Michael Owen, gone at 33. Jeez. I thought he was the future. As with so many England dawns, Owen’s was over far too quickly. The caustic class that proliferates the ether had him retiring years ago. They forget what a supernova he was, fourth behind Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker and Jimmy Greaves in the scroll of great England scorers with 40.
After Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler it seemed impossible that Liverpool had unearthed another free-scoring youth. But that is what the evidence told us when Owen broke into the first team at Anfield after shattering goal-scoring records down the ranks. He made his debut at 17 against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park in May 1997, coming on as a second half substitute and scoring. It seemed he would never stop.
A year later, after a finishing his first full season at Liverpool as the club’s top scorer, he lit a global flare with THAT goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Roberto Ayala is probably still dizzied by the memory of Owen leaving him in need of oxygen before slotting coolly past the keeper. It was a finish of instinctive brilliance, pace and touch combining to lethal effect.
England drew the match and, of course, went out of the tournament but not before Owen had set the imagination ablaze just four months after becoming the youngest to play for his country in the 20th century. Injury would ultimately blight his career. It started with a hamstring problem the following April that recurred throughout the 1999-2000 season. An ankle injury in 2003 cost him three months of the season, by which time his best days were arguably behind him. The move to Real Madrid was not what it might have been, even though his goal to starts ratio stood up.
Owen was a Liverpool great. In another era he might have played nowhere else. In this phase of the football cycle Liverpool had the omnipotent boots of Arsenal’s Invincibles and Manchester United’s serial winners at their throats. Chelsea were about to alter the landscape further. The League, FA Cup and UEFA Cup treble of 2001, the year he was voted European and World Player of the Year, did not presage the ultimate triumph in the Premier League. And he could not have foreseen the incredible events of Istanbul in 2005. The move to Madrid cost him the love of Liverpool and sadly tainted his Anfield legacy in the eyes of the supporters.
Elsewhere Owen’s prolific youth caught up with him and is a lesson the game would do well to head. The cost of all those teenage records broken simultaneously in the colours of Liverpool and England’s youth teams, was a prolonged limp to the line via Newcastle, Manchester United and finally Stoke. There were glimpses, particularly the devastating finish he applied to the pass of Ryan Giggs before the Stretford End to win the Manchester derby 4-3 in added time, but shorn of the blistering acceleration of his first coming, goals of that nature were unsustainable.