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Football: Owen ready for a new fairy-tale

Adam Szreter talks to the England striker who will wear his jersey with pride under Keegan's guidance
THE SPARKLE is back in the eyes of Michael Owen as he contemplates pulling on an England jersey for the first time under Kevin Keegan. His role as national ambassador for the 2006 World Cup is behind him for the moment, as well as the injury to his hamstring. Only one issue seems to bother him in the slightest, but for England fans it remains quite an issue.

Owen seems certain to play a prominent role in one or both of England's matches over the next week and, despite only three minutes of first- team football for Liverpool this season, he has no doubts about his readiness. "I'm available for selection," he said after his first day back training with the England squad this week. "If the manager picks me, I would have no problems playing 90 minutes against Luxembourg and Poland." There was an extra glint in Keegan's eyes too.

The injury Owen picked up towards the end of last season was the first serious one of his career but, after playing almost continuously for two years and carrying the hopes of a nation on his young shoulders at France 98, it was hardly surprising that something gave way in the end. "It was probably a mixture of a lot of things," he said. "You think you can play every game but you can't. I've had a few months off now and maybe it's a blessing in disguise.

"A lot of fast people tend to get hamstring injuries - you use it a lot if you're a sprinter. But maybe it was a tiredness factor as well, coming to the end of last season when I did it. When you come on to the scene initially and people don't know what to expect from you, maybe you score a few goals because players haven't weighed you up yet. People say the second year's your hardest and it was a bit tougher."

During his enforced spell on the sidelines Owen, as you would expect of such a high profile figure, has hardly been idle. As well as the much publicised trip to Zurich with the Football Association, there have been countless commercial engagements and obligations to keep him busy, but he is quick to stress that throughout this time there was really only one thing on his mind.

"I've never been distracted by anything off the pitch but I was out for three months, twiddling my thumbs, wondering what to do next, and maybe it was the right time to do some of those other things," he said. "But I have never put anything like that in front of my football and never will do.

"For about the last four months I have been dying to get my football boots back on. I have been doing a lot of training, I played a full match behind closed doors and to come on against Arsenal was quite a happy day for me. But there's no better thing than putting the white shirt on and playing for England."

Although his was only a cameo role on Saturday, Owen's return to first- team duty for his club coincided with one of Liverpool's best performances for some time, and it would be nice to think he could have such a galvanising effect on England. However, with Owen a spectator for most of the match against Arsenal, it was Robbie Fowler, one of three strikers Owen is competing with for a place in England's attack alongside Alan Shearer, who stole the show at Anfield.

"He's had a great start to the season and he was brilliant against Arsenal - I think he's one of the best finishers in the world," Owen said, before considering the implications of Fowler's form for Saturday's team selection. "There's always a friendly rivalry between all the strikers, everyone wants to be in the starting XI and I'm no different. We're all fighting for the same thing, but all good mates off the pitch."

If Owen does get the nod, the spotlight will be back on his partnership with Shearer, which since the World Cup has been far from convincing. A quick glance down at his feet when the inevitable question is asked suggests it is a situation yet to be resolved in Owen's own mind, despite protestations to the contrary. His customary fluency for once deserts him.

"I have not lost much sleep over me and Alan Shearer as a partnership," he claimed. "Before you go into any game, and you are playing with a new striker, you think `we have to gel and do well together', but as soon as I played with Alan Shearer, who is a great player, it put my mind to rest straight after the Colombia game in the World Cup. We did okay as a pair."

The jury is still out on that one, but a home game against Luxembourg might be just the time for the Shearer-Owen partnership to take off. If it does, what price then for England's no-hopers and Euro 2000?