Loyalty: always a dangerous claim to make in football. "I hope this will ... not [be] seen as being disloyal in any way," said Michael Owen when he announced his intention to see out his last season at Newcastle United without signing a new contract. Or, should we say, when he announced his intention to leave for nothing at the end of the season and thus secure a lucrative free transfer for the last payday of a very lucrative career.
A few observations. It is not Owen's problem that Newcastle find themselves in a mess mainly of Mike Ashley's own making. Like anyone else, Owen has the right to maximise his earnings. It is not his fault that Newcastle only offered him a new contract this month. It is not Owen's failing that injuries have meant he has played only 54 games in three and a half seasons at Newcastle. And you bet it's a short career, so every footballer has to make the most of what he's got.
So, taking all that into consideration, is Owen also permitted to wag his finger at us and claim that in seeing out his contract he is still acting out of loyalty to Newcastle? No, he certainly is not. That really is taking the Michael.
In choosing to see out his contract at Newcastle, in giving himself one last big earner, Michael Owen has been loyal to one principle and one person only – and that person is Michael Owen. The pity of modern football, of our current times, is not that Owen, or any other player in the same situation, is prepared to make hard-headed business decisions. The pity is that they want it both ways. They want the best deal for themselves and they want the rest of us to consider it an act of virtue and generosity into the bargain.
How about just telling it straight? There is no shame in making the hard decision to see out a contract and Owen has plenty of reasons to do so. He is at a club that is so chaotic that Ashley had to take it off the market yesterday for want of a serious buyer. A club that through pure bad organisation allowed Owen and a number of other key players including Nicky Butt, Steve Harper and Mark Viduka to go into the last year of their existing deals. For most players and their agents, Owen's situation is the dream scenario. So why bother pretending that this is anything but a win-win situation for the player?
Any player who finds himself in the lucky position that he is permitted to reach the end of his contract without being sold first gets to cash in spectacularly. The club he joins are spared a transfer fee but in return they pay significantly more in wages.
Over the last 10 years, Steve McManaman, Sol Campbell, Michael Ballack and Mathieu Flamini, among others, have all done it and made a fortune. Ballack, for example, left Bayern Munich a pariah but he knew the wages waiting for him at Chelsea would be worth it. What if Owen had just levelled with us? What if he said: "I'm seeing out my contract at Newcastle, I'm leaving this summer and, quite frankly, can you blame me? I'm not getting any younger and I want one more big deal which will see me through to the end of my career. The problems at this club are all very sad but they're your problems not mine.
"You lot are the supporters, you don't have any choice but to keep coming every week. I'm getting out while I can. I'd rather you didn't boo me but it's your choice." The public relations industry would throw their hands up in horror, but who gives a toss what they think anyway?
We have reached a stage where no footballer can speak unless it is to impart what some fool has told him is a "positive message" – whatever the hell that is. Yet this veneer of cheerfulness is so paper-thin that anyone with a modicum of understanding about how modern football works will have recognised Owen's statement for what it was. So much better for him to have discarded the spin and been open about what he intended to do. Unfortunately, Owen's mention of loyalty backfired.
It left the door open for Owen to be lectured on loyalty by a man with an unimpeachable understanding of the word. Yep, that would be the former Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd, the man who sacked Sir Bobby Robson in the August after Newcastle had finished fifth the previous league season. "There should be at least a thread of loyalty," Shepherd said of Owen. "Morally, he owes Newcastle another year."
What Shepherd thinks does not matter at all but the problem for Owen is evident. If you try to spin a simple choice, if you try to sugarcoat your real motives, then you leave yourself open to criticism from people like Shepherd.
Of course, the old blusterer is wrong. Owen does not owe Newcastle another year, or another contract. He owes them nothing of the sort. He just owes them the truth, however painful that might turn out to be.
The first sign of madness: talking in the third person
Phil Brown lecturing his Hull players on the pitch at half-time of their defeat to Manchester City was not for his team's benefit, or the supporters they were told to applaud. It was for Phil Brown's benefit. It was designed to demonstrate what a maverick, off-the-wall manager he is – a little bit crazy, a little bit different, but, hey, what a guy.
You could see straight through it. So could Brown's players, no doubt. The artifice was embarrassing and to make matters worse Brown has started to talk about himself in the third person in post-match interviews. The Hull manager and his team have been an exciting, likeable addition to the Premier League. What a pity if Brown was to spoil it by trying too hard to demonstrate to us how clever he thinks he is.
Pennant right to snub Madrid and choose a team where manager is boss
I'm with Jermaine Pennant on the Real Madrid issue. Who would want to go there anyway? No 1 in the book of unchallenged assumptions about modern football: joining Real Madrid is an honour no player should refuse. Nonsense. They're an absurd organisation who misunderstand the basic principle that a manager, not a chairman, should run the club. They don't understand the value of developing talent, they had connections to the General Franco dictatorship and they think being allied to the Spanish royal family is some kind of honour.
Give me a transfer to Wigan Athletic over Madrid any day.