Captain Owen realises a childhood ambition

Friendly International: Liverpool striker will copy Beckham's example as he prepares to lead his country out tonight
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The Independent Football

Some 10 miles from where he was born in Chester, Michael Owen received a knock on the door to inform him he would be England's youngest captain since the sainted Bobby Moore 40 years before.

The record books provide a certain symmetry. When Owen was born in December 1979, Phil Thompson, now his assistant manager at Liverpool, had just made his debut as England captain, standing in for the bubble-permed Kevin Keegan, then the most famous footballer in England. The difference between Keegan and David Beckham is that one tried his hand at being a pop singer (anyone remember "Head Over Heels in Love"?) while the other married one.

Owen's response when Sven Goran Eriksson asked if he wanted to lead England out against Paraguay at Anfield tonight was instructive. "Just a little bit". His Liverpool team-mate, Steven Gerrard, commented: "I think he has always wanted to be England captain and follow in Alan Shearer's footsteps. His style will be similar to David Beckham's; he's not an out-and-out leader but he puts in great performances."

Although the honour may be for one game, something previous Liverpool players such as Mark Wright (France 1992) and Peter Beardsley (Israel 1988) had to reconcile themselves to, it is something which touched Owen deeply. He admitted that he had nursed the ambition since childhood, although he was rarely seen as captaincy material. His time spent wearing the armband for Liverpool amounted to "five minutes against Valencia" and in the flurry of anticipation surrounding who would replace Beckham, he received not a mention.

And yet Owen fulfils some of the requirements of captaincy. He is guaranteed to start every game, he is articulate when facing the massed ranks of the media, he is utterly untouched by scandal and he will be leading England on his home ground. He is also as qualified to toss a coin for choice of ends as anybody else. As Eriksson said yesterday: "Why not?"

"I'm not going to be a captain who shouts and bawls," Owen said. "David Beckham is not that type of player; he is a leader on the pitch and I hope I will be the same. Alan Shearer was the man I played most internationals under; he wasn't the sort who banged his head against the wall in the dressing-room but he was quite vocal and Tony Adams was more vocal still."

Glenn Hoddle made Shearer his captain because he thought England should be led by their best player, regardless of "leadership qualities". The same applies to Owen; in Beckham's absence he is Eriksson's one indisputable world-class performer; he is also in his manager's words "clean". Yes, he was once sent off for the national under-18 side and for Liverpool when lunging at Peter Schmeichel but when playing for England, there has not been so much as a booking.

Owen will lead England out at a time when the euphoria stirred up by qualification for the World Cup finals has begun to dim. The hat-trick which destroyed the Germans in Munich and Beckham's free-kick against the Greeks seem distant and Eriksson yesterday called for "fire on the pitch".

"It's understandable. Things have got a bit flat and it's important that we give a decent performance in our last game on these shores before we go out to the World Cup."

Owen is stepping into the spotlight at a time when his form, after another hamstring injury, is starting to return. He was criticised for missing three clear chances against Bayer Leverkusen, although he thought he had played better in the European Cup quarter-final defeat than he did in the victory over Sunderland four days later, when his delicate chip over Thomas Sorensen was held up as a riposte to the critics.

"When the last memory you have of sprinting is an injury, it does take time to break through that [mental] barrier," he said. "I don't feel ready to go on a blistering run in the first match back. A lot of people gave me stick in the Leverkusen game but, although I was gutted that Liverpool were out, I was pleased with my performance. I'd done loads of sprints and felt sharp and back to my best."

The European Footballer of the Year appeared annoyed he did not make the Premiership team voted for by members of the Professional Footballers' Association. "If it had been picked at the start of the year, then I think I'd have been in with a great shout. I scored a lot of goals in the early part of the season and had done well for England." However, the names of those who make up that imaginary team are seldom consigned to memory. The honour of captaining England is rather more durable.

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