James Lawton: Michael Owen the prodigious predator has more cause for pride than regret after calling time on his career

His purpose was brilliant and unadorned. He came to score

In the end there were just too many tearing injuries, slowing him down and taking away that first searing certainty, but Michael Owen was right to be proud when he announced that he would retire at the end of the season.

If his career was cruelly punctuated, if he didn't win as many caps as Beckham or score as many goals as Charlton, Lineker or Greaves, he had his own unforgettable distinction.

It came in blazing speed and a predatory touch no less thrilling because of its essential simplicity. Owen's purpose was brilliant and unadorned. He came to score, that only, and with such breathtaking precocity he was still only 18 when Cesare Maldini, coach of Italy and father of the great Paolo, declared, "Where have England been hiding this boy? With such a player, you could beat the world."

The promise was worn down in treatment rooms over the years but not before Maldini Senior's prophecy had come hauntingly close to fulfilment.

Owen inspired it with his superb goal on a warm June night in Saint Etienne when he ran through the Argentina defence to give England the lead in their second-round tie at the 1998 World Cup. If you were there in the cramped and heaving Geoffroy Guichard Stadium, you saw something you would keep forever.

Owen took a pass from David Beckham and bore down on Argentina. He swept by Jose Chamot and created an agony of doubt in the formidable defender Roberto Ayala before sweeping the ball high and unanswerably beyond Carlos Roa.

It was the impact of a teenager on a World Cup that briefly threatened to rival Pele's 40 years earlier but then Beckham, absurdly, earned a red card and England went down 4-3 in the shoot-out. If Owen had disappeared into that French night, he would surely have lingered in the memory.

As it was, there would be thunder-clap echoes of the drama in the Rhone Valley. He scored a hat-trick at the Olympic Stadium in Munich as England beat Germany 5-1 and performed the most elaborate cartwheel of celebration, and then less than a year later on a baking day in Shizuoka, Japan, he shot England into the lead against Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final. Though he was nursing injury, Owen scored a trademarked goal, swooping on a clumsy touch by the big defender Lucio.

It was arguably England's best chance of winning the great prize since 1966. Brazil were buoyed by the brilliance of Ronaldinho but they had never been so vulnerable, especially when the Brazilian playmaker was dismissed early in the second half for a callous foul. What Owen couldn't conquer, not then and not ever, was neither England's misadventure nor his own. David Seaman made his catastrophic error and England could not enforce their man advantage. Owen, their most significant threat, left drained and hurt in the 79th minute, replaced by Darius Vassell.

Four years later, in Cologne, he hobbled out of another World Cup and he would not play again for nearly a year. There it was, the outline of a career on the world stage that had come so close to touching the stars, but there was hardly a hint of angst when Owen, the scorer of one goal in seven appearances so far in his final professional stint with Stoke City, said it was time to go. "I've been fortunate," he declared, "to have had so much support from great coaches and team-mates and family."

It was an admirable perspective from a man who might have complained about the vagaries of fate and the tide of physical mishap that brought him career-ravaging hamstring, metatarsal and cruciate ligament injuries. Instead, he chose to pick up a glass much more than half-filled with some excellent vintage.

He scored 40 goals for England in 89 appearances, 158 for Liverpool in 297 games, and when he was said to be so miscast at the Bernabeu in the company of such as Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo he still managed 14 in 40 appearances, many of them starting from the bench. There was a similar profile at Newcastle United, where he suffered some of the worst of his injuries.

He scored 30 in 79 games and then if he was becalmed for much of his time at Manchester United there was still a reminder of the very best of his talent. It came with his late arrival in a tumultuous Manchester derby and a goal of the sweetest touch.

In 2001, he was voted European Footballer of the Year, 22 years after the previous Englishman, Kevin Keegan. He stole the FA Cup from Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium. In kinder circumstances, he would have smashed the England scoring record. Some may say that Michael Owen was a nearly man. But then they may also bay at the moon.

Goal machine: Owen's record

Club career

1996-04 Liverpool (158 gls/297 gms)

2004-05 Real Madrid (14/40)

2005-09 Newcastle (30/79)

2009-12 Man United (17/52)

2012-13 Stoke City (1/7)

International career

1998-2008 40 goals, 89 caps

Trophies

2001 FA Cup, League Cup, Uefa Cup

2003 League Cup

2010 League Cup

2011 Premier League

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

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral