In the first part of this focus on Michael Owen, we covered his emergence as one of the best young strikers many had seen. After he burst into the Liverpool first team, he then exploded onto the global scene with ‘that goal’ against Argentina in France 1998.
Now we pick up the story in season 1998/99 with England having changed managers from Hoddle to Keegan and Liverpool under the tutelage of an odd partnership of Evans and Houllier.
November 1998 and there was a change at the helm at Anfield. Liverpool went to Valencia for the second leg of their UEFA Cup tie. The game ended acrimoniously with two players sent off, the referee losing control and the final insult came in the dressing room. As the players came off still seething at the ref and the behaviour of the home team, Houllier was seen rifling through the pile of shirts to retrieve one for a friend on the opposing side. Evans decided this was time to move on.
Houllier took overall control of the team and things certainly changed at the club. Firstly behind the scenes and then on the pitch as the Frenchman chose the summer to make many acquisitions. Owen ended with 23 goals in all competitions again, in a season which was a disappointment for the club. His last goal of the season came at the beginning of April away at Forest. A week later came disaster for the young man and a defining moment in his career.
At Elland Road, 25 minutes in, Owen pulled up when chasing a ball he’d normally have little trouble reaching. Agonisingly it was his hamstring. He hobbled off down the tunnel and as we have now found out that was effectively the end of his career at his peak. He was four months past his 19th birthday and this hamstring injury was so severe he was never the same player again.
In his autobiography ‘My Life, My Time‘, he explains there are three hamstring muscles in each leg, which all provide a different function when running. He snapped one of them in two. These days he’d have had surgery to repair the ends, in fact in 2010 when he snapped a hamstring playing for Manchester United, he had surgery allowing him to return to full fitness. But this injury took place in 1999 and he was told to rest and let it heal. So, for the rest of his career he played with three hamstrings in one leg and two in the other. Of course, this meant his body began to rely on other muscles to compensate. The resulting injuries to groin, ankle, knee etc, were inevitable.
As he looks back on his career he pinpoints this moment when his career began to decline. Incredible isn’t it? He’d burst onto the scene, scoring on his debut for Liverpool, winning Premier League Golden Boots, BBC Sports Personality of the Year and yet by 19 he wasn’t going to get any better.
Philosophically, he looks back and consoles himself his peak came between the ages of 18 and 22. People such as Sir Alex Ferguson have argued if Owen had been a United player he’d never have been overplayed as much as Ferguson believed he was at Anfield. But Owen argues if he’d been at United he might never have played in France ’98 and probably only have played five or six games a season in that United side at the turn of the century. There would be no Golden Boots to look back on, no SPOTY either at that age. This may have come later, but then again, what if his hamstrings had gone at the same age yet he hadn’t achieved as much in his career. His career might well have been over before his peak.
Relying so much on his pace, Owen now found he just lacked that bit of confidence in his body’s ability to remain healthy to allow those sudden bursts of pace. We all thought, hoped and prayed he’d recover to full fitness, young as he was. None of us knew the trauma he was suffering inside.
The injury at Leeds was the end of his season and he didn’t return until the fifth game of the following one. His first goals after coming back came a month later when he bagged a brace against Leicester.
Another injury came along in February resulting in the 1999/00 season’s goal return of just 12. The season ended in disappointment for the club as defeat to Bradford City meant they missed out on Champions League football. That was their third defeat in their final five matches where they failed to win, or even score.
Euro 2000 wasn’t much better for Owen or England as they went out in the group stages. Things started well with them racing to a two-goal lead inside 20 minutes only to lose to Portugal. A much longer for victory over Germany followed but they fell apart against Romania. Owen’s seventh goal for his country gave them a 2-1 lead after trailing, but a mistake by Phil Neville handed the Romanians victory from the penalty spot.
The 2000/01 became the most memorable for Owen, containing many of his best moments. Houllier had finally constructed a team which was to take on everyone that season. Three important acquisitions in the summer completed the pieces of the jigsaw. Markus Babbel, Nicky Barmby and Gary McAllister. McAllister was especially important to Owen as he created many chances for him. Houllier now had options up front after adding Heskey to his squad the previous March. Although he had trouble all season fitting Heskey, Fowler and Owen into two.
