I loved Michael Owen. Still do. I realise for many reds this is sacrilege. Many cannot forgive him for ‘engineering a move’ (their words not his, or mine) out of Anfield, or for the ultimate betrayal. Playing for Manchester United.
All that aside, I still maintain some of my favourite moments as a Liverpool and England fan, revolve around him. Try writing a history of either Liverpool or England and not include him. Individually he won virtually everything there was to win. His career saw him play for four of the biggest clubs around, in terms of following. He played in three World Cups for his country. At one point he was his country’s greatest goalscorer in competitive matches. Yet there’s still a cloud over his career. There’s still a refusal for acceptance. Where is his home? He played for five clubs yet none of them seem to consider him as theirs. These aren’t just my thoughts, they’re his too.
At one stage he was the best player in the world…..for his age. Now it’s all over he rarely seems to receive sufficient reverence. I find this sad. But then even at his peak at Anfield there were those who considered him “England’s Michael Owen”. Yeah, football supporters are a strange breed.
What prompted this article? I was listening to another brilliant podcast from Jamie Carragher, ‘The Greatest Game’. This is an excellent series because, as Michael alludes, ‘Carra’ is able to ask the sort of questions others don’t. He understands players, is amazingly passionate about football and therefore asks questions for the answers many of us supporters want to know. Carragher and Owen are mates, they were roommates at Liverpool. Carra a year above at school. They both came through an academy system at Mellwood which produced the likes of McManaman, Gerrard, and Fowler. After a decade of false dawns and chasing that ever-elusive next title, these young stars provided Liverpool fans with immense hope of a new beginning for the club.
Owen was born in Chester. Yet that didn’t go against Ian Rush, who was born west of the city. He was born to a father who’d played a couple of games for Everton. Initially, he was an Everton fan. It’s well known McManaman, Carragher, Fowler and Ian Rush were boyhood blues. It’s said he was famous for England before he was truly famous for Liverpool. Whereas I feel a tremendous sense of pride when a young player from your team is called up for his country and upstages older, more established names.
Terry Owen had his most successful period of his career at Chester City. He introduced his youngest child to football from the age of seven. Almost immediately young Michael knew he was going to be a good footballer.
As he tells lfchistory.net, Owen senior knew it too.
“When he was five or six we used to take him along to the mini club, a kind of kid fun session at the Deeside Leisure Centre. There were all sorts of activities going on, trampolining, table-tennis, but all he was interested in was the football games. And his co-ordination and eye for a ball was quite exceptional for a five-year-old. Most lads of that age just toe punting the ball but Michael was a natural – he was tucking shots into the corner of the net with the side of his foot. You would have thought he was three or four years older than he was. It was remarkable.”
He began playing junior football with Hawarden Rangers. When he was eight he was selected for an Under-11 county side. As Michael would tell Carragher;
“it’s okay playing against players three years older than you when you’re 22, for example. But at eight playing against kids of 10 and 11 was a really tough task”.
At the age of nine, he was made captain and then at 10, he broke Ian Rush’s goalscoring record for Deeside. Rush had scored 72 goals in two years for the U11s. Owen smashed it with 97. He broke Gary Speed’s appearance record for Deeside U11s. It wasn’t long before scouts came calling.
Brian Kidd travelled down from Manchester United, but it was Liverpool’s academy director, Steve Heighway, who made the most meaningful approach. He recognised Owen’s potential straight away and was desperate for the club to sign him. They agreed and from the age of 12, Owen was a Liverpool player.
In his 18 years at the academy the one player, he says he was almost sure would make it was Owen. The youngest age a player was when Heighway knew they’d make it and he replied, Michael Owen at age 15.
Heighway encouraged the player to attend FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall at age 14 and from then he represented England at every level. He was in a pretty strong group too, with Wes Brown, Michael Ball and Jon Harley among the players in his age group.
He scored goals in his debuts for England’s U15, U16 and U18 levels. He broke scoring records for U15s and U16s with 28 goals in 20 matches.
