Football: A boy among sharks, but Owen keeps his head above water

Mike Rowbottom on the perils of PR facing emerging celebrities
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The Independent Online
THERE is a point when any PR exercise distorts under the pressure of reality. The process occurred midway through yesterday's Umbro launch for the contract they have just signed with Michael Owen.

The young England forward, who had fended off the inevitable question about Teddy Sheringham's night-clubbing activities by saying he hadn't heard what had gone on, was suddenly given the evidence.

With a grin that was two parts twinkle to one part shark, a wilier member of the Fourth Estate slapped down a copy of the Sun on to the table where the 18-year-old footballer was sitting.

The front page picture, it had to be said, was a tabloid wet dream. There it all was - the boozy setting, the fag in the hand, the leggy blonde. It was the sort of picture you might see in a rival fanzine with Sheringham's face crudely pasted on top.

But in this case, unfortunately, the face really was that of the 32-year- old England forward to whom Owen - in playing terms that is - is the most obvious understudy.

Owen took in the details impassively before nudging the paper back towards its thoughtful provider with a hard stare. "Where's that?" he asked, with a ghost of a smile.

In terms of the paper-scissors-stone guessing game, where you have to choose simultaneously with your opponent and hope to overcome them, this was stone meets stone.

No wonder the company spokesman was acting like a dog with two tails. What more could a sponsor ask than this tanned, self-contained, super talented teenager standing on the cusp of his own greatness, a more certain bet for the future than the Millennium Dome dominating the sky line outside the press conference venue?

What Owen had to face yesterday is the new reality for emerging superstars - an endless succession of courses in which the feast is themselves. From the moment his helicopter landed, all eyes and lenses were trained on the compact figure in the red top folding his newspaper - hang on a sec, newspaper? - in preparation for a short, conducted walk to the site of his interrogation.

As he made his way over, passing the time of day with the blazered folk who surrounded him, he clasped his hands behind his back. Like Prince bloody Phillip, for goodness sake - and he's still little more than a kid.

He was then ushered into a series of scenarios which will become all too familiar to him, if they are not already. First came the appearance in front of all assembled media - 50 reporters, 20 photographers, five TV cameramen, while sitting up on a dais with the sponsor.

Then he was escorted away for a smaller gathering with the daily written press, before being sidelined for a chat with the Sunday press, before being guided upstairs to have his picture taken on the roof - with a clear view over to the Dome.

Requests for autographs - from the staff clearing the tables, and even from some reporters - filled in any spare moments. Finally, after a last round of farewells, he lifted off again in the helicopter to rejoin the England party - grateful, no doubt, that the landing was to be out of sight of any joshing colleagues.

In the course of the interviews (written media, dailies only) one idiot asked him if he had watched the likes of Steve Heighway playing for Liverpool when he had visited Anfield as a boy. All right. It was me. A moment's thought confirmed that when Heighway was in his pomp in the early 70s England's newest forward was not even in his pram. He is so fearfully young, so awesomely composed.

The introductory address of Owen's companion on the dais had a particular resonance given the disruptive recent events surrounding certain members of the England party. "What a pleasure it is," he said, "to be involved with someone who has come to fruition and shown a maturity beyond his years...what a pleasure to reward dedication, commitment and loyalty..."

The images of recent weeks - Sheringham's witless canoodling, Paul Gascoigne's tragi-comic multi-cigaretted appearances - form an unspoken counterpoint to everything Owen does. Like Edina's daughter, Saffy, in Absolutely Fabulous, it seems he must take on the responsibilities so flagrantly shunned by the older generation.

It is, in truth, a fearful load but for all that Owen protests he would not change his position with any other 18-year-old in the world. For today's international sporting arrivals, heady rewards are tempered with heavy burdens. Let's hope, for Owen's sake, that he can keep those fleet feet firmly located on terra firma.