Football: Why Owen's rise to the top is a statistical freak of nature

Click to follow
ANYONE who woke up to Virgin Radio on Thursday will have heard Chris Evans say: "A big hello to all the girls at Wembley last night, especially the 11 on the pitch", which was harsh. OK, it was a toothless performance by England, but the experimental value of the encounter seemed lost on Evans, who's become a football luvvie since befriending Gazza. So did the fact that Michael Owen, who Evans predicted would only play half the game because his mum was expecting him home by 9pm, came of age.

Liverpool's 18-year-old striker commanded almost as many column inches this week as Iraq's 61 year old president, and his performance justified the hype. But frankly, it's not so much Owen's emergence that's surprising as the fact the former England schoolboy sensation has emerged at this level at all.

It might sound a scathing indictment of the youth system in this country, but according to Mick Burns, chief executive of the Footballers' Further Education and Vocational Training Society (he runs the clubs' youth training schemes) most England schoolboys don't make it as professional footballers.

There are 150 centres of excellence in the country registering 15,000 boys each, yet just 2,300 professional players. That is a success rate of less than one per cent.

Football, in other words, has one of the highest failure rates of any industry, a statistic that sounds less desperate when you consider that the late teenage years are traumatic for any boy, let alone a footballing prodigy. Both physical and mental elements determine who makes it and who doesn't, but Burns claims it's mainly "in the lap of the gods. I've seen boys of 14 whose development suggests a really bright future, but who just can't take the final step, and others who struggle through the early years but who easily make the grade. There's no logic to it."

Those who have made the grade in recent years include Nick Barmby, Phil Neville and the former Ryan Wilson, who wears Giggs on his back for Manchester United and Wales, but who once captained England Schoolboys at Wembley.

According to John Owens, manager of England Schoolboys for three years until the end of last season, it's easy to spot the stars - with hindsight: "So much happens to a boy in terms of his development after 15 that it's almost impossible to gauge whether a schoolboy will make it. Some boys mature early and show up well during matches, but when they move on, they don't have enough of an understanding of the game to progress. I worked with Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman at North-West Boys and at 15 they weren't up to full scale matches. They caught up later."

You need application and dedication, as much as natural ability, to make it to the top, and Michael Owen is blessed with all three. That much was obvious to Owens, who watched the young striker score 12 goals in eight games for England Schoolboys in 1995.

But despite the high fall-out rate among 15-year-olds, Owens also expects great things of Michael Owen's contemporary, Wes Brown, a defender close to making the breakthrough with Manchester United. That's despite the fact defenders are disadvantaged because of the greater element of physique in their game than a striker's.

Lilleshall, the national school which nurtured Barmby and Owen, will be disbanded at the end of next year as part of Howard Wilkinson's blueprint for the future of the game. But not before it produces three boys from whom Owens expects great things: a midfielder attached to West Ham called Jo Cole who was the star of 1997's crop of schoolboys, and two from the current crop Liverpool's Chris Obrien and Arsenal's Rhys Weston.

But although schoolboy football is, by definition, a totally different ball game to the one played by the pros, there is one similarity - even the schoolboys do battle with Germany. In 1995, England's finest 15- year- olds, Michael Owen among them, were humbled 4-2 by Germany. They were beaten again the following year, but got revenge last year in a 2-1 victory which suggests to Owens that the boys are doing better than they used to.

That's still not to suggest, however, that England Schoolboys will ever wear proper caps. Nor does playing for England at B or under- -21 level guarantee a full cap either: a fact that evidently preyed on Chris Sutton's mind. While Sutton's decision to pull out of the B squad cannot be condoned, the omens didn't look good. Football's record books are littered with the names of players who represented England at under-21 and B Level but no higher; among them Vince Hilaire, John Lukic, Garth Crooks, Paul Bracewell and Paul Davis. At least Sutton got one cap.

Unluckiest of all was surely Gary Owen, star of Manchester City's midfield in the 1970s. Owen hung up his boots holding the unwanted record for having won the most number of under-21 caps (22), but never a full one. His namesake's career will doubtless be rather more fulfilling.