England striker Danny Welbeck wants to be the new Michael Owen (1998 version)
England striker is desperate to emulate his first hero – yes, he really is that young
It was one of those moments that occur from time to time in football, revealing that you are getting older and that those carrying the heavy burden of responsibility that comes with England really are so young. Danny Welbeck said that the striker he had always wanted to be in the kickabouts on Longsight's Markfield Avenue, in inner-city Manchester, was Michael Owen. His first England memory was that Owen goal in St-Etienne against Argentina, in June 1998.
"I was sitting in the living room with my whole family and saw him take that touch with the outside of his foot and just go, just go!" he recalled. "He shifted it past a couple of Argentina defenders and stuck it in the top corner and just... wow!" Welbeck calculated that he had been "eight years old… seven?"
He was seven, indeed, and it would be six months or so later that Manchester City, with whom he was trialling, told his father, Victor, that "he's just not good enough". It was never like that for Owen, the prodigy who had the pick of the clubs, which perhaps explains the difference between the answer Welbeck gave, when asked yesterday if he wanted to own this shirt for years, and the one offered by Owen, almost 14 years to the day at the 1998 World Cup finals.
Owen, who was attempting to convince Glenn Hoddle at the time that he, an 18-year-old, was better than a place on the bench, was asked about nerves. "Nervous? I don't think you can believe that," he replied. "I'm not fearful of anything. You have to think you can cause anyone in the world problems."
The 21-year-old Welbeck wasn't so forthright. "I've been put in a position now to lead the line for England and it's not something I'm scared of," he said. "I'm relishing the opportunity. I don't want to keep shifting in and out but it's not down to me, it's down to the manager. Otherwise I wouldn't be here." This wasn't a lack of confidence talking. Welbeck is simply so cool a character that he's virtually iced up half the time and talk like Owen's doesn't sit well with that. You also feel that some of these young England players are so terrified of slipping up and providing a headline that they consider breathing a risky business. Welbeck and Jordan Henderson, sitting to his right, were certainly not keen to play the revolutionaries yesterday and say that the 2010 World Cup had disappointed them.
But while Welbeck might be diffident, he is confident. Articulate and intelligent, too: his nine GCSEs, with A's in English literature and mathematics, are the outcome of the education pressed upon him by his Ghanaian immigrant parents, Victor and Elizabeth. He resembles his fleeting England under-21 team-mate Nedum Onuoha in that respect. He also feels quite deeply that the starting place, which Roy Hodgson seems resolved to grant him despite Sweden's vulnerability to a player such as Andy Carroll, is his entitlement. "I've been playing for England since I was 14 and it felt like a natural progression to step up to the senior side," he said, returning to a familiar theme for him. "Under-16s, 17s 18s, 19s, 21s – that step up to the senior was just a privilege and it felt like a natural progression."
It nearly didn't happen. Nigel de Jong's challenge on him in the 30 April Manchester derby left him with a severely bruised ankle which a heavy challenge against the French in Donetsk appeared to have exacerbated. In a very bad moment in the Donbass Arena, Gary Neville was mouthing "He's fucked" after the challenge, which was to the same left ankle, until he managed to run it off. "Yeah I was worried," Welbeck confirmed.
Neville's familiar presence is helping Welbeck, as is that of Wayne Rooney, who is clearly in his ear during his period of unemployment – but in a good way. "He's always there giving me advice on and off the pitch. Just before the games, at half-time and everything," Welbeck said. "I'm glad to be around him. It's not anything he's said, he's just always there just letting you know what to do in the games, or if he's seen a weakness in the opposition how you can exploit that."
He might have more GCSEs than Rooney but they do seem to share that lack of introspection off the field of play. It's hard to imagine Welbeck losing any sleep this week at England's Hotel Stary. "It's something that I love, and I don't see any need to worry about anything really. Football's football, and you're going to come across the good and the bad, but you've got to take it in your stride." And the other part of being so young is you've perhaps not watched too much of Zlatan Ibrahimovic down the years. "I've [only] really watched the Premier League, but on video games and consoles if you've got Ibrahimovic on your team you're not sad," Welbeck said. "We know the qualities he's got."
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