James Lawton: Requiem for a born goalscorer finally worn down by a nation's expectations
Tuesday 31 March 2009
It is impossible to apply a date, or a single incident, but undoubtedly something changed in Michael Owen. Maybe his resistance to football's celebrity culture broke down or perhaps, more prosaically, he simply wearied of the toll of injury, which took away his greatest asset, that turn of speed which was such a blinding facilitator for the scoring instinct that his first England manager, Glenn Hoddle, so comically once claimed he did not possess.
Whatever triggered the process and, who knows, it may simply have been the weight of expectation he created for himself when he exploded into the consciousness of not just English but world football with his brilliant goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup – and Italian coach, and father of Paolo, Cesare Maldini, exclaimed, "My God, what a revelation" – we may never know for sure. But there is one certainty today and it is a bleak one.
No-one could have imagined that the international career of Owen would ever be as brusquely interred as it was by Fabio Capello at the weekend.
"We are playing Ukraine not history," sniffed Il Capo when he was asked if Owen might be drafted into the England squad after injuries to Emile Heskey, Carlton Cole and Peter Crouch. Capello, we know and should glory in the fact, is about the practicalities of winning football matches rather than the drip-drip of promises which never come to pass. However, even if Owen has in recent years reacted more bitterly than most to the discrediting of his mythic "golden generation", it is surely true that he deserved a more generous requiem than the one so brutally administered by the England manager.
The drift of Owen's career, and the hideous difficulties he has faced in imposing himself on the institutionalised chaos of what passes for a football club at Newcastle, do suggest that at 29 his England days are inevitably over. Yet that requiem still needs to be sung.
Owen, as Rooney is today, was a contender to smash every scoring record for club and country and even now, after all the years clouded by injury and the sense that he will never get back, truly, what he once had, he is just nine goals off the all-time mark of 49 by Sir Bobby Charlton, having played 17 games less. What the statistics, and some of his more bitter reactions to the dislocations and disappointments of a career that at one point promised the world, don't say is that for a while Michael Owen was everything you could have desired in an world-class footballer operating at the turn into the 21st century.
Before appearing in Euro 2000, a step on the way to his achievement of scoring in every major tournament in which he appeared until the last World Cup in 2006, when he was palpably unfit and then disastrously injured, he offered a brief insight into his working philosophy. He said: "My father was a footballer so I've grown up with it and I understand the demands of it but I'm sure of one thing: being successful at the game is only half the challenge. You also have to remember you are a human being and have to live in the real world."
He was hardly overwhelmed by the glamour increasingly attaching itself to football, declaring: "As far as I'm concerned there is one place in the newspaper which should be occupied by a footballer, however successful, and that is the sports pages."
He couldn't maintain that detachment, and more crucially, he couldn't sustain that first sensational momentum, not with his Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier applying his version of rotation with Owen sometimes the third man behind Robbie Fowler and Heskey, and the constant nip of injury, eroding millimetre by millimetre, that lacerating speed that so dazzled old Maldini.
At one critical point a headline declared: "Houllier says, 'Owen, you must be a man'."
He was just touching 21 at the time and for some other judges he had embraced the realities of football with stunning maturity. In those days, there was a curious sense for some of us that Owen was besieged by a failure on the part of many to understand the potential impact of his talent.
Hoddle had been slow to acknowledge the meaning of an amazing teenaged assault on his first season in the Premier League, and it was exasperating that Owen was allowed just one outing with Alan Shearer before the onset of the World Cup, and was left out of the opening game against Tunisia in Marseilles. He appeared in the second game, a 2-1 defeat by Romania, only as a substitute, and promptly scored and hit a post.
Could England not trust the power of youth and exceptional talent? After the Argentina game, Owen was feted – but not in every corner of the English game. Hoddle's successor Kevin Keegan was largely unimpressed in Euro 2000 when Owen suffered from mostly appalling service, and in a prestige friendly in Paris a few months later the England manager delivered a crushing verdict. He preferred Andy Cole, who made no impact, and it was left to Owen to come off the bench to rescue a draw.
He did it with the best of his ability, so sharply and with the absolute certainty that is the mark of all true scorers. Best of all on that particular occasion, Owen still played without a hint of affectation. He ran back to the centre circle without any hint of the triumphal and, better still, made no attempt to score a point off Keegan. He simply went back to business.
For so long he conducted it with a wonderful appetite, but those who believed that his time in the sun would be relatively brief, did not have to wait too long for a confirmation of their fears. He played to score goals, he was a natural predator, but when his speed began to erode, so too did the elemental force of his presence.
He performed with some gallantry when Rafa Benitez arrived at Liverpool and moved him briskly to Real Madrid, taking his chances when they came, and at Newcastle he continues to prove on occasion that he knows how to score. But he is not the Owen who invaded our senses, and nor can he be because that time has gone and taken with it the means by which he made his extraordinary impact.
Capello said most of this in a few words, of course, but then, as we said, he is in the winning not the requiem business. Nor was he in St Etienne on the night Michael Owen scored a goal guaranteed to thrill any football heart.
Adversity becomes a motivation for Hamilton
Reservations expressed here about Lewis Hamilton's resolution in the face of his new situation with McLaren near the back of the grid can now, happily, be dispelled.
His third place in the wake of Jenson Button and the brilliant re-emergence of Ross Brawn as a major Formula One player reflected the kind of determination that did not always resonate through some of his pre-race statements. Still, when the lights turned to green, the world champion was again all racer.
Sceptics, no doubt, will say that it will take more than one race to prove that Hamilton can operate with the same edge that he produced on the more advantageous side of the track. However, this was an impressive opening statement indeed. It suggested that Hamilton may indeed be one of those born racers happy to take on any odds, who believe when it comes down to it that that there is only thing worse than a bad car. It is, of course, the unimaginable hardship of not racing at all.
Home truth hurts Pietersen
If there was any lingering doubt about the fact that Kevin Pietersen, for all his blazing talent, was not entirely cut out for the captaincy of a Test team, it may now have dissolved.
This, anyway seems to be a reasonable reaction to the news that he was taken to the end of his tether by the failure of his request to fly home to England, between Test matches, to be with his actress wife for the ordeal of her appearance as a contender in the TV show Dancing on Ice. You may back Pietersen's argument that he was entitled to a favour or two after the way he was stripped of the captaincy, and believe that a man of such ability needs to have his mood sweetened from time to time.
At one level this may be true. But at another, it is the most persuasive argument yet that, batting apart, Pietersen's trickiest challenge is to be in charge of not a team but himself.
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