James Lawton: Owen's unfashionable refusal to follow celebrity game has left him on the fringe

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Unfortunately, big-time football isn't run as a displaced persons' charity, except if you're Rio Ferdinand, and then you can do more or less anything you like while receiving full backing - and full wages - from the hierarchy of Manchester United.

United are said to be the best possibility of repatriation for the Owen boy, but even they are not beating a fiery path to his signature, the possibility of their moving for him being rated by some insiders as no higher than 40-60.

As Owen is now considered no better than fifth choice at the Bernabeu after the signings of the prodigious Robinho and Julio Baptista, this is beginning to shape up as still another career crisis for arguably the best spirited and effective professional produced in English football over the last decade. But then how can this be so? Why isn't every top manager fingering what is left of his chequebook? Come to think of it, why is Jose Mourinho, with his professed desire to keep up the English blood count at Stamford Bridge, not tempted? Is Didier Drogba a better bet?

For some of us Owen's fringe status surely rates as one of the great mysteries of the modern game. What, after all, is most desirable in a pro beyond that basic ability to do the job out on the field, something Owen has generally achieved with record-breaking potential? It is a degree of loyalty, a sense of team, an unswerving understanding that his main business is playing football and not the celebrity game. On both counts Owen scores 10.

This is not to say, however, his situation in Madrid is uncomplicated. When he left Liverpool he relished the challenge in Spain. He believed in his talent to break through a galactico system that had become palpably absurd. He rated his ability to take his chances, which he largely did in his sporadic appearances for Madrid. But though he plainly impressed large sections of the crowd, one wearying of the posturing and the failures of the "Big Five" of Ronaldo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, Figo and Beckham, he plainly wasn't of the right material to beguile the executive suite. But then nor was Ronaldinho, the man who illuminated the Spanish season and delivered La Liga to Barcelona with a thousand grace notes. Ronaldinho's crime was that he wasn't as pretty as Beckham. Owen, too, apparently lacks an essential glamour.

Now we hear that Owen is under family pressure to return to his tribal enclave in north Wales.

Life shouldn't be so complicated for a player who ever since he arrived at the age of 17 seems to have been required to go an extra yard, an increasing problem now that most shrewd football eyes reckon he has lost at least half of one since that first explosive impact for both Liverpool and England.

That the residue of Owen's talent, at 25, is still plainly enough for him to prosper both in the Premiership and on the international field only increases the sense of disbelief that he should face still another season with no serious prospect of guaranteed first-team football. Newcastle would apparently be eager to offer him such an assurance, but then they would, wouldn't they, as one of the few clubs who can seriously challenge Real Madrid's status as football's No 1 circus act.

So what does Owen do as he braces himself for another bout of mouldering in Madrid? His form suggests that he will go about his business, do his training and absolutely eschew any opportunity to make some self-serving, self-pitying statement about the inequities of his fate. Basically, you have to assume he will do what he has always done: get on with the job, and make himself available for any opportunity to restate one of the most formidable appearance-to-goals ratios in all of football.

Meanwhile, we can only ponder all over again a fate that hasn't always been kind. When he came into the England team it was one besieged by the vanities of Glenn Hoddle, who despite the prodigy's astonishing breakthrough in the Premiership scarcely gave him a kick in the company of captain Alan Shearer before sending him on as a substitute in the second, lost group game against Romania in the 1998 World Cup. Owen promptly reinvigorated England and went on to score that superb goal against Argentina in the round of 16. The Italian coach Cesare Maldini, father of Paolo, said that if he was England's coach Owen would be the first name on his team-sheet.

Kevin Keegan, when he took over the England team, was much less convinced. He kept pulling Owen off the field in the disastrous Euro 2000 campaign, then preferred Andy Cole in the prestigious friendly against the world champions in the Stade de France. Cole failed and Owen came on to score a brilliant, match-saving equaliser. He didn't make any self-serving gestures. He just ran back to the centre circle; a small incident against the scale of his career, maybe, but it flickers in the memory now as Owen waits for someone to invest in his talent.

Why does he have to wait? Maybe he doesn't make enough noise. Maybe he took a wrong turning. Perhaps he should have worn a sari or changed his hairstyle every week or hired an image-maker. Whatever it was, someone in football, at home or abroad, should have the decency, and more importantly, the nous, to give him the chance to do what he yearns for most of all. Oddly enough, it is to play football.

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