By the age of 16, he was in Liverpool’s youth team, again playing against players older than him. He scored a hat-trick against cup holders Manchester United in the Youth Cup Quarter-Finals and then another hat-trick in the first leg of the Semi-Final against Crystal Palace. With the tie level at 5-5 after 90 minutes in the second leg, Owen stepped up to make the difference with two goals in extra time.
Up against West Ham in the Final, Owen missed the first leg due to England duty. He scored in the second leg to help Liverpool win the FA Youth Cup for the first time in their history. That Liverpool side also included Carragher and David Thompson. They were up against a West Ham team including Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard
Owen signed a professional contract at 17 and was breaking scoring records set by Robbie Fowler in the reserves. Manager Roy Evans was now showing an interest in including the protégé in his first team. Heighway had no doubt he would have a glittering career;
“He is ready for whatever you throw at him, nothing fazes Michael Owen. He’s ready. If the manager wants a recommendation from me, Michael gets it”.
Owen says of his days as a teenager;
“I knew I was very, very good. By the age of fourteen, I believed I was the best around. At that age, I can honestly say I don’t know of any players better”.
A year after the Youth Cup success Evans called him into the first team for the trip to Wimbledon, then playing at Selhurst Park. Liverpool’s title challenge looked well on track when they beat Arsenal at Highbury at the end of March. That was the game when Fowler tried to tell the referee he was wrong to give him a penalty. They were then just three points behind the leaders, Man Utd. But defeats at home to Coventry and United and then a bad defeat at PSG in the Cup Winners’ Cup, put paid to any hopes of a good season. Owen made the bench for the home game against Spurs but didn’t get on. Three days later came his Liverpool debut.
Evans threw him on for Patrick Berger just before the hour with Liverpool 0-2 down and their title hopes well and truly in tatters. Within 16 minutes Owen had scored.
One of his qualities was his utter belief in himself. He knew he’d score. He just believed it. Coming away from Selhurst Park now having confirmed the destination of the title to United, Owen provided the only glimmer of sustenance.
Five days later he made his first start for the club in the trip to Sheffield Wednesday.
Evans was going to ease his young star into the season but Injury to Fowler at the start of the 1997/98 season saw Owen line up in the starting eleven alongside new signing, Karl-Heinz Riedle. Through a quirk of fate, they were at Wimbledon again for the first game. Fowler was the regular penalty taker but Evans approached Owen to see how he felt about taking over in his absence;
“I asked him before the game if he wanted to take the penalties, and he said he did. I asked: ‘Is that me pushing or you wanting?’ – and he insisted he wanted to do it. But he still had to fight with Danny (Murphy) to get the ball – that’s not bad confidence from a couple of kids”.
Owen’s penalty grabbed a draw. He scored again two weeks later at Blackburn with Liverpool still to register a win. Then in mid-September, he made his European debut in the UEFA Cup trip to Celtic. If he was overawed, it didn’t show as he scored within six minutes of the kick-off.
At the beginning of October, he signed a five-year contract worth a basic £2.5m. His £10kpw made him the highest-paid teenager in British football.
Towards the end of November, he scored his first senior hat-trick in the League Cup against Grimsby at Anfield. By now the country was talking about this sensational youngster. Little seemed to faze him, he had tremendous pace, strength and bravery. Liverpool had found another star.
By the new year, Owen had hit the target 10 times in 26 appearances as he forced his manager to continue to make a choice between him and Riedle to partner Fowler up front.
Goals in the league and League Cup against Newcastle United and then a brace against Southampton at Anfield earned him recognition from the national manager, Glenn Hoddle. On 11th February 1998, Owen became the youngest-ever player in the 20th century to make his debut for England, aged 18 years and 59 days. Hoddle gave him a starting place for the friendly against Chile at Wembley, alongside another debutant, Dion Dublin. Chile had far too much for England with Marcelo Salas scoring twice in a 2-0 win.
Buoyed by international recognition, Owen promptly returned to club duty and hit a hat-trick at Sheffield Wednesday.
