Owen's England career ends with a whimper

Striker's season-ending hamstring injury puts paid to hope of international recall

You knew it was all over for Gary Lineker when they flashed up his number in the Rasunda Stadium in Solna and subbed him for Alan Smith.

Eight years later, after another equally dismal European Championship, which traded under the name of Euro 2000, Alan Shearer was given a full press conference in England's emptying headquarters in Spa, in which he reflected on his final act as an international footballer. "I dived to try to win an advantage for my country."

What is surely the end of Michael Owen's international career – one which matched Shearer's and Lineker's – was announced in a routine pre-match press conference at Manchester United's training ground.

Sir Alex Ferguson's first act at every Friday briefing is to give, unprompted, an injury bulletin. "Owen is out for the rest of the season," was the first thing he said. "It is more serious than we thought. He'll have an operation on Monday morning. It's a terrible blow for the lad and disappointing for us, too." For those who believed that at 30 he still possessed sufficient class to be given a role in South Africa, it was a sobering moment.

By the time he ran out to lead Manchester United's attack in last Sunday's Carling Cup final, Owen had seemed increasingly resigned to the fact he would not be part of Fabio Capello's squad. But however much the candle of hope guttered it was never entirely extinguished. His equaliser at Wembley was a chance coolly taken in a big game under pressure; the kind of finishing no international manager can afford to ignore entirely.

Half an hour later on a heavy, wearing Wembley pitch, his hamstring, the muscle that had troubled him since his early days at Liverpool, gave way and, internationally at least, there seems no way back.

Owen will not play again until Manchester United's tour of North America in the summer and by then the World Cup will have come and gone. Whatever happens on the pitches of Rustenburg, Cape Town and Soccer City, whoever is England manager will have to rebuild an ageing squad for the next European Championship by which time Owen will be 32.

So with a heavy heart, it is worth recording that an England career that exploded on a summer night in St Etienne against Argentina most likely came to an end in Paris two years ago. The last of his 40 international goals came in the demolition of Guus Hiddink's Russia at Wembley in September 2007. That briefly gave Steve McClaren's derided side hope they might qualify for the European Championship. In a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur last summer, on Manchester United's pre-season tour of Asia, Owen estimated that if he were recalled to the colours immediately it would take him a year and a half to match Sir Bobby Charlton's record of 49 goals. Charlton had just left the room and his tally is likely to be unchallenged for a while yet.

Owen's manager stressed that his place at Old Trafford, where he has another year of his contract to run, is not under threat and his signing has been, given the vast sweep of Ferguson's ambitions, a modest and qualified success. "I don't think I've played him enough and that's been because of Wayne Rooney; his form has been so bloody good," Ferguson reflected. "It has been hard to play him because, when we opt to go with one forward, we generally go for Rooney. We have used that system quite a lot now and with the midfield options I have it is a good one for us to play." And, although Ferguson did not have to spell it out, it is a system that is unlikely to change next season.

Owen still managed moments that captured the essence of the pure centre-forward he has been since Steve Heighway began to mould him at the Liverpool academy. There was the theatrically dramatic winner in the sixth minute of injury time in the Manchester derby. The suspicions about his Merseyside past ended there.

"Every time he came on for us, he made a chance," said Ferguson. "He may have missed some but he was always a threat in terms of movement in the last third of the field."

Above all, there was the hat-trick he scored in Wolfsburg in December on what Owen described as "a bog of a pitch". To say United were patched up would have been an understatement – Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick were playing at centre-half – and the Bundesliga champions needed a win to progress. Owen's instinct for goal and his positioning in the box proved utterly undimmed in one of Manchester United's victories of the season. Reflecting on that performance, Owen said: "The one doubt – though not in my mind – was injury, thankfully nobody talks about that now." If only.

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