I’ve won the Premier League. I have a final named after me. I’ve represented my country at five major tournaments, won two Premier League Golden Boots, and a Premier League Player of the Year award. I’ve scored in a Clásico. I once won five trophies in a single calendar year. I’ve even lifted the Ballon d’Or. Who am I?
If you hadn’t already read Michael Owen’s name in this feature’s title, there’s more than a good chance he wouldn’t be the first name on your lips. After all, beyond the chronic injury problems and grind-gearing punditry, it’s easy to forget that he was actually pretty decent with a ball at his feet. Better than decent. He was world-class.
After becoming the golden boy of English football in the closing stages of the 20th century, the once-innocent Owen would prove to be quite a divisive figure by the end of the following decade. Whether you remember him in that gold kit at the Millennium Stadium or celebrating a last-minute derby clincher with a red devil on his chest, you can’t deny the talent he had and the potential that was seemingly wasted.
Marc Overmars – the closest competitor to Owen for the title of the 2000s finest ‘O’ – left Arsenal the year before Owen’s 2001 FA Cup final masterclass, departing for spotlight of the Camp Nou. His former teammates lined up against Owen, Gerrard, Carragher and co as opposing Frenchmen Arsène Wenger and Gérard Houllier faced off in the dugout in Cardiff. As the clock ticked past 80 minutes, Wenger was the one looking most likely to take the silverware back. A Freddie Ljungberg goal had put the Gunners ahead. That was before they were gunned down by the baby-faced assassin.
Owen’s two late strikes, one an acrobatic finish from close range and the other a low shot that beat David Seaman, sprung him into Anfield folklore once more. The ‘Michael Owen Final’ has since been slightly overshadowed by the ‘Steven Gerrard Final’ of 2006, mainly down to the test of time, but it arguably warrants the title even more.
The FA Cup was Liverpool’s second trophy of the season and they’d go just another four days without one. Dramatic UEFA Cup glory over Alavés saw them secure their third trophy of the season, adding to their FA Cup and League Cup triumphs. It also ensured their place in the Super Cup later that year which, with the Charity Shield to come after the summer break, meant Houllier’s men had the chance to become the first English side ever to win five trophies in a calendar year.
At the scene of his FA Cup heroics some months earlier, for the season’s charity-themed curtain-raiser, Owen ran the Manchester United defence into the ground. With the score already 1-0 Liverpool, Jaap Stam slipped and left Owen bearing down on a very vulnerable Gary Neville. The United right-back didn’t even bother to watch the ball hit the net after Owen had sent him the opposite direction. Super Cup victory over European champions Bayern Munich saw the Reds make history and Owen’s stock rise even higher.
By the end of 2001, the young Englishman was the hot favourite to take the Ballon d’Or from Luís Figo and he did just that, beating the Real Madrid star by 120 points in the voting. But he wasn’t only the best striker in world football, he was deemed the best player on the planet and, when the likes of Zinedine Zidane are among the front-runners for such an award, that’s quite the accolade.
In international fortunes, Argentina’s defence certainly didn’t enjoy facing him in Sapporo, in 2002. Soon after striking the post, Owen was brought down by Mauricio Pochettino, after he’d jinked inside the current Spurs boss, a simple yet effective moment of evasive movement. David Beckham dispatched the resulting spot-kick, which helped Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England claim a knockout stage place.
Another goal against Denmark helped the Three Lions through to face Brazil in Shizuoka, where Owen notched again, only for the three Rs — Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo — and co. to dump them out. It wasn’t to be long before Owen was limbering up in the same line-up as Ronaldo in the Santiago Bernabéu tunnel, shut away from the opposition by that recognisable railing between the two teams in that narrow corridor.
Manchester United had been unable to contain him back at the Millennium Stadium 18 months before Owen’s high-profile move to Madrid. Liverpool were chasing another League Cup win and Roy Keane ended up on his backside trying to chase Owen. United’s captain threw himself at the slight striker as he ran in on goal, intent on putting his side 2-0 up with four minutes to go. Keane’s lunge didn’t come close to putting Owen off, let alone making contact with his feet.
That season saw Owen’s performances reach another level, firing Liverpool into a title race before everything around him fell away. Like many of the defenders clambering after Owen that year, inclusive of Keane, Liverpool were struggling to keep up with their talisman.
Houllier scrambled to serve up promises to keep his main man at Anfield and, without the Champions League qualification they eventually scraped into, you’d imagine Owen might’ve made the trip south to Spain a year sooner. But he stayed, despite Florentino Pérez’s best efforts to add another Galáctico to his star-crammed squad. Pérez smelled blood the following summer, though, after Owen had seen his campaign ravaged by injury and Houllier had left his post as manager.
Few forwards in history would’ve been capable of shifting Ronaldo from his starting spot, even more so when he was receiving service from Zidane, Beckham and Figo every week, while you’re sitting on the bench watching. In a team of celebrity footballers, Owen didn’t really stand out at Real Madrid, nor did he fit in.
There was nothing distinct about his appearance or style of play, which, arguably, you need to have at that club for the Madridistas and Spanish press to warm to you. When Owen wasn’t scoring goals, there were no stepovers to fall back on, no pinpoint set-pieces. That, combined with the difficulty he found in integrating into Spanish society, saw Owen’s spell away from England prove to be a short one.
Newcastle offered him a chance to return to the Premier League and regain his place back in the England team. At the age of 25, Owen was still supposedly two or three years away from his peak but, in reality, he was already on a sad decline. It wasn’t a particularly quick fall; rather a stuttering one that was slowed, or sped up, depending on how you look at it, by injury problems that would eventually devour his career completely.
“I saw a stat a couple of years ago and they wrote down myself, Rooney, Giggs, Scholes, Gerrard; all these players of that generation. By the time we were all 22, I’d virtually played double the amount of games than all of them. Yes, you can over-play I suppose,” Owen told BT Sport in 2018. “Personally, I just think I was made to get muscle injuries because of my speed. For the last six or seven years of my career, I just turned into the only thing I could. I was petrified of running in behind. I just knew I was going to tear a muscle.”
There were glimpses of the old Owen at Newcastle, the one that used to fly away from defenders. Then, after the ACL injury at the 2006 World Cup, he, the old Owen, was virtually gone, replaced by a penalty area poacher who came short and got in the box. “I lost everything. I hated it. I couldn’t wait to retire,” he said. But he adapted.
There was a reason why Sir Alex Ferguson brought him to Old Trafford. That toe-poke against Manchester City was evidence he was still useful at the highest level. He still came off the left, slipping through the gap between left-back and centre-half, and he feathered the ball into the bottom right-hand corner. With seconds remaining, he won the derby for his team. He still had it.
You just have to find a selection of his goals from the 2000/01 season and compare them to those from the 2009/10 campaign and marvel at the difference. It’s quite fascinating; almost impossible to believe that it’s the same player, that kid from Chester. As is always the way, you can choose to remember Owen in any way you want, but consider yourself lucky that you weren’t playing against him during his golden years at Liverpool, his underrated time in LaLiga, or his predatory spell at Old Trafford. In every one of those unique and disparate manifestations, Michael Owen was something special.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08