Football: England expects, but precocious Owen keeps cool as a 'unique' talent is primed for senior service
Glenn Moore found the Liverpool forward as assured off the pitch as he is on it.
He never mumbled, never ducked a question. Michael Owen, 18 years and 59 days today, was as cool under media fire yesterday as he is in the penalty box. He looked you in the eye when answering a question and spoke thoughtfully and clearly; 18 going on 28.
Not until this evening will we know if he is ready to play a part in England's World Cup campaign but Owen is certainly able to deal with the hype that will surround it. Sitting alongside the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, at an oak-panelled Bisham Abbey he was confident but unassuming as he went through his various records as if reading a shopping list.
The most telling reply came when he was asked about his best performance. He chose a game, against Aston Villa, in which he failed to score but made two Liverpool goals. He may be famous for his goalscoring but he appears to place just as much store by creating them.
"I've always been a player that likes to get round the back and get crosses in for other people," he said. "When I first burst on to the scene people only saw the goals I was scoring but more recently they've taken notice of the goals I've set up. It is nice to be recognised for that."
Goals, however, are his stock in trade. Having scored on his debut at every England age-group, from Under-15 to Under-21, and for Liverpool (only last May) a goal tonight would not come as a surprise.
Dion Dublin, another debutant, albeit a 28-year-old one, said on Monday he was nervous when he joined England's training camp. Was Owen? "I've been here twice before [training with the first team] so that helped but you'd be lying if you did not say you were nervous," he said.
"It has all come so quick. I always hoped I would be an international player but not expected it this quickly. I try to handle it as normally as possible and keep my feet on the ground. I've not had to turn to anyone for advice. If anyone's seen a problem they've had a quiet word but I've not had any big ones. My dad [the former Everton and Chester player, Terry] has been a great influence. I don't think it's essential to have a dad that knows about the game but it's certainly been a help to me.
"I knew people were talking about [being called up], and my club form was good, but I never expected to be in. I was playing golf on a day off when [the Liverpool coach] Doug Livermore rang and told me.
"Personally, I feel ready. If I do well for my club and in any international games I get might have a chance of being in the World Cup squad but I don't think there is a lot of pressure on me. I've nothing to lose and I'm confident in my ability to do well.
"I don't think age comes into it. The manager said 'if you're good enough you're old enough' and I hope I come into that category."
Such perspective is invaluable. Owen is, after all, old enough to fight for his country and, if in the forces, could be heading for the Gulf. All Hoddle is asking him to do is play football for England.
Even so, his maturity will be invaluable. It is less than two years since Robbie Fowler woke to headlines that blustered "why he'll be the greatest ever" on the morning of his full England debut. Fowler, however, has since been dropped from the squad.
Hoddle, who interrupted once to veto a question about Fowler, said: "He has the right temperament to handle all this. He has that inner strength you need to play at the top level at 17, 18. David Beckham has it. All the Manchester United lads do."
Hoddle compared Owen's single-minded concentration on developing and focusing on his game to Alan Shearer and the England striker said of his young rival: "He's very special. I just hope there is not too much pressure put on him. He seems as if he can handle it but the more games he has and the longer he plays the more everyone will find out about him.
"He's fortunate to be playing for a massive club and a manager, in Roy Evans, who seems to understand him. He does not seem to be fazed by anything or anyone."
Hoddle added: "He has nothing to lose: if he doesn't make the World Cup squad he has the ability to be ready for the next one and the European Championships in 2000. I just want him to go out and express himself.
"He is unique. There are not many strikers who attack people with the ball, it is a dying art. They are usually wingers, like Ryan Giggs. A lot of people are quick but not many are as quick with ball at their feet. He has that ability to run at opponents while in possession. He also plays with his head up and players who can do that will always create goals as well as score them. Every time he got the ball in the Under-21 match against Greece he made the match come alive.
"I need to find out now if he can make the jump [to senior level]. He has not got much European or Under-21 experience. There is no pressure on him."
One lesson Hoddle and Owen hope has been learned is not to retaliate. He was sent off against Yugoslavia Under-18s and recalled: "I'd been man- marked and brought down all the time. I lost my temper and hit him in the midriff as I got up for a foul. I realised it was a stupid thing to do straight away." Hoddle added: "If it happens again tomorrow we'll see if he has learned."
Owen, who has played twice before at Wembley, scoring for England schoolboys in a 4-2 defeat to Germany and a 1-0 win over Brazil, added: "I do reflect on things. I still live in Chester and the 40 minutes it takes to get into training I think about Liverpool and England. It doesn't scare me, I relish the opportunity."
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