Football: Owen's verve strikes a chord with the Spice Boy

'Robbie is not as fast as Michael, who is happy with a 100-yard dash to goal. Robbie prefers to be in traffic, twisting and shooting': Ian Ridley talks to Liverpool's director of youth about the merits of a gifted duo

TOMORROW night represents the first day of the rest of Liverpool's season. One by one the cup competitions have gone from them - Uefa, FA and now Coca-Cola - and after the hard part of digesting the disappointments comes the important part. The Champions' League is winking at them.

After the defeat by Middlesbrough last week, motivation might have been difficult had it not been for the fact that the next fixture is the derby against Everton. Anfield will not tolerate self-pity. And while the Premiership title is again slipping away, these days there is a lot more than nowt for coming second; over pounds 3m in prize money, as well the European millions.

What has separated Liverpool from the championship in recent seasons has been a defence who have conceded sloppy goals at crucial times. Perm any three from six players but the result seems the same. At present, however, it is probably in the strike force - hitherto the strength - where an inconsistency unknown to previous Liverpool generations is best illustrated.

On the one hand, Michael Owen, 18 years old, brimful of the joy of playing and basking in the revelation of an England debut. On the other, Robbie Fowler, who has been everywhere Owen has but is suffering his first real crisis of confidence, one that could even see him replaced by Karlheinz Riedle against Everton.

In addition, the differing and cliched perceptions of each player - ironically both Everton supporters as kids - speak volumes about Liverpool of late. Fowler, his latest acquisition a lime green Porsche, is still seen as the Toxteth scally, now apparently seeking pounds 50,000 a week. Feet- on-the-ground Owen, who comes from out of the city, has signed six contracts with the club since the age of 11 and all were concluded within minutes. For Spice Boy read the Verve.

"Nothing is simply black or white," says Steve Heighway, who has guided both players through the system in his eight years as Liverpool's director of youth. "Everybody wants to compare them and it's not fair to either. It's also totally irrelevant. It upsets me for Robbie, really. Michael is the new kid on the block so he won't get any criticism. Not yet. So it's unfair on Robbie, as it is to imply that he is in any way jealous of Michael.

"There are a lot of similarities with the two," Heighway adds. "Both were ready and mentally prepared for the big-time way ahead of their age. Both were willing to listen. Both were sure of their own ability. When kids get the chance early, it can blow their minds. In that sense, Michael was ready at 16."

They are, though, quite different players, he says. "Michael likes to do all his work in space away from players, down the flanks running on to balls. Robbie tends to do his work in the thick of things. His great ability is quick control, quickness of shot. Michael is always looking to probe in spaces away from him. Robbie is not as fast as Michael, who would be happy with a 100-yard dash to goal. Robbie would like to be more in traffic, twisting and shooting."

A good pair? "Potentially a good pair, a good balance," says Heighway. "If they are both on form but they won't always be. Players lose form." Which is where Liverpool are right now.

Against Middlesbrough, Fowler endeavoured to work hard when not in possession but it was not enough. In fact, tracking back at times seemed to leave him without energy for more important work further forward. There were occasions when, with the ball at his feet, he was tentative where previously he has been explosive. It was almost sad to watch sometimes, given the undoubted quality that the player possesses and has shown in scoring more than 100 goals over the last three years.

Contrast with Owen, who will have to have a serious dip in form not to make Glenn Hoddle's England squad for the World Cup after his debut against Chile. "He looked the best player out there to me on the night," says Heighway. "Even with all the attention he got, I still think people underestimated how good that debut was. Our youth team coach Hughie McAuley and I counted 14 moments of outstanding quality when he created something and only two mistakes, one dribbling out of defence and one miscontrolling the ball."

Hoddle mentioned that because there is less space behind international defenders, Owen's movement would need to be more subtle. "I found that a strange thing to say," Heighway responds. "In theory there isn't much space but in practice I think he found it." He concedes there is a danger in believing Owen is the finished article, something the player himself does not. "His heading is virtually non-existent at the moment," says Heighway. "And he wants to be better going to his left. As a junior player, he would only go for goal because he found it easy to do that but better defenders are making it more difficult. Now he is going outside, to the dead-ball line, and creating chances for others. That would not have happened a year ago."

Given the stability of Owen's character and background, Heighway also found strange Hoddle's comments about him needing to be wary of his behaviour off the pitch. "I have known the boy for seven years and been with him for hundreds of hours. Never once have I had a problem with him. He wasn't describing the boy I know." Perhaps Hoddle was concerned about him being caught up inadvertently in matters that do seem to have beset Liverpool and Fowler in particular, the latest of which has been his assertion that someone was trying to blackmail him by claiming he had taken drugs, an allegation Fowler vehemently denies.

It is an area that is occupying much of the club's attention. The whole ethos of Heighway's programme is based on the trust between club and young player, along with their education, welfare and development as people - from the first intake at the age of eight.

In October, Liverpool will become the first club with their own academy of excellence when the first phase of a pounds 13m development at Kirkby opens - 14 dressing rooms, a medical centre, two lecture theatres, offices and residential quarters - but they are acutely aware of the need to cater for the emotional as well as physical needs of youngsters.

"Because of the depth of attention players get now, we have to be sure we put in place the right procedures," says Heighway. "How should we be mentors to them? What financial prize should we make available to them? Should we have a welfare officer per group and what do we do for that in-between age, those from 18 to 21 who are not in the first or youth teams?"

Because they have such an enlightened programme - this year they expect to take in their best crop of 16-year-olds yet - it is why there is little panic at Liverpool, much to the chagrin of some of their more rabid supporters who demand the head of Roy Evans on radio talk-ins.

Patience and perseverance as practised in their youth programme are surely of more long-term value, and they are likely to wait until the summer before recruiting a new senior coach. Mind you, a little of the future in the present, in the embodiment of Owen and maybe even Fowler again, would not go amiss for them tomorrow night.

Liverpool's striking likeness...and difference

Robbie Fowler

Appearances: 159

Goals: 92

9.4.75 in Liverpool

5ft 8in, 11st 10lb

Everton

Spotted by legendary Liverpool scout Jim Aspinall while at Nugent secondary school. Selected for Liverpool Under-14s

Sent off in Under-21 game v Austria in November 94, suspended for four games

Scored on debut in 3-1 Coca-Cola Cup win v Fulham, in September 1993

v Southampton in 5th League game in September 1993

v Croatia, April 96 (aged 21)

Start of season: 3-1

Now 8-1 (9 goals)

Michael Owen

Appearances: 26

Goals: 13

14.12.79 in Chester

5ft 9in, 10st 4lb

Everton

Smashed Ian Rush's record of 72 goals in season, netting 97 for Deeside Primary Schools. Scored 11 goals in five appearances in FA Youth Cup

Sent off when captaining England Under-18 v Yugoslavia in September

Made debut as substitute in May 1997, scoring in 2-1 defeat by Wimbledon.

v Sheffield Wednesday in 26th League game in February 1998

v Chile, Feb 1998 (aged 18)

Start of season: 100-1

Now: 9-4 fav (12 goals)

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