Owen is betrayed by bewildering decision

'I saw Michael play at Southampton on Saturday and he did well. He is in hot form,' said Kevin Keegan. Then he dropped him
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The Independent Football

It was never going to be easy for Kevin Keegan as he delved amid the wreckage of a failed England campaign, but what he announced here at the Stade de France yesterday was cause not so much for concern as stupefaction.

It was never going to be easy for Kevin Keegan as he delved amid the wreckage of a failed England campaign, but what he announced here at the Stade de France yesterday was cause not so much for concern as stupefaction.

He dropped - and demoralised - Michael Owen, the one young English player who has consistently suggested that he has both the spirit and the talent to swim in the international currents that just two months ago left Keegan's best hopes washed up on the beach of Euro 2000.

Keegan admitted that during the European Championship he replaced Michael Owen in each of England's three games for a "variety of reasons", and implied that most of them were tactical. But now he said that it simply came down to a straight choice in favour of Manchester United's Andy Cole who, so far in seven appearances - admittedly five of them as a substitute and under a total of four England managers, has yet to score for England.

Owen has made 14 starts, eight times as a substitute, and scored seven goals, or one goal every two full games, a world-class striking rate.

When he blazed through the Argentine defence in a World Cup match two years ago, scoring a brilliant goal and forcing a penalty out of a petrified defender, he inevitably attracted some lurid, and in a less well-ordered personality, potentially distracting praise. But one thing was not in doubt then, nor was it in subsequent difficulties with injury and widespread criticism. Michael Owen had made a superb impact on a World Cup at the age of 18 and announced a rare ability to retain a sound perspective. He was, said Italy's coach Cesare Maldini, "a thrilling young player with a great future in the international game".

Now, five days after scoring two goals at Southampton as a lone striker for Liverpool and linking cleverly with his midfielders - all of it under the gaze of Keegan - Owen sits on the bench as England seek to re-define themselves against the champions of Europe and the world here tonight. "I saw Michael play at Southampton and he did well," said Keegan yesterday.

"He's in hot form. He's still learning. He's 20 years of age and he has a lot going for him but on this occasion I'm going this way."

It is, one has to say, a befuddling way - a way which over the years has come to constitute almost an English genius for applying the leash to the best of its young talent. What is particularly mystifying, given Owen's track record both on and off the field, is the consistently negative impact of Keegan's management on the young player.

Keegan, the man who has built his reputation as a manager on his ability to make players feel good, indeed sometimes perhaps better than they ought, has pulled Owen off the field in every game he has played under his control.

When he did it in the Euro game with Portugal, Keegan said later that though the player was "gutted" he was, "still young and the future is his". Part of that future, Owen might have reckoned after recovering from the blow, was to be in at the ground level of Keegan's re-construction of a team cut to pieces in the European tournament, and one which some said had been somewhat unbalanced psychologically by the manager's relentless faith in the retiring captain Alan Shearer. Keegan's explanation for the removal of Owen at half-time in the formative stage of Euro 2000 was that he "wasn't holding up the ball enough". This seemed harsh in that the ball Keegan desired to be held up was generally coming to Owen at erratic height and with the force of a cannonball.

Yesterday Keegan was at pains to say that Owen remains "in contention" for the opening World Cup qualifying games with Germany and Finland, but that was scarcely the point. After Owen's virtuoso performance at Southampton, both his Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, and his former England coach Glenn Hoddle argued that the player appeared to have run through the crisis of confidence which may have come with persistent hamstring trouble.

"He seemed to be very confident about what he could do," said Hoddle who, as it happens, was also accused of a tardy reaction to Owen's coruscating form on the run-in to the 1998 World Cup.

None of this should deflect from the body of work with which Cole has in European club competition defied those critics who said that he was a talent which could not quite stretch itself to the highest level. Cole, apart from a fierce eruption of his feeling that Shearer was unassailable in the England team mostly because of Keegan's loyalty, has doggedly fought to win a place in the international game, and no-one will begrudge him the chance to put flesh on the bones of his ambition. The trouble is that it is at the expense of a young player who has already proved himself several times over an authentic international player.

Keegan's calculation is that Cole's Old Trafford team-mate Paul Scholes will work effectively off a player with whose moves he is deeply familiar, and that this too may be a positive factor in the decision to finally give David Beckham the chance to fill the now cavernous hole in the middle of England's midfield. With Darren Anderton available again on the right, the Beckham experiment carries its own logic. He yearns for the chance to prove himself in a central role and if ever he had the chance to make the point in legitimate circumstances this is surely it. The world champions may be in celebratory mood, they may wish to indulge their retiring warriors Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps, but this is unlikely to make them any more accommodating to English visitors than their compatriots on the fishing boats. Beckham will have to prove that he can thrive in the more cluttered terrain inside, that he has the pace and the vigour that is so vital in the impact of an authentic midfield creator. It promises to be a fascinating aspect of a game in which Keegan's reputation is once again on a perilous line.

His best hope is that Beckham will indeed seize the chance to broaden his horizon, and that England will begin to touch the coherence that was so wrenchingly absent in Belgium and the Netherlands in the summer. The nag is that at the heart of tonight's England team is a terrible flaw. It is that Keegan's decision to play Scholes off the lone striker removes Owen from the equation and replaces him with Dennis Wise. It means that arguably England's best player is excluded in favour of one who failed miserably to meet the challenge of Euro 2000.

You cannot replace the best with the worst and expect any prizes for tactical improvisation. The art of management will always be most vitally about the nurturing of your most talented players. When they happen to also have displayed a superb competitive temperament the obligation is all the more pressing. Which ever way you look at it, Michael Owen was betrayed yesterday.