Football: Owen builds defensive wall

Nick Townsend says the England striker's diplomacy art is as fine as his soccer skills
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The Independent Online
IT WAS a decent try, but the audacious question didn't have a hope of success. Could Alan Shearer learn anything from Michael Owen's new video on football skills? Not a flicker betrayed the 19-year-old's cherubic features to suggest that he regarded it as even amusing and hence contribute to a response which could be misconstrued. "Alan Shearer knows virtually everything about the game," the England striker replied solemnly. "My video is aimed at younger people."

This was a gentle press conference, at a London hotel to promote his new video, book and TV programme, all entitled Michael Owen's Soccer Skills. Yet, there's a fair bet that even Michael Mansfield QC, at his inquisitional best, would have trouble rattling Owen should he ever have occasion to cross-examine him in the witness box. Not that it's likely for a young man who's as pristine as a fresh fall of Alpine snow. As the barrister himself might have put it, "Now, come, come, Mr Owen, surely you don't really expect us to believe that, to quote yourself, `Getting up is my favourite bit of the day', that `I normally love training'?"

But there it is. However much some of the more resourceful interrogators attempt to lure him into hazardous territory and induce unguarded responses he remains a paragon, beloved by a generation of a pubescent schoolgirls, with the grateful indulgence of their mothers. Here, he was turned out in dark suit, black tie, close shaven - face, not head - and not a suggestion of designer stubble or body jewellery. You're as likely to see the headline "Boozing, brawling Michael Owen in love tryst" as "Gazza preaches the benefits of nut cutlets and dandelion cordial". The most rebellious part of him appears to be a refusal to eat breakfast.

Stonewalling is his hobby, when not playing snooker or golf, although he does so with a charm that invites no hostility from the media. A typical example was his revelation that, as a young teenager, he had been approached by scouts from several clubs, including Manchester United. Surely, it was put to him, there was a tinge of regret that he had not joined what had turned out to be a Treble-winning side? Indeed, that very week, instead of performing in the Champions' League he had been helping Liverpool negotiate a Worthington Cup tie at Hull City.

"I had offers to sign for a few different clubs, like Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, who are all very successful now," he declared. "But I've no regrets. I like the players, I like the staff, I like everything about the club at Liverpool, and I've no doubt they will be getting that kind of success soon."

He added: "It's not nice to see players you go away with to England games with a trophy cabinet full of medals. You think, `I want to be like that'. That's the reason I came into the game. But I've no doubts that we'll get them with Liverpool."

The removal of the "Spice Boys" epithet can only assist that cause. "If you just watch the team there's a marked difference in us now," he maintained. "There's a certain steeli-ness about the team this year. There's much more of a desire to win."

Yet, as Owen himself concedes, the absence of honours has made his introduction to the game a frustrating one. The only ones he has won have been for deportment, speech and style. If there was a Lucy Clayton for footballers, Owen would be its star pupil. Still only 19, the striker has played two full seasons for Liverpool, during which he has scored 38 league goals, a remarkable total, particularly as a member of a team which has demonstrably underachieved in that time. Nobody can dispute his club form, punctuated by absence through injury, but at international level he is still dining out on That Goal against Argentina in France 98.

It may be considered sacrilegious even to question the worship of St Michael, but the fact is that Owen has won 15 England caps during which he has scored four goals. He may well become the player of the next decade.

Yet, after the Poland game, in which he emerged as substitute, there were already some more sceptical observers muttering that experienced international defenders are already wise to his pace and that he is too easily channelled into the non- danger areas. As prudent as Owen is, and as sensibly as he is supported by his parents, there must be a concern whether all this commotion is not a little premature and contrary to his own interests.

Someone referred to him as an icon when, as yet, he remains a teenage idol, albeit one laden with talent. The disconcerting factor is that not only is he at present deprived of club experience in Europe, there is also an odds-on chance that Euro 2000 will pass him by, too.

"I'll be devastated, as all of the team will be," he said. "If we don't make it, you'd have to accept it because we'd not picked up enough points. But I wouldn't accept that we're not good enough."

You will gain no admission from the youngest player to score for his country that English football possesses anything but elite status. "If you're looking to the future we've got nothing to worry about," he said. "We've got a quality team now, with a lot of great youngsters coming through. If you look at the Under-21s it's a frightening prospect. And there's Sol Campbell, Paul Scholes, David Beckham just above that age group."

Certainly, he has no eventual intention of following his former team- mate Steve McManaman abroad to continue his football education. "The standard in our country, both of English and foreign players, is better than anywhere else," he stressed. "Manchester United have just won the Champions' League, and Arsenal and Chelsea are among the favourites this time. At the moment, this is the best place to learn." Time will determine whether he eclipses such characters as Greaves, Lineker and Shearer. When it comes to diplomacy no one can teach Michael Owen a thing.