Football: Owen is planning prodigal return

England's teenage striker is having a lean spell by his standards but is confident of impressing in tomorrow's Euro 2000 qualifier.

IT IS a tough life being a teenage prodigy. One goal in a month, or alternatively, none in four games, or one in 11 hours' football, and you are deemed to be having a crisis.

Even Glenn Hoddle, inadvertently, jumped on to the bandwagon at Bisham Abbey yesterday when he noted "Alan Shearer's goal against Sweden set him on his goalscoring run, hopefully this match with Bulgaria will enable Michael Owen to do the same."

Owen, as level-headed as ever, though perhaps a bit more tetchy than usual, is having none of it. Like Shearer in his dry spells, he pointed to performances rather than goals, insisted he was still confident, and denied there was a problem anyway.

"I've scored five goals this season and not many players have scored more than that. But it is not just goals, there is a lot more to me than that, I've created a couple for Robbie Fowler just recently. If the team is winning it doesn't matter who scores the goals.

"I know I'm not going to score goals like I did against Argentina every week, no one can expect that. I still expect to score, though. I don't think I'm in a bad patch. I'm still confident.

"It is a compliment that people expect me to score, it's nice to have them willing you to do well. But the person who puts most pressure on me to score, and is most down if I don't, is myself."

Not, Owen hastened to add, that this was affecting his love of the game. "I still enjoy my football, when you don't do that it's time to quit and I'm a long way off that. I don't even want to be rested for any games.

"It might do me good, I don't know, but I don't feel tired. The time for that is when you're 40 and finished. It's still the best thing in the world to pull on the shirt and play with club or country."

Jamie Redknapp, Owen's Liverpool team-mate, said teams had defended deeper against them this season in an attempt to nullify Owen's pace. This, he said, created opportunities for others. "When I spoke to the Chelsea players after Sunday's game," said Redknapp, "they said they were more worried about conceding goals to someone like myself, or Patrik Berger, having a shot from 20 yards than from Michael because they were so deep."

The same may occur against Bulgaria on Saturday, especially with England being at home. "Teams are paying more attention to me, but I've got to find ways of dealing with it," said Owen.

Hoddle criticised his partnership with Shearer after the Sweden match and, said Owen, they had been working on it in training. "It was a difficult game from a personal point of view but you get difficult games. It may have been the service or it may have been me not moving enough.

"The manager's main criticism was that we were too flat at the front. It is not a case of one player doing this or that, it is a bit of both, it can be either man coming off. I think we are both capable of either passing it, playing a killer ball or running at the defence, it is a matter of reading the game.

"Alan and I have the makings of a good partnership but it will take time. People said me and Robbie [Fowler] wouldn't work, but we have a decent record together. No one would accuse me of being a similar player to Alan.

He is a big strong lad who holds the ball up well. I don't, but hopefully I'm better at some other things.

"We're not dinner partners but we speak on the phone and we occasionally meet on promotional activity for Umbro."

"They've worked on it on the practice pitch and looked at videos," said Hoddle. "They are talented players, both goalscorers, and I hope that, with a little bit of tinkering with the partnership, we can cause more problems than we did to Sweden.

"I tried to change it during the game, but sometimes when you are chasing the game, as we were, you play individually rather than collectively."

Owen has yet to score for the senior side at Wembley but was twice on the mark at junior level, against Brazil and Germany. Not that he is panicking. "I've only played one full game there so it's not a crisis," he said. "I know my time will come whether it is Saturday or not."

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