Owen: 'We are very honest as a nation. We try to win right way'

Predator-in-chief believes England may suffer for not being as 'streetwise' as certain rivals
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The Independent Online

A good reputation, they say, is hard won and easily lost. Yet once a man is established as a nice guy, the benefit of the doubt tends to fall his way. Little Michael Owen a diver? No way. Reckless gambler? Give him a break. Tyneside mercenary? What could he do if Liverpool wouldn't pay the fee?

Owen is middle-class Chester to Wayne Rooney's Croxteth, Mr Smooth to a rough diamond, but with a disarmingly cheeky smile of his own; as soon as he overhauls Gary Lineker's 48 international goals he should become the face of Walkers crisps. What might sound too cocky by half from other mouths comes over from the fourth-highest scorer in England's international history as mere self-belief.

So when he says: "I know I can perform at this level", who could possibly take exception? After all, "I've played in four big tournaments, this is my fifth. It's a nice feeling not hoping or thinking but knowing you can do it at the highest level."

Tournament No 1, of course, was eight short years ago, though a debut four months earlier alongside Dion Dublin in a home defeat by Chile tends to sound like something from a dimmer, more distant past. Aged barely 18 and a half, he soon scored that slalom of a goal against Argentina, recently voted England's best at a World Cup. But the memory of it, he insists, was tarnished by losing the shoot-out afterwards.

Even for natural-born goalscorers, the result is the thing; it is just that their contribution can be measured more easily. "I can come off the pitch really happy if someone else has scored but it's obviously my job to have a hand in goals, whether it's scoring or making a run that opens up a space to create one. If I don't score or do something to help create one then I'm not doing enough. I come off and don't feel as though I've done my job properly."

Some have been suggesting he has not done so for a while, that injuries have dulled the old sharpness so vital to his game. They could justifiably claim to have seen further evidence against Paraguay yesterday. It is the only time in a half-an-hour interview that he bristles even a fraction: "Who says that? It doesn't really get to me, I'm content with what I do. My scoring record shows no sign of slacking.

"I only played a handful of games for Newcastle this year and scored plenty of goals. The season before, I scored plenty of goals in Madrid. And I scored against Jamaica last week and two against Argentina. It's only because of injuries people have not seen me as much as I'd like."

The metatarsal cracked in a collision with his England team-mate Paul Robinson at Tottenham on New Year's Eve effectively ended his season, though he has always maintained there was no danger of missing the World Cup. "My foot's long been out of my mind. I've had plenty of kicks, twisted and turned. After the second friendly against Hungary, people were saying I was feeling my way back, but I haven't felt the foot for two months now. It's totally behind me.

"Inevitably there's always getting match-sharp. There's been plenty of practice matches and training and that's just the norm after a few months out. I had the second operation, which wasn't what was planned. That put a month and a half on to what I originally thought, so that was frustrating, especially in terms of playing club football, but I was always confident of being fit for the summer."

Anyone with four international tournaments behind him must have learnt something to his advantage, and in Owen's case the disappointments from 1998 to 2004 have prompted a slightly more ruthless approach, further encouraged by experiences abroad, from the early days at Liverpool to a full season with Real Madrid. "I think England are probably not as streetwise as plenty of other teams. A lot of other countries know how to keep a victory or do certain things to hang on to leads or get back into games. They're probably a lot more streetwise than us."

In his first Uefa Cup game abroad for Liverpool, Owen remembers his shock that "you literally couldn't move" at set- pieces for all the pulling and holding. "It's been crying out for a referee to be brave and send someone off for that, because that's been going on for years without being punished. We've been told that the referees are going to do something about that this tournament."

Should they finally do so, then strikers will need to be equally wary of falling over at the slightest touch, something Owen has occasionally been accused of. "If you get brought down in the box, you'd be a fool scrambling to stay on your feet if it's a clear penalty. But I've never gone down without being touched. No one's ever told me to do that. I think as a nation we are very honest, we try to win the right way. There are pitfalls in World Cups, players who get the slightest touch and go down holding their face and get someone sent off."

But do Mr Nice Guys finish, if not last, then at the quarter-final? Will it be any different this time? "We want to win it and we'll do everything we can, but we're not owed anything, are we? I'm sure Italy, Spain and Portugal and all these different teams wonder why they haven't won it [recently] either.

"Let's not get carried away with us, us, us. We're thinking we've got a chance but so are eight or nine other teams, and all their people and their press are saying: 'How unlucky have we been, why haven't we won anything over the past 20 years?'

"There's only one winner every four years, so only Brazil and France aren't thinking like that at the moment. Everyone in our country seems to think we're serial losers, and other countries are thinking like that too. It's up to the players to change it."

Minnow Wars: The perils of not so easy pickings

1950 ENGLAND 0 UNITED STATES 1

After a comfortable opening victory over Chile, England were astonishingly beaten on what remains 56 years later the most embarrassing day in their history. A team containing Alf Ramsey and Billy Wright in defence, plus Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion and Stan Mortensen in attack made countless chances in Belo Horizonte but lost to a goal from the Haitian Joe Gaetjens.

1982 ENGLAND 1 KUWAIT 0

Ron Greenwood's team completed their opening group programme with a third successive victory, but it was a laboured one in the heat of Bilbao against opponents handicapped by playing during Ramadan, when many of the players were fasting. Steve Foster won his third and last cap at centre-half and Trevor Francis scored the only goal.

1986 ENGLAND 0 MOROCCO 0

After the shock of an opening defeat against Portugal in Mexico, England were expected to make up ground against their first-ever African opposition. But after Bryan Robson was taken off for the second successive game with a shoulder injury and Ray Wilkins was sent off for an uncharacteristic show of dissent, a point was regarded as a bonus.

1990 ENGLAND 1 EGYPT 0

Another undistinguished performance against modest opposition at Italia 90 in a game where victory was imperative after draws with Ireland and Holland. Steve Bull was brought into the attack alongside Gary Lineker, but there was relief when Mark Wright headed the winning goal to earn a second-round game with Belgium.

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