Michael Owen fired us a reminder of his capabilities this week with an impressive brace of goals at Elland Road to see off an admittedly lacklustre Leeds. His record of 11 goals in 12 starts is typical of the man. What is probably airbrushed aside from these statistics is that most of those goals have come against less than solid defences – when Sir Alex Ferguson feels he can risk fielding a striker who can ressemble a passenger more often than not.
Sadly, the former England great has been on the slide ever since he left Anfield in 2004. At Real Madrid he quickly realised that his opportunities would be limited, and a year down the line he was seemingly begging for a return to his natural home of Liverpool. Instead he got Newcastle. For a man who takes great pride in his PR, and diplomacy skills, such open courting of his former employers did not exactly endear him to his new Geordie “fanbase”. His unveiling probably marked the height of Newcastle’s previous trophy signing culture. Twenty thousand screaming work-skippers hailed his arrival, many of these blissfully ignorant of where his true heart lay, lapping up the cringingly forced “Howay the lads” sound bites. Rarely would Michael Owen feel such love again.
Before long, it became clear to many that Owen’s true ambitions lay at international level. In the early days of his St James’ Park stay, he was still considered an automatic choice for the national team, and he would often give the impression of a man unwilling to bust a gut for his club – saving himself for the “bigger” world stage that Newcastle could not offer him. Despite this, his goal ratio (aside from his final season, where his listless “captain” performances undoubtedly contributed to relegation for his side) was extremely respectable.
So in the summer of 2009, his Newcastle contract had run down, and his half-hearted statements professing his loyalty and willingness to stay were quickly forgotten, and the man became a free agent. His time at Newcastle is one that Owen will surely regret for the rest of his life. While he had already lost some of his pace by this stage, he was still a top-class finisher, and for him to spend the second half of his twenties (the generally accepted peak of a player’s power) at the Toon hinted at ambition being sacrificed for a fat pay cheque. Not once during his time in the North East did a top six finish look likely.
His PR machine soon kicked into overdrive, with his infamous brochure ending up online over the summer. By this stage, Michael Owen was a pale shadow of his former self, and such a desperate move made his eventual arrival at Manchester United all the more surprising. His current situation is one that everyone is happy with. His previous undying love for Liverpool can easily be swept aside by playing for a club of Man United’s stature, and he is still getting top level European football, at least on paper. But for a player of such potential, surely being fifth choice striker at Old Trafford is a failure? His last-minute winner against Man City in his first season will earn him endless goodwill from supporters, but that substitute appearance remains his one meaningful contribution to the first-choice Man United team.
Then again, had he been unhappy with this state of affairs a new contract would not have been signed this summer. Perhaps he realises he can do no better, and is content to slowly wind the clock down on his career – earning good money and adding another glittering club to his increasingly flattering CV.
By Gerard Walton