As the players that participated in the latter stages of Euro 2012 lie on a beach in an exotic location somewhere and perhaps reflect upon a long, gruelling campaign, many of their club colleagues have already returned to pre-season training ahead of a new season.
The first week of pre-season training is year zero for many a footballer. For some it is the first opportunity to impress a new manager, for others it is an opportunity to display that they deserve a future at a club. Spare a thought perhaps for those players that did not return to training this past week. These types of players are categorised by the dreaded term, ‘unattached.’
Examining the list of former Premier League players currently without employment, you will find somewhat of a mixed bag. There are those that decided not to extend their contracts with their previous clubs in the hope that something better comes along (see Rodallega, Hoillett and Figueroa) or conversely there are those whom their previous clubs deemed not worth having on the books any longer (see Bosingwa, Hargreaves and Saha). Generally speaking, there are few surprises on the list, mainly squad players that were doubtless half-expecting to be moved on as their contract expiry neared. However, one name in particular stands out from the others.
It is erstwhile unusual to see a former Ballon d’Or winner, or what is now known as the FIFA World Footballer of the year, within this category. But this is where Michael Owen now finds himself. As his former colleagues at Manchester United returned to pre-season training at Carrington training ground, a 32 year old Michael Owen sits at home in Cheshire perhaps wondering which direction his once illustrious career will now take him.
It is eleven years since Owen stood on the stage in Zurich and posed for photographs with the ‘golden ball.’ The winners in the years preceding included Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Rivaldo. Owen’s successors comprised Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Pavel Nedved. This was an illustrious group, an elite group of players destined to be remembered as legends of the modern era. It is inconceivable that the then 21 year old Owen would imagine finding himself atop the footballing scrapheap at the age of 32. However, that is precisely where Owen is now straying dangerously close to.
To examine how Owen reached this point, we must look back upon some of the key moments and, more pertinently, some of the key decisions made during his career.
Within football circles, Owen’s precocious talent was noted long before his debut for Liverpool, as a baby faced seventeen years old, and the inevitable goal that followed. With the combination of searing pace and a finishing ability that belied his tender years, Owen was a footballing prodigy by the time of the 1998 World Cup and his famous wonder goal versus Argentina.
While, the date of that fabulous goal in St-Etienne will remain forever etched in England folklore, more acutely for his future career, the 12 April 1999 is remembered for regrettable reasons. The tear whilst playing for Liverpool at Leeds United began a catalogue of hamstring injuries that ultimately robbed the young striker of the lightning pace that had struck fear into the hearts of any defence he preyed upon the shoulder of. He would never again be the striker that could drive at a defence and leave helpless opponents trailing in his wake.
However, it is arguable that in the seasons following the Leeds injury, Owen managed to develop his overall game even further. He continued to elude defenders with clever movement inside the penalty area while his uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time still remained and goals were plundered by the sack full for Liverpool and England. His finishing ability, once infamously questioned, by the then England manager Glenn Hoddle, and then resoundingly answered by the forward, would never desert him despite the travails that later followed.
An injury plagued 2003/2004 season would be critical for Owen’s career. As it turned out, it would be his last for Liverpool. An uneasy, often unspoken, relationship with the Kop was to finish bitterly come the end. During his time at the club, it would be fair to say that Owen did not enjoy the adulation of the Kop similar to that of Robbie Fowler for instance. Fowler was viewed by the Club’s supporters as one of them. Owen never was able to develop a similar bond with the Liverpool supporters. He was respected but perhaps not adored, not in the way he perhaps should have been. For many, Liverpool’s Michael Owen had morphed into England’s Michael Owen some time ago. It became widely felt that the national jersey was number one in his list of priorities.
This is perhaps doing the Owen a disservice. He performed admirably for the club during his time at Anfield and his goals record stood comparison with any of the striking greats that had bestowed the Anfield turf. However, the manner of his departure shortly after the appointment of Rafa Benitez in the summer of 2004 left a bitter taste in many a Kopite’s mouth. Owen had decided that he could not wait for Benitez to breathe new life into a faltering giant. He had allowed his contract to wind itself down to twelve months remaining meanwhile giving the impression of a man who was always just about to commit himself. However, once Real Madrid came calling, Owen decided to cut the cord.
At his unveiling, while Owen held aloft the famous white shirt alongside Alfredo Di Stefano, he must have wondered whether he had moved onto the next, even more successful, stage of his career. But it was not to be. Owen was to spend a solitary, forgettable, season at Real Madrid. Often confined to the bench, nevertheless he was able display on occasion the predatory instinct that had been harnessed for Liverpool and England. He finished his only season at the Bernabeu with only having been on the pitch at the beginning of the ninety minutes on fifteen occasions. Clearly this was not good enough for a man of his pedigree. Driven by the same competitive edge that had previously seen him casually toss away a medal from a his collection, a 2001 Worthington Cup final winners medal for Liverpool, due to the fact he watched the entirety from the substitutes bench, he remained determined to make his mark in the football world. He was not to know it but the summer of 2005 was a pivotal moment in his still young career.
Twenty thousand people had arrived at St James Park to welcome their club record signing. The Newcastle supporters were well-known for their adulation of their star strikers - Jackie Milburn, Malcolm Macdonald and Alan Shearer could bear testament to that. For a man who had probably never received the love from supporters that his talent deserved, this could have been a match made in heaven. In truth, it got off to a rocky beginning. The transfer to Newcastle had raised many an eyebrow. Toiling at the wrong end of the Premiership table, St James Park did not appear an obvious destination for a man, by then homing in on becoming England’s record goals scorer, to arrive. Owen, with his place in the England starting eleven under threat following a season of collecting splinters in Madrid, went to the only club willing to match the Spaniard’s asking price alongside guaranteeing him a place in the starting eleven.
