Football: True blue Owen is a natural Red

NEW FACES FOR '97; Guy Hodgson on a striking Liverpool prodigy who could match the achievements of Hunt, Rush and Fowler
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When Everton supporters reflect on years of deflected misery courtesy of Liverpool's haul of honours, the knife is twisted a little bit more by what might have been. Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler were true-blue supporters as boys and, when they think of the pounds 5.5m it cost to acquire Andrei Kanchelskis, so was Steve McManaman.

Go to Liverpool's training ground and an alien word is heard. When McManaman rises to head a ball he uses a name that is not Hunt, Toshack or Keegan but "Latchford" - Bob of Everton and England fame. He is harking to a schoolboy dream while casting embarrassment on the Goodison scouting system.

Rush, Fowler and McManaman are past and present misses to make an Evertonian weep, but there is little suggestion that the future will be better. Lurking in the ranks of Liverpool's youth and reserve teams is a striker who, if his current scoring rate is anything to go by, is better than Rush, Fowler - or Roger Hunt, for that matter.

Michael Owen, who turned 17 only last month, naturally supported Everton as a boy because his father, Terry, was on the books at Goodison in the 1960s. Born in Chester and now living in Hawarden, he first came to Liverpool's attention when he broke Rush's record of 72 goals for Deeside Schools. His allegiance may have been directed towards one side of Stanley Park, but the attention came from Anfield and he signed for the enemy.

His record over the last 12 months is astonishing. Last spring he scored 11 goals in eight games - including a hat-trick against the holders Manchester United - as Liverpool won the FA Youth Cup for the first time in their history; in July he scored the winner over Belgium to earn England a place in the World Youth Cup finals this year; in October he got all four goals in England Under-18's win over Northern Ireland; in 26 club matches this season he has scored 31 times.

Fowler shaped (5ft 8in) rather than Rush (6ft) he looks like a man among boys when he plays with his peers because of his ability rather than his physique. Speed is what defenders fear, and Owen has plenty of it. Ally that to clinical finishing and runs off the ball that ought to be devised by an older head, and opponents become bemused.

Watching him against Burnley in the Youth Cup earlier in the season showed his team-mates, too, have problems keeping up. His instincts took him where his Liverpool colleagues could not follow, but he still got a hat- trick, scoring with both feet, and he also had a header against the bar.

Liverpool, naturally enough, are wary of exposing Owen to overblown expectation but the fact that they awarded him a first-team squad number as a Christmas present suggests they are ready to unveil their prodigy to the world. As Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said this week: "If you're good enough, you're old enough."

"Michael is a gem," Steve Heighway, the club's youth development officer, said. "He's very popular with the other lads and he is very strong mentally as well as being technically gifted. I've no doubts he's ready for the first team but the one thing he needs to do is carry on just as he has been."

Owen has, with the brashness of youth, said he is equipped to meet the demands of a first-team call that might come as soon as today against Aston Villa. That would make him Liverpool's youngest-ever debutant, something to turn any young man's head, although, so far, he has remained immune to the distractions that can divert the talents of a gifted youngster.

"I'm not going to get carried away," he told Liverpool's official magazine. "It's nice to be compared to the likes of Robbie Fowler but a lot of hard work lies ahead yet. Of course my dream for the future is to play for England, but I have a lot to learn."

When Rush left Anfield for Leeds last season, he could look over his shoulder and say: "I leave Liverpool in good hands. Robbie will probably eclipse all that I achieved." It is galling to think that Fowler, still only 21 himself, might be able to say the same thing about Owen. Particularly if you are an Everton supporter...