Football: Owen confident he can take on world's best

Trevor Francis, the teenage sensation of his era, sees a stunning future for England's youngest goalscorer. Glenn Moore reports
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The Independent Online
FROM his commentators' eyrie high in the Mohammed V Stadium on Wednesday evening, Trevor Francis watched Michael Owen torment Morocco's defenders and saw his own past and England's future.

A quarter of a century ago, Francis was the new wonderkid on the block. Given a first-team start at 16 by Birmingham, he scored 15 goals in 15 games including four in one match. Front and back page headlines followed and, although injuries delayed his England debut until he was 23, he went on to become Britain's first pounds 1m player.

Owen, having become, at 18, England's youngest goalscorer on Wednesday, has already stolen five years on Francis and, yesterday, the Birmingham City manager was full of admiration.

"He is a unique talent, the sort that comes along once a generation," Francis said. "He follows George Best and Paul Gascoigne. When I first saw him playing for Liverpool I could not believe what I was seeing. I knew instantly that I was watching a future England international.

"What I like most is, after the Chile game [when he became England's youngest debutant this century] he went back to his club and scored a hat-trick. He was completely unfazed by it."

That was apparent after the match as, in a gloomy corridor under the stadium, Owen held court surrounded by dozens of microphones. He was confident, but not arrogant, wide-eyed but not naive.

"I didn't feel nervous when the chance [a one-on-one] came," he said. "You have time to think about it but those are the chances strikers thrive on. You do get a bit excited but you have to calm down and stick it in the net. It's instinctive.

"I find pressure brings the best out of you. I thrive on the opportunity to impress the manager. I've always set high standards for myself and expect to score. I'm not afraid of the World Cup. I'm confident of scoring at any level."

Before his goal Owen was accused of diving by the Moroccans after going down under a challenge in the box. "Not quite," was his response. "I was running through with the ball, trying to get my arm across him to have a shot at goal. He was grabbing my shirt and I wasn't sure if the ref could see but I'd have been a fool to stay on my feet. You don't dive - but if there is a penalty for the taking and the defender is doing something to give you that penalty it's being sensible [to go down]."

Cesare Maldini, the Italian coach, has named Owen as one of the three players who could set the World Cup alight. Glenn Hoddle said that was an unfair burden on one so young but admitted he was excited by Owen.

So is Francis. "He has the ability to terrify defenders, especially now. There's never been a better time to be a forward. The game is now geared to forwards - which is why Manchester United have paid pounds 10m for a defender, that would have been inconceivable before.

"Defenders used to be able to give you a whack early on and test you out, they would take it in turns, each just getting a lecture from the ref. Now it is a yellow card - and, in the World Cup, a red. It means he brings fear to defenders, as he did against Morocco; they can't clatter him and they can't catch him."

While Hoddle sees Owen as a substitute, Francis would start with him. "He's the in-form striker," Francis said, "but I can see Glenn's point. It's no longer a game of two halves, it's a game of 60 minutes then one of 30 minutes and he can be so effective in that second game. These days teams work so hard at stopping you it is only then the game opens up. That is when Owen can be so deadly, when defenders start to tire."