Owen’s Newcastle career began, somewhat predictably, with an injury which kept him out until September. The tone was set for what proved to be an unsuccessful four years on Tyneside. A metatarsal injury sidelined him at Christmas until the end of the season. Owen returned just in time for England duty at the 2006 World Cup but suffered a sickening injury to his anterior cruciate ligament in the third group game versus Sweden which was to rule him out for a further nine months. By the time he returned for a few brief cameo appearances at the end of the following season, Owen was able to reflect back on a lost three years of his career including his time in Madrid. Owen, as well as Newcastle, was now on a downward spiral that ultimately ended, an injury filled two years later, with the humiliation of relegation and the release from his contract which had cost Newcastle a reported £110,000 a week for the four years in which Owen only made seventy-nine appearances. Typically for the player, he still found the net on thirty occasions.
In the summer of 2009 Owen found himself at a free agent, available at the behest of any top club that came calling. However none did, at least at first. Probably owing to his injury record, the top clubs did not pursue an interest in a man who just a few years prior could walk into almost any side in the world and not look out of place. Owen would need to prove himself once again. He had lost his England place with the arrival of Fabio Capello in 2007. He was marooned on 40 international goals, just nine shy of equalling Bobby Charlton’s long-standing record. The next move of his career would be critical for the player.
On the face of it, signing for the reigning champions can hardly be described as a negative thing and that is probably what spurred Owen on to signing a contract, arriving out of the blue, from Manchester United that summer. Owen is no fool, he would have known the risks involved in signing for a club where the competition for forward places was incredibly high. The alternatives were one of Stoke or Bolton and the promise of first team football that may or may not have brought his once brilliant career back on track.
Aside from his unerring finishing, the only other constant throughout his career has been his sense of self-belief. From a young age, Owen had grown accustomed to meeting every challenge his career presented to him. He had ousted every striker which threatened his crown at Liverpool and England. He believed he could do the same versus Raul and Ronaldo at Madrid. At Newcastle he was never fit enough to rise to any challenge. At Manchester United, he walked into training on the first day believing that he still had it within him to become an established first-team star once more.
Then something strange happened. Owen appeared to slowly morph towards acceptance that his regular first-team days were over. His appearances dwindled, not helped by the usual injury jinx, season by season over the course of his three years spent under Alex Ferguson. His final season yielded just four appearances. He qualified for a Premier League winner’s medal in his second season but it was hardly a vintage one for him personally. Ten of his eleven appearances came from the bench. His contribution towards his medal earned him the type of scorn demonstrated by Shane Warne towards Paul Collingwood after the latter’s limited contribution towards the English’s Ashes 2005 success, “You got an MBE, right? For scoring seven at the Oval? That’s embarrassing.” For many, Owen deserved to be within the same category. Watching on with enthusiasm from the sidelines, he was derided by others as becoming a glorified cheerleader. He remained unmoved by the criticism.
During his Manchester United years, the player himself addressed enough times the concerns that he was wasting away his talent by accepting his limited playing time, ‘'I knew when I came here that I wouldn't play every game and it would be a bit different to what I was used to,” he said. “But I will sacrifice playing every game for the opportunity to play and train with the very top players and work under a top manager”.
Perhaps what is difficult for many to understand, this writer included, is how a player with Owen’s talent could choose to spend, perhaps the twilight years of his career, making more of a mark on Twitter as opposed to striving to return to what he did best. The burning competitive edge which caused him to toss away his winners medal for lack of a contribution in 2001 appears to have deserted him once and for all.
It is worth considering that at some point during his long injury lay-offs of recent years, Owen took stock of his career and considered that perhaps he was content with what he had already achieved. The Ballon d’Or, only the fifth Brit to win the award and the first since Kevin Keegan in 1977, was secured. A collection of medals, though perhaps not the major ones he must have craved, were on show within his display cabinet. He stands fifth on the list of all-time goal scorers for the national team, though he must wonder what could have been. His last international goal versus Russia took him within ten goals of the record at the age of twenty-seven. Fear, perhaps, is what is led to the decision to wait it out in the shadows at Old Trafford. A proud man, it is arguable that his experience at the wrong end of the table with Newcastle, where his once beaming smile and youthful exuberance was rarely displayed, convinced him to be content with only cameo appearances within a winning team at Manchester United.
When his contract finished in June, it drew little reaction from within the sporting world. At just 32 years old, Michael Owen stands at a crossroads in his sporting life. Of course, football has not been the solitary passion for quite some time now. His successful stables, now comprising over one hundred horses, among them Brown Panther with a Royal Ascot victory under her owners belt, have led many to suspect whether Owen is now ready to move on from Football and over to Horse Racing full-time. The player, for he is still referred to as such for the time being, denies this, but with a catch, “If no one wanted me, I wouldn’t drop down the leagues,” he said. “I want to stay at the top level. I want to play on for a couple of years, but not at the expense of dropping down.” If Owen is now content to play for a mid, more likely lower, level Premier League club then he might yet find somebody willing to take a punt on him. After all, there are few players available with a record like his, without commanding a hefty transfer fee.
Very few greats have left the sport on their own terms yet even fewer have exited with a whimper. Perhaps then, his legacy is still something yet to be determined. Owen, the once thoroughbred racehorse, is approaching the final fence of a distinguished career. The speed is not what it once was, the desire has been questioned, but the decision is now his alone. He could limp towards the finish line and be put out to pasture, remembered as a former great, or he may very well surprise us all and break into one final gallop to bring the curtain down upon an eventful trail that he plotted around the course. We await his next move with interest.