Owen's omission goes to the heart of national crisis

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The Independent Football

It was no great surprise that Michael Owen didn't make Howard Wilkinson's England Flintstone Xl here for tonight's tragi-comic attempt to stay seriously involved in the race for World Cup qualification. Shock is a relative matter in England's affairs. Logic is turned on its head. If there is a gospel, you're probably better of putting on a blindfold when it is produced.

It was no great surprise that Michael Owen didn't make Howard Wilkinson's England Flintstone Xl here for tonight's tragi-comic attempt to stay seriously involved in the race for World Cup qualification. Shock is a relative matter in England's affairs. Logic is turned on its head. If there is a gospel, you're probably better of putting on a blindfold when it is produced.

Owen, of course, had a poor game in the Doomsday effort against Germany last Saturday - not unlike the other 10 members of the team - and his chances of selection here were not exactly enhanced by Wilkinson's move into the vacuum of leadership which the former manager, Kevin Keegan, having helped to extend it beyond even the misadventures of Glenn Hoddle, officially confirmed at Wembley.

The omission of a player who two years ago represented the best - and indeed thrilling - hope of a demoralised football nation thus creates no shaking of the earth. But it is no less sickening for that. Owen is by no means the finished article, which shouldn't be too disturbing in that he is still just 20 years old. But that he is left out - with not even the guarantee of a place on the bench, from where he rescued England in Paris so brilliantly scarcely a month ago - against a Finnish team, who, like all forces of the second rank, are most vulnerable to pure speed, is still stunning if you have the stomach, never mind the brain, to think about it.

Owen, the hero of World Cup 1998, the young man who leading foreign coaches, including Italy's Cesare Maldini, said had the pace and the scoring instinct to make a huge impact on the international game, now loses out to Andy Cole, who hasn't scored a goal in international football, to Emile Heskey, who is still in the foothills of proving himself in the Premiership, and Teddy Sheringham, a knowing old bird, certainly, but unlikely to terrify the Finnish defence in the way that Owen tends to whenever he gets anything like a proper service.

On Saturday, Owen had one chance, beautifully delivered by David Beckham, and he muffed it. Why? You might put it down to a variety of random reasons.

A lack of control at a vital moment, a failure to master slippery conditions, perhaps. But it is also reasonable to conclude that the way his career has gone at international level, first shaped by the erratic selection policies of Hoddle and then the quite relentless discouragement imposed by Keegan, has created a level of anxiety which has grown to breaking point.

Perhaps Owen knows that for some unaccountable reason he of all England's players cannot make a mistake without counting the heaviest cost. Perhaps no-one has taught him to relax in the knowledge that if his game is still less than perfectly rounded, if he still has lessons to learn in taking up positions to receive the ball in optimum circumstances, he still has the most precious quality in all of football. He knows how to score goals. He has done it eight times for England at roughly the rate of one every two starts; a world class ratio.

He has never whined like Cole, gone missing in a Portuguese nightclub on the eve of the World Cup like Sheringham, but on this vital day in the football life of his country he waits to know if he will even be called up to perform the kind of dramatic impact he first made in England's lost World Cup game with Romania in Toulouse.

The Owen issue has received a degree of attention, most notably in Paris when Keegan left him out for no fathomable reason, and here you might say it is something in the margins of much wider disarray. But for some of us the fact that he is missing from Wilkinson's bizarre selection seems to go to the heart of something that is deeply amiss in the English game. Most of all it is failure to nurture the best that we have, and if we do that to the best what hope is there for the rest?

Quite as dismaying was the "brains trust" unveiled here yesterday by the Football Association's chief executive, Adam Crozier.

Crozier said that the men who would "advise" him on the appointment of Keegan's replacement were "top-class people with real opinions". They are football directors David Dein of Arsenal, Peter Ridsdale of Leeds United, Dave Richards of Sheffield Wednesday, Noel White of Liverpool, Wilkinson, and David Davies, who was originally appointed to the FA staff on the strength of the "public relations" nous which had come in a broadcasting career. Not one international cap among them. Not one co-opted player who knows something of the challenge of international football, its demands on all players, young, brilliant but at risk players like Michael Owen, old, striving pros like the stand-in captain here, Martin Keown, players who need the touch of a man who not only knows how it is to go out on the field but who has the wit and the humanity to make it easier for those coming after him.

If Crozier really wanted to get hold of some "top-class" football people with real opinions he should have flown to the Spanish port of La Coruña, where most of the 1966 World Cup-winning team were docking on a cruise on which they are singing for their supper in question and answer sessions that come with the after-dinner port. He could have solicited the views of Jack Charlton and George Cohen and Nobby Stiles. He could have asked them what it really takes to inspire and organise football players who might just one day win the World Cup.

But we don't do that in England. In Germany, the national game scarcely takes a step without consulting The Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer. Does Beckenbauer have so much more knowledge and vision about the game than Sir Bobby Charlton or his brother Jack, who can hold a big room in the palm of his hand as he talks about the passion and the humour and the real priorities of football? Or is that he is simply of a country which understands the old truth that if you don't understand what happened yesterday you haven't a hope of figuring out tomorrow.

These are bad days for English football and, win or lose tonight, the chances are they will get worse before they get better.

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