x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

England's football 'boy wonder' Michael Owen calling it quits

Richard Jolly remembers the 33-year-old striker Michael Owen bursting onto the international scene as a teenager, rather than his premature decline.

England's Michael Owen, right, terrorised Argentina's Roberto Ayala during the 1998 World Cup. Doug Pensinger / Allsport
England's Michael Owen, right, terrorised Argentina's Roberto Ayala during the 1998 World Cup. Doug Pensinger / Allsport

Remember him as he was then, not how he is now. Remember the precocious brilliance, the astonishing acceleration, the nerveless finishing.

Remember the magnificent hat-trick in 2001 that earned England perhaps their most cherished result, a 5-1 win over Germany in Germany, since 1966 and the glorious goal against Argentina, perhaps their favourite in a World Cup since, well, 1966.

The chances are Roberto Ayala remembers it, a world-class defender reduced to a rabbit in the headlights as Michael Owen went past him, scorching earth before shooting past Carlos Roa.

That was 1998, a time when the teenage Owen had an unstoppable, irresistible momentum. Now, in a moment to make many of his generation feel old, Owen, 33, has announced he is retiring at the end of the season.

So it is time to forget the fitness bulletins about a Stoke City substitute or the years of denial from Owen's apologists as they overlooked the decline that set in prematurely and imagined the player who, from 1998 to 2002, had the world at his feet.

Now the indignities of recent years, of being dropped as Newcastle United collapsed to relegation, of slipping to the bottom of the queue for striking places at Manchester United, of becoming Stoke's fifth-choice forward and mustering a mere six league goals in four years, matter not.

Instead, it is time to celebrate the Owen of yesteryear, the man who can make the comparatively young grow misty-eyed with nostalgia.

He was the shooting star who rose highest in the galaxy of footballing talents, the only Englishman since Kevin Keegan to win the Ballon d'Or.

He was the Premier League's joint top scorer at 18, the World Cup's most enthralling sight months later. He was a devastating, eviscerating force as long as his hamstrings allowed him to be.

If 1998 was his first wonderful year, 2001 was the second. Liverpool won five trophies. Owen decided the FA Cup final almost single-handedly, plucking the trophy from Arsenal's grasp with a swift brace.

His treble in Munich confirmed his significance to England. The final figures show 40 goals, placing him fourth in the list of scorers, in 89 games, and he is the only man to score in four major tournaments for England.

He was a reason why a group were christened "the golden generation" although, by never progressing beyond a quarter-final, they did not even have silver or bronze to show for their efforts.

Together with deteriorating returns and persistent injury problems, it was why there is the sense that, despite an enviable collection of medals, Owen did not achieve everything expected of him.

Certainly the second half of his career was less fulfilling than the first. He was the odd one out among the galacticos, signed as Real Madrid accumulated European Footballers of the Year but serving as the deputy to Ronaldo and Raul.

It was a move, too, that ensured he missed Liverpool's greatest day in a quarter of a century. "Where were you in Istanbul?" rang around Anfield on his subsequent visits; Owen, sold in 2004, was not a Uefa Champions League winner nine months later.

Because, despite 158 goals and the best years of his career, his relationship with the Merseyside public had its complications.

Maybe retirement will bring reconciliation and renewed appreciation but, even before he joined Manchester United, he was never loved in Liverpool in the way Robbie Fowler was.

Perhaps it was because he was England's idol, perhaps because some like their heroes flawed and Owen, the boy wonder who spoke like a middle-aged man, was always too clean cut.

With seniority, however, came setbacks.

He was Newcastle's folly, a mismatch of club and player. Sir Alex Ferguson took a chance, one rewarded by a 97th-minute winner to the most dramatic Manchester derby of all. There was a Champions League hat-trick against Wolfsburg and a League Cup final goal against Aston Villa, followed, with depressing inevitability, by injury, and the footnote to his career that his time at Stoke City had become.

In the final reckoning, Owen never developed the all-round game to compensate for the loss of extreme pace but never lost his striking instinct.

But in the days when, either side of the end of the 20th century, when he was electric, he was not just good. He was great.

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