Sudden rise and lingering fall for Owen on World Cup stage

Tuesday night may have seen the moment that ultimately breaks the England striker, but, Andy Hunter reports, the end has long been coming
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The Independent Online

The World Cup defines Michael Owen. Eight years ago the competition made him, launching the striker with the boyish good looks on a path towards global recognition that only David Beckham could rival when the two icons of English football arrived in a star-struck Japan in 2002. Then, at 8.01pm in Cologne on Tuesday, as he collected a simple pass from Ashley Cole, it broke him.

To a man who has set such store by his international career, at times to the detriment of his relationship with the supporters of Liverpool and Newcastle United, the thought that his final World Cup memory may be leaving the RheinEnergieStadion on a stretcher will seem as cruel as the slip that precipitated a sickening twist of his right knee and the agonised, almost theatrical, raising of hand to forehead in instant recognition of a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament. The fact that we dare to discuss the "final World Cup memory" of a 26-year-old who was named European Footballer of the Year only five summers ago, however, is the cruellest twist of all.

As Owen lay in the treatment room inside the home of FC Cologne he was reportedly so traumatised by the injury and the cold realisation of what it meant to his career that he could hardly speak to his wife or his mother, both of whom had rushed from their seats directly above the forward as he dragged himself over the touchline. Later, without recourse to the MRI scan that confirmed the diagnosis, he told close friends in the England team exactly what fate had befallen him. Yet Owen's international career did not become plagued with doubt in one minute against Sweden, it has been attracting reservations long before this tournament.

The Newcastle forward's finest contribution to this World Cup prior to Tuesday night had been to highlight, justifiably, that an overreliance on long balls towards Peter Crouch and the team's overall approach play were detrimental to his own game. That prolific, instinctive game for which he is revered, however, has not been witnessed consistently for over two years. Following two disappointing displays in Germany, Owen was on trial before his manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, in Cologne until injury intervened.

The exhilarating pace that made Owen such a phenomenon in his early years at Liverpool, where he ultimately scored 158 goals in 297 appearances for the club he joined as a schoolboy, had been diminished by a procession of niggling hamstring injuries before he joined Real Madrid for a cut-price £8m in 2004. It was an inevitable consequence, he has claimed, of playing too often at the highest level during his formative years. Regardless, he modified his game so his team-work, aerial ability and left foot improved and Gérard Houllier's Liverpool had to discover ways of using his finishing skills other than a direct ball over the top.

Then came the move to Madrid, and it is from this point that the golden boy's star has been in decline. Owen cannot be blamed for pursuing a career with the biggest club on the planet, nor a life among the galacticos that would not have suited him even if Bernabeu politics had not restricted him to a meagre 20 starts ­ and a fair return of 13 goals ­ during his season in Spain.

Owen's representative, Tony Stephens, was accused of advising his client poorly at the time of his Anfield departure and, while that is debatable when Real are waiting in the wings, the striker who closely guards his private life and close family ties has been afflicted by the Midas touch in reverse since he flew the nest of Liverpool. There was no queue of European heavyweights waiting for Owen when he left Madrid after only 12 months in order, ironically, to protect his England place in World Cup year and now it is possible there never will be.

His favoured option, Liverpool, entered the market only at the 11th hour and even then it was with the hope he would publicly reject Newcastle's ambitious £16m offer and force Madrid to accept a lower fee. With Germany on his mind, it was a bluff Owen believed he could not make. Since opting for St James' Park and forsaking Champions' League football, Owen has suffered the two worst injuries of his career, the latest a savage blow to Glenn Roeder, the Newcastle manager, in that his valuable pace may diminish further still.

In recent years there has been a noticeable change in Owen's demeanour that reflects the fall in his image and success. When he slalomed through the Argentina defence as an 18-year-old in 1998 he played with a smile and the love for the game. While his fierce professionalism remains ­ evidenced by the reasons for leaving Madrid ­ he now appears older than his 26 years and more enriched by the horse racing he follows studiously and intends to pursue as a career when his playing days are over. Too much, too young, perhaps, only without the wild excesses of George Best or Paul Gascoigne.

While a moody Beckham gazes down on Times Square in New York holding the latest in shaving equipment, Owen has been on television this summer patting his backside at Asda. Neither has found the success they envisaged when they joined Real Madrid, though one has maintained and improved his status anyhow. Yesterday Northern Rock ­ sponsors of Newcastle ­ pulled an advert that featured Owen and asked, "Can we have him back in one piece please? "

With another year spent working towards full fitness Owen not only faces a prolonged spell out of the limelight but also out of the preparations of the next England manager, Steve McClaren. Wayne Rooney may have forged a successful partnership with even Theo Walcott by that stage.

Owen would never be found in bed with Miss World, champagne and casino winnings lying all around him as in the familiar tale about Best, but today he would be entitled to step into the shoes of the hotel bellboy and ask where it all went wrong.

Case notes: The injuries that have brought Owen low

Michael Owen's injury against Sweden is just one in a long line of injuries that he has sustained over the years.

12 April 1999

Ruptured a hamstring against Leeds. Out for three months. Owen claims that this injury was the one that set off all the other hamstring injuries.

6 October 2001 and 11 October 2003

Recurrence of the hamstring injury during World Cup qualifiers against Greece and Turkey.

15 October 2001

Gets a knee to the head from Christian Dailly and misses three matches.

15 June 2002

Tweaks the same hamstring against Denmark and plays through the pain barrier against Brazil.

17 October 2005

Again hamstring injury forces Owen to miss two Premier League games.

31 December 2005

Nasty collision with Paul Robinson breaks a metatarsal bone in his foot. Underwent surgery to have a pin placed in the bone, but the healing process does not go to plan and undergoes a second operation. Finally returns on 29 April albeit limps off at the end of the match

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