Football: Owen facing life in the fast lane

IT WAS after midnight but long before the dawn, and the Clwyd village of Hawarden seemed asleep as Michael Owen arrived back at the family home. Then the dark of the night evaporated in a battery of flashbulbs and the peace was punctured by cries of `Michael, this way Michael'.

It was that first night of July, as the photographers pushed forward to capture the hero's return, that Owen realised his life had changed for ever.

Yesterday, amid the relative tranquility of England's Bisham Abbey training retreat, he reflected that, having aspired to global fame, he had to accept it - but it was taking some getting used to.

"We had been isolated in France so I didn't know quite how big it had become. It was only when I got back from Luton [Airport] to find hundreds of photographers outside my house in the early hours that it sunk in," he said.

"You see other people in the papers and think about what it might be like, but you never really know what to expect. It used to be just half a dozen people saying `hello' if I went out shopping but now it's everybody.

"People say it should be easy but it's not, I can't even go out and buy a shirt any more, I have to go in disguise. But, having always wanted to reach the height of my profession, I will have to adjust."

As his hat-trick at Newcastle on Sunday showed, there has been no sign so far of Owen's form being affected. He will definitely play alongside Alan Shearer in England's opening European Championship qualifying match against Sweden in Stockholm on Saturday, and Glenn Hoddle yesterday admitted that he was rapidly becoming an automatic choice.

"He was sensational on Sunday," said Hoddle after yesterday's training session. "He is the most feared striker in the country at present and if he keeps putting in performances like that he will force me to make him an automatic pick."

Owen, typically, greeted that praise with equilibrium. "It's nice to hear that but there's a lot of good strikers. If Alan Shearer had had the same chances I'm sure he'd have scored a hat-trick."

It was Owen, however, who left St James' Park with the match ball, his third such prize at senior level. The other two are under the bed at home but he is now thinking of finding somewhere more appropriate to keep them.

This could be in his new house, which he hopes will be built in time for him to move into in March. It may need a large post-box, with a side- effect of his new fame the mushrooming of his mail which, in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, reached a sack a day.

"I already received a lot of letters from places like Malaysia and Scandinavia, where there is a lot of support for Liverpool," he said, "but now it is from all over the world. I can't read them all so my mum deals with it and I just sign them."

Owen's popularity is such that, despite the devastation he caused, he was still applauded by Newcastle fans on Sunday, just as he had been at Southampton the previous weekend. It was, he agreed, quite a compliment.

Hoddle had more words of praise. "He has done everything right since the World Cup. I'm looking forward to seeing him with Alan [Shearer] this week.

"They have played together but they've not had that much chance to work on it. It is a case of finding a way to get the best from both of them."

Hoddle said that as far as he was concerned Shearer had nothing to prove following Owen's emergence.

Incidentally, Owen said he was yet to visit Eileen Drewery, though he was careful not to say anything which might be interpreted as criticism of the faith healer.

Hoddle has minor injury doubts over Ray Parlour (calf), Steve McManaman (ankle) and, most seriously, Rio Ferdinand (groin).

"Ferdinand has had this problem all season and is feeling rather tender, said Hoddle. "At this moment in time I would say there is a doubt about him for Sweden."

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