Owen the old head on young shoulders

The all-round maturity of England's 'boy wonder' could prove decisive against Germany
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The Independent Football

It was just an aside but it told you everything you needed to know about Michael Owen's rise to stardom and his ability to maintain it. Talking, before flying to Munich yesterday, about Emile Heskey's arrival at Anfield he said of his team-mate: "Emile was very young when he came to Liverpool."

Heskey, when he signed for Liverpool in March 2000, was 22 years old. Owen, 17 months on, is still only 21. This is a player who was born mature. As John Owens, his coach with England schoolboys said: "He scored adult goals in schoolboy football."

Since achieving overnight global fame in the 1998 World Cup Owen has had injury problems, slumps in form and goal droughts. His finishing, left foot and, astonishingly, his attitude were questioned by the England manager. His ability to strike up partnerships has been doubted. His place, with club and country, placed under threat. Occasionally questions have even been asked of his future.

None of this has come as a surprise to Owen. From his earliest appearances with England, when the "boy wonder" was flavour of the month, the best thing since sliced bread, and so on, he always insisted tough times would come. And he would overcome them.

They have, and he has. At Liverpool and England it is now a question, whenever a big match comes along, of a forward pairing consisting of "Owen plus one".

Owen believes, and is probably correct in doing so, that his rejuvenation from the injury-plagued, doubt-ridden figure of last winter was only ever a matter of time.

Nevertheless the arrival of Sven Goran Eriksson, who tried to buy him when at Lazio, does appear to have been a turning point. Glenn Hoddle, although he presciently capped Owen just two months after his 18th birthday, always seemed to have issues with him. Kevin Keegan, though fulsome in his praise, was less enthusiastic in deed. He only gave him the full 90 minutes in his final match as England coach, having previously brought him off six times and left him on the bench for a further five.

Eriksson, however, came to Owen's aid when he was at a low ebb. Omitted from Liverpool's successful Worthington Cup final team last March, he had cut a miserable figure during the post-match celebrations at the Millennium Stadium. Three days later he started and finished Eriksson's opening match, producing an excellent performance against Spain.

Ironically, missing the Worthington Cup final was the key, Owen explained, because it meant that, due to Eriksson's arrangement with club managers, he was one of the few players available for the 90 minutes. "Players who had been involved in the Cup final were rested but I hadn't been so I played the whole game. Since then I haven't looked back. I played all the remaining games for Liverpool, played all the England games, and both teams have been successful."

"I feel as sharp as I have ever done," added Owen. "There is no secret to it. As soon as I get a long run of games I am going to play well. I have just got to keep fit and keep playing. I will have dips in form but overall your true colours come through."

In addition this summer, for the first time in six years, Owen had a break. "It was just under three weeks, which is not enough, but I still feel much better for it. In past summers I have been playing in tournaments or working on my fitness because of injury."

The opposition on Saturday are in no doubt of the threat posed by Owen, certainly if remarks made by the Bayer Leverkusen captain Jens Novotny yesterday are anything to go by. "Owen is going to be especially hard to defend," the German defender said. "There is just no recipe for my approach. I will need all the help I can get from my team-mates."

One of the goals Owen has scored this year has a special resonance for tomorrow – it was against the Bayern Munich and Germany goalkeeper Oliver Kahn in Friday's European Super Cup. Of two one-on-one chances, Owen scored once and Kahn saved once.

"It might help on Saturday but I suppose it is one-each at the moment," said Owen. He added: "He is a very hard keeper to beat, one of the best in the world."

Owen has a similar reputation as a forward. Three years on from France 98, with England on the brink of another World Cup, how does he look back on the moment he shot to stardom against Argentina? The answer reflects his maturity.

"It was a massive occasion for me and I wouldn't change anything that happened but, afterwards, I didn't just want people talking about it all the time. I was anxious that the World Cup was not the only thing in my career.

"I don't think anyone could say I have not lived up to expectations since. At club level I have achieved a lot and I have been in every England squad when fit. I now hope I can get to another World Cup. It is an exciting time to be an England player or fan, there are so many good young players in the squad and, as young players often are, they are hungry for success."