James Lawton: Liverpool add sorry postscript to the tale of Michael Owen's under-appreciated gifts

The striker was quickly taken for granted and too quickly discounted

Glenn Hoddle once announced that he was not a natural goalscorer – shortly before the 18-year-old illuminated the 1998 World Cup with the strike of the tournament.Gérard Houllier insisted he take his place in a rotation system which also included Emile Heskey. As England manager, Kevin Keegan preferred Andy Cole.

Rafa Benitez packed him off to Real Madrid virtually sight-unseen. He substantially wrecked himself on behalf of England at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, four years after the one in which he scored against Brazil a trademarked goal that briefly, hauntingly, seemed to open up the way to the final.

Then Fabio Capello, who at times seemed inclined to act as Wayne Rooney's glorified manservant, officially consigned him to the international junkyard.

If English football still has any powers of reflection, this week it had plenty of reasons for regrets about Michael Owen – and certainly not too few to mention.

The latest surely came when Liverpool's owner John W. Henry, in an extremely dull-witted communiqué on the reasons why his new manager Brendan Rodgers had been left so inadequately covered after dispatching Andy Carroll to West Ham United, explained that the club was no longer in the market for "quick-fix" solutions.

That the former hero of Anfield and now free agent, the kid who once promised to smash every scoring record of Liverpool and England, had been passed on so that he could sign for Premier League rivals Stoke, was not universally condemned on Merseyside.

Some pointed out that it could not be forgotten that he had spent the last three years of his dramatically diminished football life in the occasional service of Manchester United. Others said only time-expired sentiment would have justified Owen's return.

There is, however, another interpretation. It says that one man's sound business instinct is another's failure of imagination.

The latter verdict is certainly the one favoured here.

Another conclusion has to be that Owen was never quite appreciated for what he was – a natural scorer of astonishing precocity who ran so fast, so acutely, that English football, having quickly taken him for granted, too quickly discounted his unique value.

While David Beckham acquired the aura, Michael Owen did the business and not least on that unforgettable, humid night in Saint-Étienne when Beckham received one of the most gratuitous red cards in the history of football and Owen ran through Argentina for the goal which prompted Cesare Maldini, father of Paolo and then coach of Italy, to shake his head at the slowness of England's appreciation of quite what they had at their disposal.

Maldini's feeling was shared by all those dismayed by the sluggish pace of Hoddle's international grooming of the wunderkind who had been a sensation in his first season in Premier League football.

Owen was on the bench for the opening game against Tunisia, coming on in the last five minutes of a laboured performance in Marseilles and had a little longer (17 minutes) in the second match, a 2-1 defeat by Romania. In that time Owen scored an equaliser and in added time smacked a shot against a post. It was hard to imagine a point ever made quite so emphatically on an international field by someone so young.

He did something similar in the Stade de France a couple of years later when Keegan elected to go with Cole in a prestige friendly. Cole misfired, Owen came on and scored brilliantly, then ran back to the centre circle without the merest glance at the England bench.

There was also considerable vindication at Real Madrid, where he scored 18 goals from 41 games, only 15 of which he started. He returned to England with Newcastle in possession of La Liga's highest ratio of goals to the number of minutes played.

Most of the rest, of course, is pretty bleak history dominated by the heavy injuries which followed his youthful trials by hamstring. A combination of broken metatarsal and torn cruciate ligaments wiped away his last chances of smashing Sir Bobby Charlton's England scoring record – the challenge was aborted at 40 goals in 89 games, 10 short of a unique place in English football history.

The argument that the best of Owen flew away when he lost that first, blinding turn of speed, is hard to counter but, like the old fighter who knows that his last asset will always be his punch, Owen continues to believe in his ability to score vital goals. It is, after all, a talent that comes not in some coaching manual or training field but in the cradle.

This immutable fact only makes still more bizarre, at a time of aching transition, Liverpool's rejection of an old but potentially still effective icon. The mystery deepened during Sun-day's defeat by Arsenal, when neither Luis Suarez, for all his creative impu-lses, nor Fabio Borini, ever looked likely to land a significant punch.

Would Owen have made any kind of difference? It is reasonable to believe so. He would have brought, certainly, a high level of professional pride and the last of the instincts of a natural-born predator.

It was said of the sumptuously gifted midfielder Charlton that he was a scorer of great goals.

Owen was, of course, a great goal-scorer in whom maybe too many in English football did not believe in quite enough. It has to be sad that the club he served most brilliantly has added its name to the list.

 



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