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.

 



PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee