Football: Lightning speed and progress of a prodigy

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The Independent Online
He is young, gifted and back in Glenn Hoddle's good books. Michael Owen could become England's youngest player this century next week, surpassing even the great Duncan Edwards. Guy Hodgson reports on Liverpool's striking prodigy.

Kenny Dalglish had a better acquaintance with improbable goals than most and he thought he had noticed a flaw in the one that Michael Owen got against Newcastle United two weeks ago. "Bobbled, didn't it?" he said with a smile, only to have it wiped off his face with astonishment when he heard the shot had been true.

"He had no right to score goals like that," he said in a tone approaching awe. "Shaka Hislop is 6ft plus and almost on his line...." His voice, never booming, tailed off into silence in admiration of the audacity of youth.

Photographs, including one in Liverpool's programme on Saturday, lend authenticity to the notion the goal owed nothing to luck. The study is of an 18-year-old face bereft of the nagging anxieties that currently run across the features of his striking partner Robbie Fowler. He is locked in concentration as he calmly beat the Newcastle goalkeeper with a volley from a narrow angle.

Bad players do not score goals like that and such is the lightning progress of the prodigy there would have been more surprise if Glenn Hoddle had left him out of yesterday's England squad to face Chile next Wednesday than when he was included. The fact that Fowler had to step down to make way for Owen merely underlines how the pecking order has changed at Liverpool in six short months.

In 32 first-team games he has scored 13 times, but that statistic does not do him justice because so many Liverpool goals stem from Owen's ability to beat players. There is no obvious trick, no Ryan Giggs-like blur of the feet, just a precocious awareness of the possibilities around him. In a flash he turns and uses extraordinary balance and speed to get away.

"You can't talk about potential with Michael any more," Roy Evans, his manager, said. "He's there already, the full player. He's like Alan Shearer in many ways. He's focused like Shearer, he works hard and is strong mentally.''

It was always the case. Unlike most gifted young footballers, who can flower as a schoolboy then wilt away in a season, there have hardly been any doubts about Owen. Born in Chester and the son of a striker, Terry, who played nearly 300 League games (scoring 70 times) with six clubs including Everton and Chester, he was noticed after breaking Ian Rush's record of 72 goals for Deeside Schools.

Graeme Souness brought him to the club and within months of signing apprentice forms he was scoring a hat-trick against the holders Manchester United in the Youth Cup. He got another goal in the final against West Ham as Liverpool won the competition for the first time.

The goals have continued to flow at every level - including his Liverpool and England Under-21 debuts - and, but for a sending off against Yugoslavia playing for England Under-18s at Rotherham last year and a surprising questioning of his character by Hoddle two months ago, his progress has been nearly flawless.

Hoddle's criticism - "There are certain things he needs to stamp out of his game and out of his off-the-pitch situation as well" - was greeted with astonishment at Anfield. Quiet and studious, a Spice Boy he is not, even if his boyish good looks mean he is overtaking Peter Andre as a pin- up for the teen generation.

"We have no problem whatsoever with Michael Owen," Evans said in response. "He's a model professional for a young lad, who has a level head on his shoulders and does the right things for himself and the football club. We say to him every week that you learn this game all the time and you can keep improving.

Subsequent conversations with Evans have convinced Hoddle of the error of his phrase and his call-up to the England squad is an acknowledgement of that. Now, at 18 years 59 days there is the prospect of his becoming the youngest player this century to make his debut for England, surpassing Duncan Edwards six days after the 40th anniversary of the Munich air crash that ultimately cost the young Manchester United player his life.