Reckless assessment to blame for Owen's fall

Click to follow

According to recent newspaper reports and comments passed across the airwaves, Michael Owen has taken a tumble. From boy wonder to little boy lost is, more or less, how one cynical scribe put it.

According to recent newspaper reports and comments passed across the airwaves, Michael Owen has taken a tumble. From boy wonder to little boy lost is, more or less, how one cynical scribe put it.

People are beginning to say that Owen's career has entered a crisis. If the young Liverpool attacker overhears talk like that he needn't be offended, because it puts him in the best possible company. People said something similar about Bobby Charlton, and even Stanley Matthews.

It will, of course, be recalled that in the World Cup finals last year Owen received more swooning adulation than a footballer of such tender years might be expected to comfortably handle. Ludicrously, some drew a comparison with the greatest player in history, Pele, who at just 17 years old in the finals of 1958 revealed a range of unsurpassable virtuosity.

The reputation thus gained was bound to bring Owen under close scrutiny and cause the technical difficulties he is presently attempting to surmount while coping with the after-effects of a deep-seated thigh injury.

There have never been any provisions restricting the amount of praise that can be heaped upon young sports performers but a view long held here is that they are frequently hindered by reckless assessment. For example, no sooner had Owen returned from the World Cup and set off on another Premiership season than newspaper reporters and television commentators were making him man of the match just for warming up in Liverpool's colours.

This came back to me last Saturday night when settling down to watch Match of the Day on BBC television. In his preamble to highlights of the encounter between West Ham and Liverpool, the football commentator, John Motson, understandably focused on the fact that Owen and Joe Cole, who is being prudently advanced by West Ham's manager, Harry Redknapp, were in opposition. Unfortunately, Motson made, or repeated, the common mistake of speaking loosely about Owen's progression. "So much in only two years," is roughly what he said.

Since that terrific strike against Argentina in France there has been plenty of proof that Owen's pace is exceptional. However, there is something intrinsically wrong when fellow toilers in this trade, and the media generally, are blind to important aspects of the player's development.

In Owen's case, life on the field was guaranteed to become more difficult once defences sat deeper to guard against his speed over the ground. It was, in the opinion of some, only a matter of time before Owen worked this out or it was worked out for him.

If nobody has yet come up with a solution that is revealing in its originality there are people in the game who now feel that Owen needs more help than he appears to be getting.

In the two matches he recently played for England against Scotland it was pretty obvious that there is plenty of room for improvements in his technique and overall awareness. You have only to ponder this for a moment to feel that the encouragement he was given to conduct a coaching series for television calls his advisors into question.

Another thought about Owen, who appears to be a receptive type and brings down no embarrassment on his employers, is that he might benefit greatly from playing abroad, especially in Italy where the movement and positioning of attackers is more subtle than in the Premiership.

I have gone into this not at all to question the work being done at Anfield, but there may be more sense in Kevin Keegan's hint of selecting Owen for England's Under-21 team than Liverpool's manager, Gérard Houllier, seems to think.

In sport, more than in any other walk of life, a successful career depends perilously on things not happening too soon. Given too easy a problem, the pupil may become slack, but asked too hard a question early he may become quickly discouraged.

From guarded comments and the actions he has taken, Redknapp seems to have adopted this policy in bringing Cole forward to the point where he can no longer be kept under wraps. It should be an improving lesson for everyone who leaped in to invest Owen with super-stardom.