After having to sit on the bench for a trip to Arsenal, Owen returned to the starting line-up scoring twice at Southampton. He followed this up with a first-half hat-trick against Aston Villa.
For England, there was another change at the helm. After defeat to Germany in the final match at the old Wembley, Kevin Keegan stepped down. He was replaced by the Swede, Sven-Goran Eriksson. Owen scored goals in successive matches in March taking his tally to 10 for his country.
Liverpool were enjoying an unprecedented season where they played in every match possible. They won three cups and finished in a Champions League place. On route to the UEFA Cup Final, Owen scored two vital goals in the Olympic Stadium in Rome. He was on the bench for the Worthington Cup Final as Fowler scored Liverpool’s goal in his absence. They eventually won on penalties for their first trophy in nine years.
As the FA Cup Final loomed large, Owen stated his case for a starting place with another hat-trick against Newcastle United and both goals in the draw with Chelsea. It was enough to get him the nod over Fowler for the Final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
The 2001 FA Cup Final was Owen’s greatest game. He picks out the performance against Porto at Anfield in the UEFA Cup run of that season as his perfect performance, but for the best performance on the big stage that roaringly hot day in Cardiff was his greatest.
It’s the one he thinks back on most fondly. Arsenal finished second ahead of Liverpool in the league and were a formidable challenge. Arsenal had the better of the chances in a tight game. With 17 minutes to go Freddie Ljungberg put them in the lead.
These were the moments in his career where he thought to himself ‘I’m going to score here’. It happened against Romania in ’98 and in other league matches. Once they went a goal down he had that same belief. He’d observed Arsenal and felt, despite battering Liverpool for most of the game, they were spent. With seven minutes to go he latched onto a chance from a McAllister free-kick and equalised. It was a goal reminiscent of the one against Romania in ’98.
At that moment he had total belief he’d get the winner. As Arsenal pressed again, the ball was cleared from defence and Patrik Berger picked it up in midfield. He looked up, which was the only signal Owen needed. Just like a quarterback picking out a wide receiver, Berger picked out Owen’s run and played a beautiful ball for him to run onto. Owen was at full pelt taking on Dixon and Adams. As Adams tried to shepherd him wide to his left, Owen swung a shot back across goal and beyond Seaman’s despairing dive.
With barely minutes to go, Owen had achieved the ultimate that nearly every schoolboy has dreamed of. Scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup Final. As a boy he had indeed dreamed of it, played it out in the park and his back garden.
What a season it had been. FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Cup, top scorer again and all this spent largely injury-free. This was followed by the Community Shield and the UEFA Super Cup. The world seemed to be his oyster.
2001/02 season saw one of his finest moments in an England shirt. Under Eriksson, England went into their final two World Cup Qualifying Group games looking like a play-off place was their best hope. They travelled to Munich to take on Germany, who’d never lost a World Cup qualifier on home soil, needing to win.
But this wasn’t one of the tough, dour, efficient German sides of old. It was possibly the weakest German team I can ever remember. They’d been poor in Euro 2000 and hadn’t seemed to have progressed since. But they were still Germany, still at home and still had to be feared.
Carsten Jancker put them in front in the first half, which prompted premature celebrations from the home crowd. Owen equalised after Oliver Kahn failed to beat Barmby’s header. Steven Gerrard’s first international goal gave England the lead at the break.
In the second half, Heskey nodded down for Owen to fire in his second and then Gerrard created the chance for his hat-trick. Gerard and Owen grew up together at Liverpool. For countless games through the age-groups, Gerrard had collected the ball in midfield, looked up and picked out Owen’s run. Owen would inevitably finish. On this night it all worked exactly like clockwork. Heskey completed the route for a historic 5-1 win. Not only had England beaten Germany for the first time, for any nation, in a World Cup Qualifier, but they had also given themselves a huge goal-difference advantage.
December 2001 saw Owen crowned European Footballer of the Year. The first Englishman since Kevin Keegan in 1979 to win the award.
