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Football: Owen's nerveless first night consoles Hoddle

He failed to score, but Michael Owen's debut was outstanding, writes Phil Shaw
MICHAEL OWEN failed to maintain his customary standards at Wembley, where he had scored in both his schoolboy international outings, but passed the first stage of his audition for France 98.

Owen, who took Duncan Edwards' record as England's youngest player this century at the tender age of 18 years and 59 days, certainly did enough to warrant his inclusion in England's next World Cup warm-up match, away to Switzerland next month. It is to be hoped that he will receive a less prosaic service from midfield on that occasion.

The incongruity of his appearance last night was summed up by the fact that Teddy Sheringham, one of his attacking allies, made his League debut a month after Owen's fifth birthday. But, as Glenn Hoddle had remarked, if you're good enough, you're old enough. The evidence of the past six months suggested Owen would not be out of his depth.

Like Jimmy Greaves four decades earlier, he came into his first international having scored on every debut from primary school to Premiership and beyond. His finishing in this, his first full season, has been as cold and calculating as John Prescott's impromptu Brit award.

Greaves, however, was a veritable veteran of 19 years and 86 days when Walter Winterbottom introduced him against Chile's neighbours, Peru.

The bookies in the stadium had Owen at evens to find the net and 3-1 to score the game's first goal. They must have been fingering their wads anxiously in the early stages, for he started as confidently as if it were just another kickabout in his old playground near Chester.

Owen had expected to be nervous beforehand, as he was on his Liverpool bow nine months ago, but anticipated that the adrenalin would quickly override the tension. His assurance was all the more striking in that he began in a slightly deeper position than at club level, in order to feed off the other newcomer, Dion Dublin.

The expectant crowd had to wait only five minutes for a glimpse of his talent. Dublin's cushioned pass set up the opportunity. Owen's right- footed shot from 12 yards was true, only for Nelson Tapia to deny him with an instinctive one-handed save.

Yet there is more to Owen's game than a predatory instinct. Two of England's more threatening moves stemmed from his selflessness, and both highlighted his mobility and versatility.

First he attacked from the left side, leaving the full-back trailing before cutting the ball back to the edge of the six-yard area. Sheringham had gone in too close to the goalkeeper and the danger passed.

Then he set off down the opposite flank before suddenly accelerating between two defenders. The England supporters might have preferred him to keep going, but the towering Dublin offered a tempting target for a cross which could not breach the red-shirted barrier.

When the cry of "Shearer, Shearer'' swept the stadium like a shadow, moments after Owen had headed a difficult chance straight at the goalkeeper, it was no reflection on Liverpool's prodigy. Shearer duly appeared, though not to replace Owen, which meant that England effectively had three central strikers on the pitch.

Owen was by now operating virtually as a right winger. While not the worst use of his ability to take on defenders, it meant he was playing principally as a provider rather than a poacher.

Hoddle is to be commended for being willing to give youth its chance. But before he writes off Owen, or indeed Robbie Fowler, as one for the long-term future rather than the forthcoming finals, he may be advised to scrutinise the balance of the creative department of his team.