Football: Timing right for Owen's rising star

Adam Szreter hears the youngest England cap weigh up his World Cup chances

THE careful packaging that Michael Owen has been wrapped up in since he burst on to the scene as a 17-year-old for Liverpool at the end of last season was undone just a little at the Cafe Royal in London's West End yesterday.

The youngest player to play for England this century posed politely for the cameras and answered questions as confidently as he scores goals, defying anyone to suggest he is not a genuine star in the making.

The occasion was the announcement of a new sponsorship deal with the watchmakers Tissot which, dare one say it, has acted with impeccable timing. There seems little doubt that Owen will figure in Glenn Hoddle's 22-man squad for the World Cup and, should he play, many are tipping him to make the sort of impact for England that Salvatore Schillaci made for Italy in 1990.

But Owen, as you would expect, is taking nothing for granted: "I'm confident about my ability but it's not in my hands," he said. "It's down to the manager. We've got a good chance of winning the World Cup and I don't think the lads will go out there fearing anyone, although the Brazilians and the Germans are strong sides.

"I'm not nervous about the thought of playing in the World Cup. As a footballer, all your life you want to play at the highest level and to play in the World Cup."

Even if he were to make a startling contribution in England's last three warm-up matches, it is unlikely Owen will start the first game in France, against Tunisia on 15 June.

In spite of his recent problems, Alan Shearer remains very much the No 1 striker in the squad.

Owen's public persona is reminiscent of a young Shearer, and it should come as no surprise that, along with David Beckham, they are part of the same management stable whose foresight in signing Owen has been rewarded this season, probably beyond their wildest dreams.

"I've been surprised how quickly everything has come about," Owen said, "and most of the last season has been a real achievement for me."

Perhaps he has also reflected upon the contrasting fortunes of his Liverpool team-mate Robbie Fowler, who began the season as the likely alternative to Shearer. A combination of poor form, personal problems and finally injury put paid to Fowler's own World Cup hopes while Open was going from strength to strength.

"I don't think I've changed personally," Owen said yesterday. "I still have the same family and friends and as a professional footballer you realise the responsibilities that go with that."

There seems little doubt that Owen has the temperament to go with the ability, and perhaps the only question in Hoddle's mind is whether he will be asking too much of an 18-year -old with just one full season of first team football behind him. Owen, though, has no doubts: "I've not felt tired from my club this year so I have no fears about being tired if I'm picked for the World Cup," he said.

With that, the potential surprise package of the World Cup was wrapped back up again - hopefully, for England's sake, in a thick layer of cotton wool.

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