James Lawton: Owen the gem as game falls into the gutter

Click to follow
The Independent Football

One day, perhaps when he is back in his homeland and playing for a coach who has some idea of how properly to exploit his singular talent for scoring goals, we may put a proper value on Michael Owen. We might say that here truly is a working model for the discredited trade of professional football.

Indeed, in the current climate of the English game it is surely something to proclaim this very day.

Consider for a moment his rivals for attention this last weekend. There was the pathetic Adrian Mutu wishing his life over again and his former employers, Chelsea, preening themselves over their high-principled decision to send him to the dogs. There was the raging Sir Alex Ferguson, machine-gunning his accusations that Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp committed even more diabolical fouls than his own Ruud van Nistelrooy. There was the kiss-and-tell, victimhood and woman-beating specialist Stan Collymore reporting on how it felt to be cornered by "cowards." Appraising yourself of Owen's latest achievement, his fourth straight scoring performance for Real Madrid, and his own reaction to it, had the effect of a long and reviving shower.

Frankly, not so long ago some of us who had been among his warmest admirers were reluctantly accepting that maybe he too was being sucked into some of the more self-indulgent tendencies of today's football. It was certainly disquieting when he squabbled over ownership of a goal for England that came off the boot of his team-mate Frank Lampard and flicked off his heel. That wasn't the self-effacing kid who riveted the 1998 World Cup at the age of 18. It was, or so it seemed, another desperate player in the celebrity football market.

From that evidence of dwindling values it seemed a small stride indeed to the belief that he was heading for difficulties in Madrid to match those of his England captain, David Beckham.

Owen's rebuke to his critics has been softly stated but brilliant and sustained. He scored winning goals against the reigning champions, Valencia, and Champions' League opponents Dynamo Kiev, both the only strikes of closely fought matches.

On Wednesday, he scored in a cup game against Leganes and on Sunday night gave a less than overwhelming Real the momentum for a 2-0 win over La Liga opponents Getafe. Though disappointed to be withdrawn in the second half - the Real fans shared his displeasure and booed the coach, Mariano Garcia Remon - his post-game comments were not only untouched by hubris but perfectly measured. He said: "I feel my game has always been about scoring, so I hope I haven't surprised too many people. I always like to play 90 minutes but I respect the coach's decision. At least I scored before I came off, so I was reasonably happy."

Comparisons with Beckham's current situation may be harsh but are also inevitable. Beckham injured himself in those madcap tackles on Wales' Ben Thatcher. He admitted to deliberately fouling the Welshman in order to be sent off. He has been twice dismissed at Real, once for calling a linesman "the son of a whore." His private life has been an unending source of destructive publicity.

No one is saying that Owen has become the toast of Madrilenos or that the Beckham adventure in the Spanish capital is necessarily over. But what can be said is that while the England captain has made some quite fundamental miscalculations as both a player and a relentlessly scrutinised celebrity, Owen has tackled his challenge with consummate professionalism. He has shunned publicity, beyond that demanded of a best-selling author who doggedly refused to dish dirt, made sure his family was at his side, and got down to the job of proving himself worth a place in the company of such strikers as Ronaldo, Raul and Fernando Morientes. At the same time he has reasserted his right, which at one point was being legitimately questioned, to be an automatic selection for England.

This is a deeply impressive body of work by any standards, but coming during what has begun to seem like a concerted dive into the gutter by so many levels of the English game it is surely acquiring the uplifting quality of a parable.

Essentially, it is the story of a force of nature and character and more than a hint of incorruptibility. Owen has had all of the riches of the modern game and he has enjoyed them - some say at times recklessly at the betting window - but never at the cost of his understanding of what was most important in the life of a professional footballer. He has always seen celebrity for what it is, a distracting by-product of consistent success on the field. Once, on replacing the suspended Beckham as England captain - when he scored the vital goal, as he did in Azerbaijan in another Beckham absence last month - he couldn't quite suppress his distaste for the circus that had attached itself to his team-mate's career. "The only place I want to see my name and my picture is on the back page," said Owen with some emphasis.

In Madrid he has been as good his word; no tantrums, no self-pity, just the kind or resolution which first sent his name racing around the world. In six years he has known the best and the worst of it; he has suffered career-threatening injury, Gérard Houllier's rotation system - and the former Anfield manager's assertion that he had to prove himself a man some years after his brilliant success in the 1998 World Cup and a phenomenal scoring record for Liverpool. Finally, he found himself in Madrid, a small-change signing, relatively speaking, with an invitation to spend much of his time on the bench.

We should have known he wasn't going to settle for that. We should have looked at his record - and his style, and then we wouldn't have mistaken a diamond for so much of the dross.