Whether or not he leaves the stand today to take on the club with whom he made his name, Michael Owen will not be departing Old Trafford to join up again with Gérard Houllier at Aston Villa. That was the unambiguous message from Sir Alex Ferguson to one of the five Liverpool managers he has seen off in his 24 years spent transforming Manchester United from poor relations to cocks of the north.
Houllier, who takes up his duties at Villa Park tomorrow, has been widely quoted on the subject of Owen, perhaps unaware after a few years away from the managerial cut-and-thrust that discussing other clubs' players tends to be frowned upon these days. Ferguson claimed not to have read the comments, which was perhaps just as well, but his response was delivered with characteristic bluntness: "He's wasting his time."
The United manager is as well aware as anyone, including the player himself, that Owen has had few opportunities this season. That will be put right if not today then in the Carling Cup at Scunthorpe on Wednesday.
"He'll get enough football," Ferguson promised. "It's just the early season with the internationals that disrupts you. But he's doing well in training, never misses a session. I brought him on for the last 20 minutes the other night but I could have brought on three centre-forwards and we would not have made a chance, the way Rangers set out."
The failure to find a way past the Scottish champions' massed defence was a third frustrating result in half a dozen games this season for United, after late goals snatched victory away at Fulham (2-2) and Everton (3-3). The one benefit that may surface is the freshness of the eight or nine players Ferguson left out on Tuesday who will expect selection today.
Antonio Valencia's injury means Nani will start on the right, with a suitably chastened Wayne Rooney returning to face the scorn of visiting Merseyside fans rather than a full house at Goodison. Dimitar Berbatov will be alongside him after an excellent start to the season that had Ferguson admitting it was a mistake not to involve him against Rangers, when the young Mexican Javier Hernandez was given his first taste of the Champions' League.
Well stocked with strikers – which is the problem for Owen – Ferguson believes he also has the squad to make light of Valencia's absence: "We've got [Darren] Fletcher and [Darron] Gibson, who can go right side if we want to make it a tight midfield away from home. Most of the time away from home in Europe we adopt two wide and one through [the middle] like Nani, [Ryan] Giggs, [Gabriel] Obertan, these players and Park Ji-Sung, who does well in these games and has become very useful. We're not too bad with width. You don't like losing a player like Valencia, who did fantastically well last year. He's improving too, he's young. But with the squad we've got we should be able to compensate for it."
There is more mutual respect between Ferguson and the new Liverpool incumbent, Roy Hodgson, whom he has known for almost 25 years, than he had for many of his predecessors. Relations with Rafael Benitez, always cool, froze from the day Benitez pulled out a piece of paper at a media briefing and began his famous "facts" recital ("Only Mr Ferguson can talk about... fixtures... referees... and nothing happens").
On Friday there was not exactly a tearful farewell to the Spaniard ahead of the first meeting since his dismissal: "I think everyone expected it. If he hadn't signed a contract the previous season, he would have gone before the end of the season, probably. But the fact he had signed a new contract brings its own complications in terms of compensation."
The welcome for Hodgson, five years his junior at 63, was warmer: "Roy's performance at Fulham over the last two years, getting to a Uefa final, elevated him into a position where other teams were looking at him and the Liverpool job came up at that particular moment. He's had a great array of clubs – Inter Milan, two Italian clubs, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Bristol City, Blackburn Rovers – and brings a great amount of experience that can deal with a club like Liverpool."
That appointment represents a trend Ferguson approves of; not favouring a fellow Briton, but placing greater value on experience than choosing those still wet behind the ears from the dressing-room shower.
"I don't have any complaints about foreign managers coming into our game, I really don't at all," he stressed. "There was a trend a few years back of going for young managers who had just finished playing. The trend is going for experience just now. That to me sounds far more sensible rather than quite a few managers who had careers, finished, then were managing a Premier Division club as their first job."Reuse content