Michael Owen is contemplating the end of his football career where it began in a neat, pretty pavilion overlooking playing fields named after William Gladstone, who lived and died in what seems a very English corner of north Wales.
Beneath him on the walls of the match officials’ room at Hawarden Rangers is a photograph of Owen at 12, when he scored 116 goals in “about 40 games”. He walked out of the club because they did not make him Player of the Year, demonstrating the kind of self-assurance that was to lead to him becoming European Footballer of the Year.
There is another picture of Owen alongside Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Frank Lampard. It was taken before the 2006 World Cup, the last international tournament that England thought they might win. They performed miserably and in Cologne Owen’s cruciate gave way agonisingly during a 2-2 draw with Sweden.
He was 26, three years younger than Robin van Persie is now, but the great, high plateau of his career was over and the descent was astonishingly swift. Owen’s time at Newcastle ended in relegation and recrimination. There were some highlights at Manchester United – a hat-trick against the then German champions, Wolfsburg, in their own stadium and the winner in the Manchester derby. However, it was a walk-on part in a blockbuster and a final year at Stoke satisfied nobody.
“I don’t miss pre-season training,” he says. “But it will kick in at the start of the season when I see everyone else playing and I’m not. Retiring had been at the back of my mind for a while. It is no fun when you have been at the top and see yourself falling away.
“I was at Manchester United; everything was so exciting, the training was tight but I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I was finding it harder to stay at the top.
“My overriding thoughts on my career were that it was a great first half and then injuries crippled me. The hamstring injury when I was 19 was probably the main one but after that I was European Footballer of the Year and went to Real Madrid. So, even though my career tailed away, I still feel I had some great times, but at my peak I was having those great times every month.”
Owen will not be walking out into a wilderness. There are his racehorses based at the Manor House Stables in Malpas. He will spend the upcoming season analysing Premier League matches for BT and there is Michael Owen Management, which aims to develop young footballers. He has just returned from coaching in China. Today he is promoting an insurance policy for the kind of amateur footballers who play at Hawarden.
“Representing players has been on my mind for three or four years,” he said. “Conversations in a dressing room change. When you are 17 or 18 it is all about cars and girls. When you are older, you start to talk about managers and tactics. You ask what your agent does and you think about things a lot more.
“The general perception of footballers annoys me and they need help in certain situations. Not many people are born to be a role model. It is thrust upon them. They have to learn fast and understand what gets them into trouble. Social media is an absolute minefield and you cannot prepare someone for becoming a millionaire in the blink of an eye.”
In May 1997 Owen made his debut for Liverpool and a little over a year later in Saint-Etienne he would score the goal of the World Cup against Argentina. He was 17 years old when he first played for Liverpool and it is hard to imagine that a Premier League whose academies now produce a trickle of home-grown talent and where almost 70 per cent of its footballers are foreign would possibly have given him that opportunity.
England has the richest domestic league in the world and its national team are ranked, very generously, at 15th in the world. When a footballer who has been as much a part of the fabric of the national side as Owen remarks “nobody expects us to win the World Cup” it means hopes are barrel-scrapingly low. In this summer’s Under-20 World Cup, England were knocked out in the group stages. Iraq made the semi-finals.
“It is more difficult for young footballers because the jump from the academies to the first team is huge now,” he says. “When I was a kid it was an easy path – youth team, A team, reserves. At Liverpool reserves you would find yourself playing alongside Jan Molby, Paul Stewart, Nigel Clough or Mark Wright. Perhaps me or David Thompson, Jamie Carragher or Steven Gerrard would have come up from the youth team. Now reserve-team football is essentially youth-team football. There is no difference, so to go from Manchester United’s reserve team into the first team is now a huge, huge jump.
“The only way is to send young players out on loan. United have worked the loan system very well and, to my mind, that is the only way to go. You see a 19- or a 20-year-old at a big club and you think: ‘What are you doing faffing around because you have wasted three or four years of your career.’ You should be in the first team by the time you are 18 or 19. It is a dangerous age, there is such wastage there.
“People say we didn’t perform in Germany in 2006 but we did have a good team. You look at the team now and you cannot see us winning the World Cup because we haven’t got enough good players.
“The pool of players you pick from has become smaller because the world has changed. You couldn’t get on this pitch out here when I was a kid. You would have to get here at six in the morning to use a goalmouth. Every single person was playing football and, if you couldn’t get a goal, you’d stick a jumper down.
“The computers and iPhones are winning the battle. I used to run home from school to get my ball but nobody comes home from school now, knocks on 10 doors and asks if anyone fancies a kickabout. If you look at where the best players are coming from, they are from countries where football is seen as a way out, an escape.”
When Michael Owen was a boy, the Gladstone Playing Fields were his Wembley and his Maracana. Now in the fierce summer heat it is deserted, the breeze rustling through the empty goalmouths.
Michael Owen is an ambassador for Shinpad Insurance that offers teams and individual footballers cover against injury. For more details go to www.shinpadinsurance.com