James Lawton: Owen is the right man at the right price to satisfy Ferguson's gambling instinct
Saturday 04 July 2009
The idea that Sir Alex Ferguson's investment in Michael Owen is the desperate throw of a football man looking into the skull's head of a bleak and hopeless future is absurd.
Owen was available at a knock-down price. No doubt he is not what he was, which is to say the most electrifying scoring talent in the world, but he still knows where the goal is far more acutely than many of his rivals in a grossly inflated market.
No, it was Newcastle, poor dysfunctional, madcap Newcastle, who made the gamble, the cost of which, when it was finally totted up this week, came out at a mind- numbing £41m.
Newcastle's calculation was that even while they were breaking every basic rule of football success, they might scuffle to some kind of benefit from the aura of the striker who at one point threatened to smash every scoring record in English football, including Sir Bobby Charlton's 49 goals for the national team. Such milestones may look unobtainable now, but Ferguson isn't a philanthropist. His mission isn't to resurrect fallen superstars.
When he signed Eric Cantona – maybe the most significant deal of his career – it wasn't the result of some agonised selection process. The overture came at the end of a conversation with Leeds United manager Howard Wilkinson. It was an aside, an afterthought, a foray, and it just happened to produce the catalyst of his great piece of team building.
Wilkinson, the ultra-disciplinarian, sold him cheaply because he had quickly formed an opinion long established in the player's native France. Talented the big man certainly was, but then he also marched to his own drummer, one who played music that sometimes made Looney Tunes sound like Beethoven's Fifth.
Ferguson doesn't see the Owen deal as some career-changing initiative, either for himself or the player – no more than he did the cut-price purchase of Cantona. He sees it as something with possibilities for both parties.
United, who were not awash with goals at vital points of last season, get one of the most practised hands in that vital department. Owen gets to go about his business in a team which, apart from winning the game's most serious silverware, doesn't, if we forget for a moment the Champions League final against Barcelona, frequently suggest that their idea of teamwork is a collective failure of nerve – a bonus he did not enjoy in his four years in Newcastle.
While raddled by injury, and increasing evidence that Newcastle were hopeless, Owen did manage to score 30 goals in 65 games. It wasn't nearly enough to impress the England manager, Fabio Capello – but nor did it rule out the possibility that in the right set-up, with a minimum of encouragement, he might still be able to make a significant impact.
More than anything, Ferguson's move seems to be a gesture in support of the meaning of certain careers. If he had had the choice between signing at his price the big and sometimes brilliant Frenchman Karim Benzema and a possible reclamation of Michael Owen there's no doubt about what his priority would have been. However, the big bird at Lyons had flown, and as available sparrows go, Owen – on a modest wage and possibly inspiring incentive clauses – can certainly make a case for himself.
Ferguson has done this kind of thing before. A massive admirer of the great French central defender Laurent Blanc, Fergie persuaded himself that he could coax a few more years out of one of the foundation stones of France's winning World Cup campaign in 1998. Blanc arrived at Old Trafford and for a little while was glorious. Then it became apparent that he had lost much of his ability to run. So you cut your losses and move on.
If Ferguson could have prised away Gianfranco Zola from Stamford Bridge towards the end of his career he might well have done so. Not because Zola represented any kind of sustained impact on the future. But just because of who he was, which was one of the most honest players Ferguson had ever seen. It was the same with the great Henrik Larsson, who was contemplating a return to the land of the midnight sun for the final days of his career when Barcelona threw him, decisively, into the Champions League final against Arsenal.
Ferguson decided that he would have some of the last of Larsson, too, and for a few months the effect, not least on Wayne Rooney, was at times magical.
For Owen the motivation at Old Trafford is self-evident. At Newcastle he was lost in a football nightmare quite unimaginable when he exploded so dynamically on the World Cup of 1998. Rafael Benitez allowed him to go to Real Madrid, where he scored goals even after being condemned mostly to the bench. At Newcastle he was supposed to animate a rubbish tip.
So of course he has come running to Old Trafford. It is not so much that he is pursuing some late and undreamt last hurrah, although no doubt that will have crossed his thoughts. More than anything, you have to suspect, he is reaching out for something that was taken away from him some time ago, along with that first searing edge of speed. It is respect, the kind which comes naturally when you have done a few things and you operate in a proper football club.
Ferguson, simply, has been happy to oblige at the right time – and at the right price.
Go-getters from the ghetto
Of all the theories on why the host nation of the Wimbledon championships was all but annihilated in the first few days the most predictable came from Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena.
Prowling the grounds with an expression of extreme intensity, Williams Snr is a formidable figure indeed. There are times when it is surprising that he doesn't burst like a genie from a bottle at moments of less than total dedication on the part of some slip of a player.
"You Brits will never find more than the odd good player," he insists, "until you start to look in the right places. You've got to get kids who want to win more than anything – ghetto kids, yes, kids who know how hard life can be and who are prepared to make a few sacrifices along the way."
Kids like today's women's finalists, Venus and Serena. Just because their father has said it roughly a million times, it doesn't mean it isn't right.
Flintoff affair shows how far England lag behind Aussies
When Andrew Flintoff eventually got to the war graves it was unfortunate that he promptly shoved his hands in his pockets. It didn't seem quite the ideal sign of contrition for missing the bus, but then Freddy has been secure in his heroic status for some time.
This is not to mention his unshakeable popularity among the British public.
It seems that no act of irresponsibility is extreme enough to dissuade his admirers. Flintoff's brilliant performance in the 2005 Ashes continues to light up English prospects when the battle resumes in Cardiff next week.
All this would be fine if the Australians hadn't already shown that in the matter of discipline, in creating the sense that they have a team united in their commitment to work towards victory, they remain several streets ahead of their ancient rivals.
England were a rabble in Australia in 2006-7 and a travesty of a world-class outfit in the subsequent World Cup in the Caribbean. Both in Australia and the West Indies, Flintoff survived far more serious breakdowns in discipline than the one which resulted in the dismissal from the World Twenty20 of Australia's anarchic all-rounder Andrew Symonds.
As the former Australian coach John Buchanan was pointing out this week, Symonds's gifts could well have been as useful to the Ashes cause as in the pyjama games. However, the Aussies decided that his indiscipline was just too destructive to the building of the right level of team spirit.
England, naturally, ran a mile from such a conclusion on the subject of potential series winner Andrew Flintoff. Alastair Cook was the designated apologist, saying that he could see in his team-mate's eyes the proper, heartening level of remorse.
Why is there that discouraging stirring in the bones, the one that says a repeat of England's Ashes glory of 2005 is looking distinctly unlikely?
It is because, once again, the Australians are looking like a team. England? Only in our dreams.
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