Owen draws strength and consolation from Liverpool's travails

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The young South African at Durban airport could barely control her excitement: "He waved at me, Michael Owen!" Manchester United's bid for world domination encompassed South Africa some years ago, and a chap called Beckham is still a popular fellow, but Liverpool have their devotees too in this neck of the woods. They have been forced to endure a wretched season and Owen is the first to sympathise.

His two consolations for the failure even to qualify for the Champions' League are firstly a tally of 28 goals for the club and secondly overcoming persistent hamstring injuries to the extent that he missed only two matches all season because of a problem that was at one stage affecting his mental as well as physical well-being.

Any lingering scars, he admitted yesterday, come from inspecting the league table rather than his legs: "It's not been the greatest of seasons although we won the Worthington Cup. We set our sights much higher than that and it's been a disappointing season. Hopefully, it gets better next year. From a personal point of view it started averagely and got better. I think 28 goals for Liverpool is the joint best I've done, but the main thing for me is I set this season to be a stepping stone really - to miss only two games with hamstring problems is probably better for me than any of the 28 goals."

He was smiling as he offered that assessment, but the strain has at times clearly been as acute in his head as his calves. Many neutrals even feel that wherever the problem is, the acceleration he once possessed may be gone forever.

"Some weeks you're feeling good and some weeks not so sharp. So it was always going to be a patchy season. I felt I needed to get a solid foundation and strength in my body, so I set out to try to play as many games as possible without getting injured, at the expense sometimes of being 100 per cent sharp."

The solution was the sort of slogging endeavour in the gym that can sometimes be overlooked when musing how under-worked and over-paid the modern Premiership footballer is: "It's an injury you can cure through hard work. It's not like a knee injury or wear-and-tear. It's a muscular thing - my hamstrings simply weren't strong enough. I'd be in 45 minutes before normal and stay 45 minutes after, apart from doing the normal training like the rest of the lads. The whole medical staff and myself worked on it at the start of the year."

Gone are the days of Shankly-yore when an injured player might as well have been dead. The reward was as fulsome a contribution - often without adequate support - as Gérard Houllier could reasonably have expected from his main striker, albeit in fits and starts. After what Owen admits was a slow beginning (one penalty in seven games was an identical return, oddly, to Ruud van Nistelrooy's), he caught fire at the same time as the Dutchman with a hat-trick away to Manchester City at the end of September and another away to Spartak Moscow a month later. Four at West Bromwich late on - though perhaps they should only count half - took him to 30 overall, if two strikes for England are included.

That pair were important too, winning the critical tie in Slovakia and then setting his country on the way with a rare header in the less intimidating surroundings of Liechtenstein. There is the opportunity to add to them, of course, starting against Leeds United's Lucas Radebe tomorrow in what will be Owen's 16th successive international.

He will be alongside either his club-mate Emile Heskey in a partnership that has never quite fulfilled its potential, or Darius Vassell, who substituted for him before making the breakthrough against Turkey last month while Owen sat in the dressing-room. The nation would unquestionably rather see a fellow Merseysider out there in the solid shape of Wayne Rooney, but Owen, sounding quite the veteran (he has 47 caps), counsels "There's plenty of time for that. I don't think we should be in any rush to risk him with his injury." Injuries he knows about.

One man he will link up today with is Nelson Mandela: "I've heard he likes football, but I don't know who he supports." If it's an English club, there's a very good chance they play in red.

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