Football: Owen no longer the darling of the game

West Ham United 1 Liverpool 0
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FOOTBALLERS ARE more aware than most of the fickle nature of a popular reputation, with Alan Shearer a recent victim of what Australians call the "tall poppy" syndrome.

While Shearer's shift from national hero to public enemy has, if not excusable, been gradual and explainable (the Neil Lennon incident, his dour image, his drop in form), the plummet in Michael Owen's popularity has been almost as quick as the player himself.

Less than 18 months ago he was both the darling of the game and its future. On Saturday, after a week in which the media questioned his talent and the England coach suggested he should go back into the Under-21s `to learn', he was accused of cheating and booed off the pitch. It capped a miserable afternoon during which he carried the Liverpool attack, again showed his left-footed weakness, had a `goal' harshly disallowed and suffered further injury.

That, we were told, was `cramp' though there was a suspicion of more hamstring trouble. The `cheat' accusation was equally clouded. With half- time approaching, Owen set off on one of his trademark runs and, as he entered the penalty area, Neil Ruddock, unwisely, dived in. Though the defender's feet clearly missed both ball and player, Owen, having taken evasive action, appeared to stumble as he landed. Accidental or deliberate? And how much had his fall been caused by having to hurdle Ruddock?

Graham Barber had no doubts. "It was an attempt to deceive the referee," said the official. "I thought that straight away, I was not influenced by anybody or the crowd." He added: "There were no complaints from either the player or the bench." Neither, though, had Owen appealed for the penalty, he had just sprawled on the turf. A personal view, albeit with the aid of video, is that the incident merited neither penalty nor booking.

It is Owen's second caution in two months for `diving', after another yellow for England against Belgium. Perhaps his reputation is now going before him. "I think refs become aware of who goes down quickly and he will have to be careful not to get a reputation in the way that Paolo [Di Canio] has," said Ruddock, who knows about the pitfalls of a `reputation'.

"It has become part of the game, Trevor [Sinclair] got [a penalty] for us last week, but Owen's better than that and he knows it. It will be a shame if he goes that way because if he stays on his feet he is one of the best players in the world."

Owen would not discuss the incident but his manager, Gerard Houllier, said he did not believe he was a `cheat'.

"I don't think you can give him that sort of reputation. Most of the time he tries to get over. Earlier in the first half there was an incident when he was fouled and he managed to stay on his legs."

The incident meant an already critical crowd booed him for the rest of the match. "For a long time he has been praised and hyped and now there is a backlash," said Houllier. "I think it is because of the Scotland game, like a lot of players he did not play well. It is a bit unfair, because of the injury he is not on top of his game at the moment.

"What he needs to know, and he does, is that he has the support and backing of all his team-mates and all his staff at Liverpool. We know it is a period he has to go through, in a career you never have things good all the time. Maybe it is difficult for him but he is very focussed, very strong-willed."

Houllier was very unhappy at the prospect of Owen playing for the Under- 21s, as hinted at by Keegan, against Yugoslavia early next year.

"Psychologically it would be a mistake. If you need Michael for the European Championships it is not the right preparation to put him in the Under- 21s. There are too many games and players are suffering from injuries and not having time to recover."

Houllier understands the consequences of overplaying. On Saturday, Jamie Redknapp (who may have a knee operation this week), Robbie Fowler, Titi Camara and Vladimir Smicer were out and Patrik Berger and Owen withdrawn. This pushed Houllier into a defensive combination which, until forced to attack, contained West Ham without threatening themselves. Their one first-half chance came from a Sinclair back-pass which Owen intercepted but then fought shy of taking with his left foot.

West Ham were no better, failing to test Sander Westerveld until stoppage time. Then he was so surprised by Di Canio's shot, from Steve Lomas's cross, that he spilled it for Sinclair to tap in.

Liverpool then took the match to West Ham. Owen headed in after 52 minutes only for the linesman to rule that Rigobert Song's cross had gone out before David Thompson pulled it back. With Thompson and the promising Stephen Gerrard wasting later chances, West Ham survived. They would have breathed more easily had the hapless Paulo Wanchope done better after Di Canio's header, from Joe Cole's cross, struck the post.

The latter pair were involved in the Hammers' better moments but the surest sign of Cole's maturity came later when the 18-year-old was asked how he handled the spotlight.

"I think the attention has made me stronger," he said, adding: "At some time in the future when I have a dip it will make it easier to handle it."

`Tis a strange game, which makes our teenagers beware, like chastened adults, fame's seductive glare.

Goal: Sinclair (45) 1-0.

West Ham United (3-4-1-2): Hislop; Ferdinand, Ruddock, Margas; Sinclair, Lampard, Lomas, Keller; Cole; Wanchope (Kitson, 83), Di Canio. Substitutes not used: Forrest (gk), Moncur, Foe, Potts.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Song (Meijer, 70), Henchoz, Hyppia, Matteo; Heggem, Gerrard, Hamann, Berger (Thompson, 19); Murphy, Owen (Staunton, 76). Substitutes not used: Freidel (gk), Carragher.

Referee: G Barber (Tring).

Bookings: West Ham: Keller. Liverpool: Thompson, Owen.

Man of the match: Margas.

Attendance: 26,043.