James Lawton: Owen has every right to expect more of Liverpool

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The Independent Football

One of the few certainties in the surreal affairs of Liverpool Football Club is that in the next few weeks much moral pressure will be applied to a desperately under-performing central character. No, not the currently still bomb-proofed Gérard Houllier, but Michael Owen, on whose harrowed features a visitor from Mars might be excused if he saw more than 24 years.

His team-mate and captain, Steven Gerrard, has already applied some of that pressure, advising Owen before a national television audience a few months ago that he should follow his own example and sign a long-term contract, with a club who have made futility a work in progress for several seasons now.

Wisely, Owen has remained a long way from the bait. Why would he commit himself to a future at Liverpool which would inevitably be clouded by doubt? Maybe a new manager would re-animate the club. Maybe tactics would be overhauled to the point where Owen could expect more than an occasional chance to use his rare talent for exploiting remarkable speed.

Maybe, maybe not. The fact is that Owen's overall performance for the club, his exceptional professionalism, and the sheer level of his ability in something like optimum circumstances, demands something more than improved possibilities. Owen is in a position - and he has a right - to demand a few more certainties than that.

He has put in six utterly exceptional years at Anfield, a fact which in itself makes nonsense of any suggestion - and there have been more than a few - that he has some moral obligation to give the club a little more of his time. He doesn't. Twenty-four might seem a relatively young age as we trundle to the office or the factory, but for a professional footballer it represents the sharply rising foothills of his prime.

Here perhaps we should consider the dichotomies of football passion. A football club is supposed to be a reflection of communal commitment, a marriage between the coach, the players and the fans. In a perfect world they are united on an unswerving course. But how can a player, with one career, one life, seriously adhere to that belief beyond the strict fulfillment of his contractual terms? If the fan who told the Five Live phone-in the other day that Owen owed the club and the fans at least one more year received the offer of a better rewarded job, which could with one sweep of a pen change his entire outlook, would he hesitate for a moment?

Liverpool, or the embattled Houllier, cannot begin to suggest even a hint of disloyalty as Owen continues to keep his options open. Indeed, a professional adviser who did not insist on a watching brief over the next few months - Owen's current contract runs until the end of next season - would be in dereliction of his duties. In the waste land of honour that modern football has become, Owen remains a paragon of commitment to the terms of his deal. If his season has been blighted by frustration and injury, it has never been at the cost of belief in his essential desire to build on the superb achievements of the past.

There has been a consistent force of will, and if the execution has lagged at times, heaven knows there have been enough extenuating circumstances. When Owen's agent said his client would have to look carefully at his situation, and with such factors as involvement in top-level European competition high on the list, there was some outrage, not least from Houllier. It was entirely misplaced. This was not blackmail. It was a sensible assessment of what was most crucial to the future of one of the nation's few truly outstanding performers.

Meanwhile, Houllier's detachment from reality seems to be progressing at a rather alarming rate. He says he cannot wait for next season, but that can hardly be the view of those fans enduring the present one. Saturday night TV analysis highlighted Liverpool's chronic failure to play the kind of incisive football which makes champions, and develops a pattern in which the gifts of an Owen are bound to thrive.

We saw Liverpool players refusing to turn on the ball, playing it back and giving their opponents, Fulham, oodles of time to cover their lines. The re-run video was supposed to carry the force of revelation. It merely confirmed what a host of football men had been saying for so long: in the matter of creative style, Liverpool had been bankrupt for several years.

Now we hear of a summer "fire sale" of some of the manager's most ill-judged signings. Can it be that Liverpool will really entrust the process to Houllier, and, when some relatively small amounts of money have been retrieved, allow him to march on into an undetermined future? No, surely it cannot be so. But then if you were Michael Owen would you seriously consider taking the chance?

Chelsea must question motive of Beckham move

So now it seems David Beckham is not an adornment of Real Madrid but a club presidential election issue.

What happened to the dream of his conquest of football's most glittering stage, to the Chinese torture his success was going to inflict on his former manager Sir Alex Ferguson?

The word is that Roman Abramovich, Chelsea's oligarch, will move for Beckham. This is consistent enough with his policy of scatter-gun hiring and, now we are warned, firing. A few months ago a Madrid columnist wrote that Beckham was rivalling the impact of Alfredo di Stefano, arguably the greatest ever resident of the Bernabeu.

Suddenly, that seems an awful long time ago and perhaps Abramovich should consider for a moment what he wants most from his biggest-ever purchase: a great player or a circus act of dwindling appeal?

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