Next up for Owen’s career was the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. For England, this should’ve been their time. With arguably their best team since 1970, England came through a group containing Sweden, Argentina and Nigeria. Owen scored in the Second Round win over Denmark, but the game wasn’t without personal pain for him. After just ten minutes he was fouled and in doing so he tore another hamstring. But this was different to his previous injuries and he was able to carry on. He very nearly didn’t make the Quarter-Final clash against Brazil as he was still receiving treatment on the morning of the match. As it turned out his inability to run at full pace gave him the opportunity to score the opening goal. Brazilian defender, Lucio, was more worried about being beaten for pace by Owen he was concentrating more on the England player than the ball. He didn’t know Owen had no chance of beating him for pace that day, but Owen knew so he concentrated on where the ball dropped and scored.
In the end, England lost to Brazil after Ronaldinho’s shot/cross over Seaman. It was a case of what-might-have-been as victory would’ve seen them take on either Turkey or South Korea in the Semis and Germany in the Final. It remains one of Owen’s biggest disappointments.
Domestically the following season would see another trophy lifted with the Worthington Cup win over Manchester United in Cardiff, but ultimately it was a disappointment overall. Liverpool went 11 games without a win in the league and ended outside the Champions League qualification places. Something which was seen as vital if they were to keep up with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal financially.
Cracks were beginning to show in the relationship Owen had with his manager at Anfield. Houllier was started to trust his striker’s fitness less and less. But then cracks were beginning to appear in Houllier’s management of the club. Never afraid to sign a player, Houllier’s success with the acquisition of players such as Hyppia, Henchoz, Hamann and Heskey, was replaced with the ill-conceived purchases of Diouf, Diao, Cheyrou, Traore and Biscan.
Summer 2004 saw Liverpool replace Gerard Houllier with Rafa Benitez. Benitez had won La Liga twice in three years with Valencia and also the UEFA Cup. Amazingly Valencia were prepared to let him leave when he fell out with the board. Around that time there was continual talk of Owen’s future at Liverpool. There was a story of him being impressed with the way Valencia took Liverpool apart at Anfield in a Champions League game. Rumours abounded he admired Benitez’s style of play. However, the reality was Rafa’s appointment led to Owen doubting he was in the Spaniard’s plans. All this occurred around the same time his star-billing in the England team was being overtaken by a teenager called Wayne Rooney. Euro 2004 was when Rooney burst onto the international scene in a way reminiscent of Owen’s rise in 1998.
For a player so full of self-confidence it seems remarkable he would go through a period of uncertainty and lack of confidence, but he was. There was also the uncertainty around his contract at Liverpool. It had a year to run when Benitez arrived. Liverpool had already lost out on a payday when McManaman went to Real Madrid after his contract ran out, and the club was clearly keen not to make the same mistake with Owen.
Owen doesn’t really have anything to offer as a burning reason for moving to the Bernabeu. His agent told him Madrid were interested, yet Benitez didn’t seem to offer any assurance he wanted him to stay. So he left.
Around this time the club were playing a strange game around seemingly giving their star players the feeling they weren’t wanted. For evidence of this look at the fuss over Gerrard’s future in 2005. He almost left because he wasn’t sure his club wanted him. He didn’t leave and ended his career as a club legend. Owen chose to move and has been vilified for it.
Owen was nearing the end of his contract, Real Madrid confirmed they were interested, so off he went. He had a pretty successful 12 months at the Bernabeu but at the end of it he and his family were ready to return home. The transfer deal between the two clubs meant Liverpool would have first refusal on the player, as long as they offered what Madrid had paid for him, £8m.
When I say he had a successful season at Madrid, he didn’t have the season his mates did back at Liverpool. They won the Champions League in one of the greatest games anyone ever remembers. Two of his mates he grew up with the club, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, were European champions as Owen, who’d left to win big things with one of the biggest clubs around, was watching on tv.
In the close season, Rafa Benitez wanted Owen back at Anfield. Owen met Benitez and Rick Parry and he and his agent agreed the deal. Owen flew back to Madrid absolutely buzzing. He was going to do as Rushy did and have a season away.
Real’s President then dropped a bombshell.
Newcastle had offered way more than Liverpool, £16m, and the Spanish giants were going to accept it. If Owen didn’t want to move there, then unless Liverpool matched the offer he wouldn’t be going anywhere. Owen knew Madrid wanted to sign Sergio Ramos with the money they’d make from him, yet they were prepared to play hardball. If he chose to turn down Newcastle and stay at Madrid he risked a season on the bench as Real had signed Robinho. Remember this was a season which would end with a World Cup. Dejected, Owen felt the only choice he had was off to St. James’s Park. However, he made sure he had a clause written in his contract giving him the option to move to Liverpool after a year.
He was never truly accepted there. No doubt a Geordie fan could write a whole piece on why not. It ended badly, especially his relationship with Alan Shearer which has never recovered.
Still, he wanted to go back to Liverpool. But by now the club had moved further from where they were when he was in Spain. He faced the very real prospect of being without a club. Everton were interested and he resigned himself to being considered a traitor going there. Then Hull City made a definite offer, which he was reluctant to accept but what choice did he have. Finally, at the eleventh hour, Manchester United came in and seduced him with the promise of top-class football including the Champions League. What would you have done in his place? He accepted the offer, feeling loved again.
For many Liverpool fans, this was the final nail in his coffin. Personally, I believe this was the just an excuse which justified their opposition to him. Maybe they couldn’t quite put their finger on why they didn’t like him. Now they could point their whole fist in his direction and never be swayed from this opinion.
His career ended at Stoke City in 2013 where he made a handful of substitute appearances in a team which was never suited to Michael Owen’s style of play. He’d already considered retiring a year or two earlier but his dad persuaded him to carry on saying you cannot retire at 30.
When I look back on Michael’s career there is a tinge of sadness. I was gutted when he left Liverpool. Especially when we were about to embark on a brand new era. I’d got bored of the Houllier era. Yeah, sure, 2001 was amazing, fantastic and something to always remember. But by 2004 he looked a spent force. The winless run of 2003 showed him as helpless to make a difference. I quite understand how the likes of Owen, Carragher and Gerrard love him as he was there with them at the start. McManaman and Fowler talk in the same glowing terms about Souness for similar reasons, but look back at the time they were managers and in both cases, it was time for a change. Benitez promised a new dawn in a way we’d never seen. Houllier dragged the club kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Now it was time for Benitez to galvanise the team.
But Owen wanted none of this. Wasn’t prepared to wait to see how it would turn out. In his chat with Carra, he doesn’t give any real reasons as to why he accepted the offer from Real Madrid. Of course, it’s easy for a failure like me to judge a professional on his employment choices. Owen was still living the dream as a footballer. But as we have since discovered, he knew he was past his peak. How could any young player turn down Real Madrid, especially given the players he would be up against? Surely he has every right to try and develop himself as a player and maybe he believed he would be relied upon less at the Bernabeu than he was desperately needed at Anfield.
As it turned out the season he left we won the Champions League with the greatest game many can ever remember. He revealed how he was buzzing for Stevie and Carra as they were his big mates, but absolutely gutted he wasn’t part of it. There are some fans who would say “serves him right”. But it’s ok for us fans who never change our club and will support them whatever job we have, our careers don’t depend on it.
Having read his autobiography, I get the feeling one of the sticks he’s been beaten with is as a result of his apparent lack of fervour, his laidback manner. He says as soon as he signed a professional contract with Liverpool he ceased to be a fan of a football club. In the sense, he didn’t really support any club. Liverpool have always been close to his heart and at every turn, he tried to get back to Anfield, but never received the call Fowler did, or even Rush all those years before did.
I look back on his career with a tinge of sadness. He made a career for himself, won Ballon d’Or, Golden Boots, trophies, and yet there’s a sense of what could’ve been. His body just let him down. He achieved more than many players have ever done, yet there’s always a “yeah, but…” when you think of his career.
Owen should be regarded as one of the greatest players English football has ever seen. Go back to one of my early lines, try writing the history of Liverpool and England and not include him. Some of my best memories as a fan of both teams involve him. That goal against Argentina in ’98, the hat-trick against Germany. For Liverpool, it’s that FA Cup Final 2001, the hat-trick against Newcastle United when he looked utterly unstoppable.
We’ve all added ourselves to Football Manager as a 16-year-old with the dream of playing first-team football and international football by the time we’re 18/19/20 haven’t we? Well, haven’t we?
Owen lived this. He was the Roy of the Rovers story, he was every wonderkid story from Football Manager. This was real. Yet it’s tinged with sadness.
He could’ve gone onto to be one of the greatest strikers world football has ever seen. But injuries cruelly in his early days put paid to this. The fact he managed to keep playing into his 30s is testament to his determination.
How many truly great years did we get out of George Best? How many truly great years did we get out of Paul Gascoigne? There are thousands of players who peak for just one or two seasons. With Owen, we had three or four. And what seasons they were.
By his own admission in the last six or seven years of his career, he was just treading water. He couldn’t physically do the things he used to do as a younger player as his body just couldn’t cope with it. So he ended up taking up positions on the pitch to avoid receiving the ball. He wouldn’t burst into channels as he wasn’t confident his body would take it. Sounds a horrible thing for a professional player to go through, kidding himself, his teammates and the fans.
I still love Michael Owen, I always will. I’m happy to forgive the move to Real, particularly when you hear at every opportunity he wanted to move back but the club wouldn’t have him. Fowler got to live that dream and says it was almost one of the best things which ever happened to him. Owen didn’t. But for the hamstrings, who knows what Liverpool and England could’ve won. Owen can look back on his career with immense pride, and so he should.
Liverpool will always be his spiritual home, yet he’s been through a career and not really ended up anywhere. There’s no club which truly worships him. He has an ambassador role at Anfield, yet even he’s a little tentative about being there.
Perhaps it was because he always seemed to give off a feeling of being a bit aloof. He was very driven, self-confident, very sure of himself. Detractors would call it arrogance. Yet these are qualities nearly every successful player has to possess to compete in the brutal world of football. I get the impression as his career went on and the injuries mounted up, he cared less and less for the fan who expected him to kiss the badge, rip his shirt off, and die for the cause. It was his body, his career, for him and his family and he was going to make the best of it.
No player is going to publicly admit at 26 they’re finished. None of us would want to believe it anyway. One of Owen’s qualities was his unerring positive outlook. Take that away and you wouldn’t have had what made him Michael Owen.
For Owen, injuries were something to endure. He had more than many players. His Dad was a professional footballer, he got plenty of muscle and hamstring injuries. Owen’s brothers are good athletes and they’ve suffered the same. He was always going to get them. They undoubtedly affected his career. But I’d rather think of what we did get from Michael Owen, not what we didn’t.
Ultimately, though, I believe he’s a man at peace with himself. He owns successful racing stables, his family are still a tight, close entity and the wealth he built up during his career has enabled all this to become a reality.
What Michael Owen demonstrates is how fine the line of success is. Look at James Milner. He became English football’s second-youngest goalscorer at the age of 16 and 357 days. He was 158 days younger than Owen when he scored his first. Milner’s still playing a major part in professional football and is about to pick up a Premier League winners’ medal, at the age of 34. Owen played his final game in May 2013 at the age of 33.
In fact, if you want a stark comparison closer to home. Owen retired on the same day as one of his biggest mates in football, Jamie Carragher. Owen’s final appearance was as a sub for Stoke City. Carragher went out in a blaze of glory with the whole of Anfield devoted to remembering his career in his final game. He received a guard of honour and a trophy presented by Steven Gerrard and Ian Callaghan. Carra was 35, Owen 33.
You have to make the best of the cards you’re dealt, and given the pressures Owen endured physically, I’d say he earns the right to be one of English football’s greatest strikers.
Premier League winner, FA Cup winner, League Cup winner (three times), UEFA Cup winner, UEFA Super Cup winner, Ballon d’Or winner.
Liverpool: 158 goals in 297 appearances
England: 40 goals in 89 appearances
Real Madrid: 13 goals in 36 appearances
Newcastle United: 26 goals in 71 appearances
Manchester United: 5 goals in 31 appearances
Stoke City: 1 goal in 8 appearances