The tragedy of the Carling Cup final was Michael Owen's. He started the game with more pace and energy than has been seen in him for months – perhaps years – and finally scored a goal for Manchester United in Fabio Capello's presence. Then, he suffered the hamstring pull that has surely extinguished what meagre hopes he might have fostered of a World Cup place.
Aston Villa's James Milner suggested yesterday that the state of the Wembley pitch might have contributed to the United striker's injury and Owen himself provided his most telling indication of the frustration he feels about England when he suggested, amid the wreckage of his day at Wembley, that he cannot really tell the truth of how he feels about England and Capello. "I've said many times that it's difficult for me to talk about it," Owen said. "I can't find the right words because, one slip of the tongue and I'm on the back page. If I said what I think or how I feel or everything else, then I'd only be lying to you."
Owen moved things on when questions persisted. "Next," said a player who, for all his struggles to articulate his sadness, has at least rediscovered how it feels to win a trophy. So many years have elapsed since Owen last captured one that the occasion appeared to have escaped him, too. "Probably in the League Cup with Liverpool all those years ago," he reflected with a smile. "I won all my medals with Liverpool, so you tell me!" His current manager hasn't forgotten: it was 2003, in the then Worthington Cup final against United.
More difficult to discern is how Owen really feels about a season that has brought him only 11 starts for United – and just two since 19 December. It is hard to imagine that if he had been told he would make so few starts on the July day when he was introduced as a United player that he would have accepted that tally.
The questions about his ongoing fitness have not vanished since. United's Champions League group-stage game against the German champions Wolfsburg was another occasion when Sir Alex Ferguson started with him and Owen limped off after 20 minutes. Owen's hat-trick in the return match was his finest night for Ferguson, though, and Owen's assessment seemed right when he said that Wayne Rooney's extraordinary season must be factored in when his own limited opportunities are considered.
"I'd like to play a lot more, obviously, but you try getting into the team with Wayne Rooney playing like this!" he said. "If Wayne hadn't been scoring two or three goals in games, the manager might have rotated more. If there had been one or two injuries, he might have rotated more. But there's no way that I'm unhappy about how things have gone or my decision to come here. I'm absolutely delighted with the way things have gone."
The occasional reminders of Owen's supreme ability have been wonderful to behold – the cool derby winner in September, the quite exquisite goal in off the angle of the upright at Wigan and Sunday's beautifully executed finish. Pleasures which are enough to make him want another season at Old Trafford.
"I've played for teams that haven't been doing well in the league and I'd prefer to be playing a lesser role," he said. "Now I'm training every day with real top-quality players. I want to improve my game and, when I do play, be involved in games like [Sunday's]. We've had 44 games this year and I've been involved in 42 of them. Plenty of people might try to put a negative spin on things, but I'm long in the tooth and I've seen it all before. You can't stop it."
The voice of a player whose latest two-week absence adds to the considerably longer list of lows than highs he has experienced across the course of the last four years and one who has emerged from it all with some perspective now. "I've just had another child – born the other day, so I've got four kids, I'm living at home and playing for one of the best teams in the world," he reflected. "So it's not all bad, is it?"