Goals against Villa and Bolton took him to 19 for the season in all competitions. Liverpool were second to United yet, had played three more matches than Arsenal just behind them in third. In those days just two places were up for grabs for the Champions League. Owen’s form saw him make the starting line-up in England’s next game in Switzerland where he partnered Alan Shearer.
Owen was on target at Old Trafford in the 1-1 draw with United but Arsenal had now opened up a gap above them and a UEFA Cup place looked the only realistic target.
In the end, they finished third. Owen ended up top scorer in the league with 18, along with Dublin and Chris Sutton. Not bad for his first full season, and he was still only 18.
Hoddle selected him for the final friendly at home before the World Cup in France. He was on the bench for the visit of Portugal but came on for the last quarter of an hour for Teddy Sheringham.
By now there was a clamour for him to get the nod for France ’98. Before announcing his final squad, Hoddle took his players off to a tournament in Morocco involving the hosts and Belgium. In the first match in Casablanca Owen scored his first goal for his country. This made him the youngest player to ever score for England. The clamour had now become a roar.
Two days later he was again on the bench for the game against Belgium. He came on at half-time but couldn’t score as the game ended goalless. It went to penalties. 18 year old Michael Owen, as he had been for Liverpool, was totally unnerved as he stepped up and scored one of the penalties.
At the beginning of June Hoddle allowed the nation to breathe again as he announced Owen in his squad for France. Though, he caused a stir by saying he didn’t think Owen was a goalscorer. He subsequently said he was misquoted, in that he believed Michael was more than a goalscorer but he was insulting one of the country’s favourite assets.
The World Cup 1998 was the platform that sent Owen from a star in England to a worldwide name. He was the most talked-about teenager in world football.
England began their campaign with a comfortable 2-0 win over Tunisia in Marseille. Owen was on the bench but came on for Sheringham for the last five minutes.
A week later they moved to Toulouse to take on Romania. Moldovan had put the Romanians in the lead soon after half-time and with 15 minutes to go, Hoddle threw on his young prospect. With England pressing, Shearer pulled the ball back into the six-yard area. Scholes couldn’t control it and Owen was first to react to score the equaliser. What a moment. It was pure instinct. A striker’s instinct. Years later he would claim he was confident of scoring as he was warming up. Within minutes Owen was in action again when he shot from outside the area and it hit the post. But ultimately it was all for nothing as Graeme Le Saux failed to stop Dan Petrescu from scoring the winner. England now knew they had to beat Colombia to progress.
Hoddle had two exciting young players the country was desperate to see, and finally, he succumbed to their cries as both Beckham and Owen made the starting line-up against Colombia in Lens. Beckham’s free-kick helped England to a 2-0 win and the knockout rounds beckoned.
In what became one of the games of the tournament, England lined up in St Etienne against Argentina. This game has gone down in folklore for more than one reason, and it was this game that really announced Owen to the world.
Batistuta had put Argentina in front from the spot after just six minutes. Four minutes they had an opportunity to hit back. Le Saux played the ball forward and the Argentine defence, not knowing anything about Owen, had left the Liverpool striker in acres of space. He had time to bring the ball down and run at the defence. As he got into the area, Zanetti stepped across him and Owen went down. Penalty! Shearer made no mistake from the spot and the game was level again.
Owen’s pace was worrying the Argentinians, and within minutes they had cause to panic again. Ince won the ball just outside his area and found Beckham in midfield. He looked up and saw Owen free in the centre-circle. Owen collected the pass and then ran full pelt at the Argentinian goal. He left Chamot for dead and then as Ayala tried to stand his ground on the edge of his box, Owen just dropped his shoulder, moved right and then unleashed a brilliant strike across the keeper into the corner of the net.
You can hear the sheer joy in Brian Moore’s voice as he commentates on it, as if he’d been watching his own son score;
“Ahhhhh it’s a wonderful goal from Michael Owen. What an amazing moment in Michael Owen’s young career”.
As the camera pans back to the England bench, Paul Merson’s face is a picture as if he cannot believe what he’s just witnessed from one so young.
It certainly was a wonderful moment, but in the end, England went out on penalties and they were left wondering what might have been.
