Michael Owen returned home yesterday with the injury that all footballers dread: a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament that will keep him out for six months at least. A "devastating" blow was how his team-mate and friend Jamie Carragher described the prognosis as the England team tried to come to terms with the absence of their most prolific goalscorer.
Owen was back at Manchester Airport yesterday afternoon, walking with the help of crutches after attending a clinic near the England camp at Baden-Baden in the morning to be given the news. After discussions with the England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, the team's vice-captain decided that he would return home immediately rather than stay in Germany to watch Sunday's second-round match against Ecuador in Stuttgart.
The nature of Owen's injury, an appalling flex of the right knee after his left foot caught in the turf against Sweden on Tuesday night and caused a freak transfer of pressure, hit his England team-mates hard. Carragher, who broke his leg almost three years ago, admitted that he had found it hard to come to terms with the news that he was given at half-time that Owen's injury was serious.
"I am devastated. Michael is a good friend of mine and I didn't realise until half-time how bad it was," Carragher said. "I remember when I broke my leg [September 2003] and Michael said afterwards he couldn't really concentrate on the rest of the game. Michael was on my mind a bit in the second half when I realised how bad it is, but he thinks it might be a long-term one.
"I spoke to him and his spirit is pretty high. He is mentally very strong and he has just come back from a lengthy lay-off. He has had injuries before and come back and proved to people he can score goals and I am sure that's what he will do.
"We knew it must be serious for Michael to go off because he doesn't go off unless it is very serious and we got word it was pretty serious at half-time."
With Owen now out of the tournament, and only three fit strikers including the untried Theo Walcott remaining, Eriksson has extra injury concerns. Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville both went for scans yesterday on their respective injuries and the Football Association announced that they had been given positive news, although both are still set to face late tests before Sunday's game.
In particular, Ferdinand's groin injury, which forced him to come off after 56 minutes of Tuesday's match, is understood to be more serious than has been suggested, although the Manchester United defender is confident he will play. Should Ferdinand be unavailable, Eriksson will be forced to choose between moving Carragher into the centre of defence or turning to Sol Campbell.
Carragher's availability to play in the centre of defence will depend on Neville making a full return to fitness from his calf injury and he is expected to begin training again today. If neither Neville nor Ferdinand can return, Eriksson is faced with the prospect of appointing a converted right-back - possibly even David Beckham. The England manager's first option appears to be a switch to the 4-5-1 formation, with Owen Hargreaves in the holding role and Wayne Rooney alone up front.
Joe Cole said that Owen's injury provided another challenge that the team would have to overcome. "We're going to have to go on without him. Things like this get thrown at you and if we're going to be world champions we're going to have to rise to the challenge," he said. "Goals are going to have to come from everywhere now."
Paul Robinson, who, when playing for Tottenham, was involved in the New Year's Eve collision with Owen in which the striker broke the fifth metatarsal of his right foot, said that he was "devastated" by the news.
"It's a big disappointment for him and for the team as well," Robinson said. "He's just started getting fit and it's just very, very unfortunate. It would be nice to do it for him.
"It was good for Wayne Rooney to get a bit of game-time under his belt. Him and [Peter] Crouchy did well. That's looking like what we'll have to go with the rest of the tournament.
"To lose a player of Michael's quality is bad for the team, bad for the squad. But we've got Theo, we've got Stevie [Gerrard] who can play up there off the front two and we've got Wazza and Crouchy who are playing well at the moment."
The FA is confident that its insurance policy will cover Owen's wages at Newcastle while he is recovering, despite suggestions from the club's chairman, Freddy Shepherd, that the premium is insufficient. Shepherd had said that "the level of compensation isn't high enough", although it is understood that the FA has a policy that will cover a significant part of Owen's salary.
The FA is one of very few national federations to take out policies to protect clubs against injury when their players are on national service. Newcastle are already considering emergency measures to buy cover for Owen and their likely targets include Feyenoord's Dirk Kuyt, Charlton's Darren Bent and possibly Middlesbrough's Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
Shepherd said: "I'd like to reassure the fans that we have always delivered guys in the past, so leave it to us to sort it out in the transfer market. Michael is out for a few months now. I can't see him coming back in four or five months and we'll have to press on because Newcastle is Newcastle. Newcastle is bigger than any one player and we'll have to make the best if it. We have done it before and we will do it again."Reuse content