectacular long ball from Patrick Berger, took one deadly touch and lashed the ball back across a dismayed Seaman. That was it – Owen had clinched the FA Cup for Liverpool. It was the ultimate goal-scoring one-two punch from the man Arsenal simply couldn’t keep quiet for the entire game. Great strikers always sense an opportunity to pounce, even when they have been confined to the periphery of the game for the most part. Owen was exactly that type of player.
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That seemed to be the crystallising moment, for Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez at least, who started to pursue the striker as early as March 2002. Pérez desperately wanted to add Owen’s considerable threat to his Galácticos empire at the Bernabéu, blooding him alongside Ronaldo in the world’s deadliest strike force. But Owen, comfortable in his premier role at Liverpool, resisted the urge to join the superstars in Spain in favour of trying to win the Reds the Premier League title. However, when Houllier was sacked, the speculation over Owen’s future resurfaced, and he eventually signed for Los Blancos for the fairly modest fee of £8 million in August 2004, with the less-than-capable Antonio Núñez moving in the opposite direction as a makeweight.
Looking back, moving to Madrid could never be considered a mistake. It is only natural for a player of Owen’s ilk to want to rub shoulders with the likes of Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and David Beckham, but his year in the Spanish capital transpired to be oddly unfulfilling and highly frustrating. Owen scored, but not enough for the demanding fans of the world’s biggest club. He started sporadically, but still managed 18 goals. However, with Ronaldo already in the ranks and with Robinho and Júlio Baptista arriving in the summer of 2005, Owen returned to England, with Newcastle United. The Magpies paid a club record fee to line Owen up alongside Alan Shearer, but it was during his time in black and white when injuries really began to stack up. In December he broke his metatarsal during a match against Spurs and it ruled him out for nearly five months.
A metatarsal injury was one thing, but it was nothing compared to the catastrophe that was to come. Despite Owen’s interrupted debut term with Newcastle, Sven Göran-Eriksson included him in the squad for the World Cup in Germany. In the opening minute of the group game against Sweden, Owen seriously damaged his anterior cruciate ligament. The culprit? Nobody. Owen was not under great pressure from the Swedish players but, immediately after playing a pass to Ashley Cole, the Newcastle man went down in a heap. It looked horrific and the news was not good. Owen was ruled out of action for over a year, much to the grievance of both club and country.
Suddenly, a career that had limitless potential was spiralling out of control due to a massive slice of bad luck. Following an endless string of injuries, with everything from hernia to concussion to thigh injuries sidelining him for varying periods of time, Owen’s form and fitness deteriorated severely, and so too did his value. It was clear he still had the talent, but the massive physical strain had begun to take its toll and Owen no longer possessed the confidence of his exuberant youth.
Fleeting spells followed at Manchester United and Stoke and, while he showed flickers of his old self – most notably a Champions League hat-trick for United against Wolfsburg – he was never the same dangerous presence around the penalty area. That Saint-Étienne vigour had gone, that Millennium Stadium spirit had been crushed under a mountain of physical and emotional pain.
And so it came to pass that Owen retired, in 2013, at the age of 33, when he accepted he would never fully overcome his plight. One can only imagine what impact he would have made at Liverpool if he had stayed, banging goals in season after season free of injury. Perhaps he would have hoisted the Premier League title aloft with Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Perhaps the injuries would’ve ravaged his career regardless.
Looking back in football is unavoidable and, with Owen, we are reminded of the likes of Marco van Basten and George Best, players of such colossal talent whose careers fell regrettably by the wayside far too soon. Owen’s career effectively ended at 25, but he still achieved a great deal and is blessed with some wonderful memories. It is difficult for him to swallow, but his body became a burden, and he is left to reflect on what might have been.
Sir Alex Ferguson once said Liverpool wrecked Owen by playing him far too much in his teenage years. Perhaps the Scot was correct, but boy weren’t the times when Owen scored goals for fun exciting.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11