Years later Owen would again speak of his confidence of scoring in the Argentina game, such was his self-confidence. He says the goal changed his career as he remembered seeing his mum and dad in the crowd and recalling what a special moment it was for them all.
Back at Mellwood, Owen now entered Liverpool’s training ground a global superstar, yet he was still the same down-to-earth young lad who’d been breaking records in the reserves barely a year earlier. His self-confidence and belief he deserved to play at this level was what served him so well.
Would he suffer a bout of over-confidence? Would he struggle to meet the high standards he already set for himself when the new season started? Surely defenders would be more aware of him and the way he played? We were soon to find out.
The 1998/99 season was one of change at Anfield. In a strange move, the club decided to bring in Gerard Houllier, initially appointed as joint manager with Roy Evans. It was never going to work, but for the young Owen the season was very much business as usual. He scored in the opening day win at Southampton.
A week later they travelled to St. James’s Park and English football’s most talked-about teenager produced an absolute masterclass. One thing which had been obvious from the World Cup was his speed, and not just pace across the ground but speed of thought. This gave him a ruthless streak which made things a nightmare for defenders.
18 minutes in and Ince had a shot from about 30 yards, which Given could only parry to his left. It fell to Owen on the edge of the six-yard box. Owen wasn’t fazed at the tightness of the angle or the fact Given was covering his near post. He just lashed it past the keeper beating him at the near post. It was a great strike.
A minute later Liverpool moved forward again. McManaman picked the ball up in midfield and waited for the runs ahead of him. He slid his pass between the two Newcastle defenders and Owen was clear. As Given came out, Owen steadied himself momentarily allowing the keeper to commit himself. Then he slid it through his legs and into the net for goal number two.
Newcastle grabbed a goal back 10 minutes later, but then came the best goal of the game. The Newcastle defence, still not really alive to the quality of the player they were up against, were knocking the ball around at the back just inside their half.
As Charvet was fannying around with the ball, Riedle nipped in to steal it. Owen was able to pick it up and all of a sudden he was away. He slipped it through Charvet, as if toying with him, then eased past Albert in a way similar to how he went past Ayala in St. Etienne. Then he was into the area. As Given came out, Owen chose to beat him in a different way and dinked it over him for a stunning hat-trick. Three goals in 14 minutes and you could only marvel at the poise, confidence and sheer impudence of the lad.
He was just devastating. No defender had time to waste and give him an inch he’d take a yard. Yet still he was only 18.
Two months later Evans and/or Houllier had decided to rest him for the game against Valencia in the UEFA Cup. There’d been talk of making sure Owen wasn’t burned out too soon, especially as he was keen to play every game. The game ended goalless and Owen was restored to the starting line-up for the visit of Forest at the weekend.
If the management was looking for a reaction from him, they got it and it only took 10 minutes. Ince won the ball in midfield, found Berger who drew the defence to him. He then slipped the ball to his left for Owen to curl the ball into the top left corner of the net past Beasant. It was simple yet ruthless, yet again.
McManaman had restored Liverpool’s lead after a Freedman equaliser and then with half-time beckoning Owen struck again. McManaman played Owen in on the left side of the attack. Dribbling with his right foot, he drew Chettle to him, then dropped his shoulder to go past him on the outside. Then he hit a left-footed shot across Beasant into the same corner he did him earlier.
In the second half, Riedle was tripped in the area. Owen stepped up and sent Beasant the wrong way, scoring in the same corner as he did for the other two goals. His second hat-trick of the season.
Six minutes later he’d scored a fourth. He was sent clear down the left-wing, where he cut inside and hit a shot which Beasant parried. The ball came to Owen who knocked past the hapless Forest keeper for an incredible fourth goal of the game.
England had changed things too with Glenn Hoddle being hounded out by the press with Kevin Keegan replacing him. In some ways, Owen was a similar player to Keegan. Diminutive, a constant menace, full of energy and determination.
Would this see a boost for his international career? Only time would tell.
Join us in part two when we look at Owen’s career from 1998.