Ferguson gambles on Owen revival

United manager hopes former England golden boy can replace Ronaldo's goals
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It was 13 years ago that Michael Owen met Sir Alex Ferguson for the first time. "I will always remember him looking me straight in the eye and asking, 'So, do you want to play for Manchester United?'" Owen recalled years later in his autobiography.

The answer then was that Owen had, in his own words, "no raging desire" to play for United. Instead then, as now, the Owen camp had an eye for an opportunity. He was no Robbie Fowler who would never contemplate playing for United, rather he was the most sought-after player of his generation and happy to tout himself around.

Now the move to United has finally materialised for Owen – out of the England squad and one goal to his name in 2009 – his latest transfer will be regarded by Liverpool fans, and Newcastle, as cynical pragmatism. Owen has always been as cold-eyed about his business dealings in football as he has been when presented with a chance in front of goal and for the rest of us this move is an intriguing prospect.

Ferguson has been blown away in the transfer market by Real Madrid this summer. He has lost Cristiano Ronaldo to the Bernabeu and has seen Lyons Karim Benzema and, potentially, Franck Ribéry of Bayern Munich go the same way. So instead of going for the best in Europe he has decided to go for the best in Europe from eight years ago and see if he can still coax life out of the former golden boy of English football.

What was the most important thing that Ferguson lost with Ronaldo's departure? Goals – which were once Owen's key commodity. The player who was once whippet thin and astonishingly quick now looks jowly and prefers to play with his back to goal than sprint onto the shoulder of the last defender. But no-one can deny that he knows where the goal is and, given the chances he might just prove useful.

There is no way that Owen could be expected to start every game for United, and for Wayne Rooney it begs the question how on earth those two will function together. The Rooney-Owen partnership with England peaked at Euro 2004 and looked pretty unconvincing by the time the latter ruptured his cruciate ligaments playing against Sweden at the 2006 World Cup finals.

But Ferguson has never been afraid to pick up a player in the twilight of their careers and make something useful of them. There was Teddy Sheringham who joined United from Spurs at 31 in 1997 and Henrik Larsson who came at the age of 35 and helped United win their first title in four years. Okay, the French central defender Laurent Blanc is a less convincing example – he joined at 35 in 2001 – but Ferguson still judged him a success.

For Owen, it at last feels that his disastrously mismanaged career is back on track. He should never have gone to Real Madrid five years ago where his less than adventurous attitude meant that he decided within a month just to stay for a season. It hardly need saying that joining Newcastle has been a disaster, although the injuries – the cracked metatarsal suffered at Tottenham on New Year's Eve in 2005, the 2006 cruciate injury and a few hernias – have not helped.

But while it might be a great deal for Owen it tells United's fans where they stand in the new global order established by Real Madrid's frenzied summer spending. In 2001, when Owen was on his way to becoming the European Footballer of the Year, United bought Juan Sebastian Veron when the Argentine midfielder was arguably one of the most sought-after players in the world. Two years later they missed out on Ronaldinho who went on to be the best.

Now they are not even in the running for the likes of Kaka and Benzema, and on top of that their best player has finally got his way and walked out the door. So instead it is Owen, a good player once but hardly the man all of Europe wanted.