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Football: Owen makes another crisp pounds 500,000

Even on a day off, the nation's favourite teenager can add noughts to his bank balance by smiling and saying `cheese'.
OSTENSIBLY, IT was Michael Owen's day off, a day he might once have spent knocking around anonymously with his mates in the Welsh village where he lives or venturing into nearby Chester to stock up his wardrobe. The nation's favourite 18-year-old is discovering fast, however, that acquiring the status of international celebrity means putting more and more of your life in someone else's hands.

Thus Owen spent yesterday's precious allocation of resting time eating crisps and posing with a waxwork dummy of Gary Lineker, transported from Madame Tussauds because Lineker himself could not make it. It was all part of the deal his management company has struck with Walker's which will, it is said, add another pounds 500,000 to the bank balance of an already wealthy young man.

Owen, charming, fresh and boy-next-door wholesome, is an advertising man's dream. And since this summer's World Cup finals he has become a commercial phenomenon. In three months he has been approached with more than 400 endorsement proposals and it was little wonder that the President of Walker's, sitting alongside him as the arrangement was unveiled at the National Sports Centre at Lilleshall, looked pleased. Along with Umbro and Tissot watches, the Walker's offer is one of only three he has taken up.

"Michael's appeal is much the same as Gary's," Martin Glenn said. "He is not just a great footballer but a personality with an appeal to all ages. And, like Gary, he looks the kind of person who would eat crisps."

Owen said that he was delighted to be associated with Walker's and recalled that Gary Lineker was his boyhood idol, even though he played for Everton. And he tried not to look embarrassed when the President announced that cheese and onion flavour was to be renamed "Cheese `n' Owen".

Then, ensuring that the day was not merely a money making exercise, he went off to lend his support to the England Under-15 squad, who were training for tonight's match in Wrexham. The Walker's people, meanwhile, talked about their sponsorship of the Football Association's Charter for Quality.

All of this was crammed into a couple of hours, in accordance with the wishes of his club and his family that he does not suffer from over-exposure. "It is essential that he is allowed, first and foremost, to concentrate on his football," his manager, Birmingham-based Tony Stephens, said.

"It's the kind of thing you expect to have to do," Owen said. "And, in any case, it will not involve too many days so I will not be distracted from playing football.

"My life has changed since the World Cup. I can't go out without being recognised but, when I was a boy supporting Everton, I'd point to players in the street so I'm not complaining. I knew if I was successful I would have to live with the attention and I'm enjoying it."

Life has changed on the field, too, after the extraordinary success of his first full season in a Liverpool shirt, in which he scored 23 goals, followed by France 98 and the sensational strike against Argentina that set the world talking, all vestiges of anonymity have been torn away.

"It is definitely harder," he said. "Last season I was still a bit of an unknown quantity but defenders are starting to think they can get my measure now and I'm having to work out other ways of getting the better of them. After you have had a successful first season it is on how you do in the following six months that you are really judged. I'm fortunate in that I've made a fairly good start to this season. If I'd gone six or seven games without scoring then people might have started to ask questions but I've got five goals and my performances have been good. Hopefully, things will continue that way."

Back at Anfield, Owen still amazes even those closest to him. His appetite for playing remains as sharp as ever, despite the demands upon his physical and mental resilience made by going from a competitive domestic season into a World Cup and back again without any real opportunity for recharging batteries.

"They have told me that if I feel I need a rest I should say so but I can honestly say I don't feel jaded at all," he said. The return to fitness of Robbie Fowler might have something to do with that, although Owen insists he is untroubled by the competition between himself, Fowler and Karl-Heinz Riedle for two forward places.

He even says he would accept being left out by rotation, if that was what Roy Evans and Gerhard Houllier wished.

Somehow, in his case, one suspects his omission from the Liverpool side is about as likely as Walker's deciding they have picked the wrong man.