Is Owen on the road to nowhere?

In an inglorious return to Anfield, Michael Owen is likely to be left on the bench tomorrow. At 29, he's out of form and will soon be out of contract. Michael Walker asks if the fallen idol can find a way back

The 63rd minute of the 34th match of Newcastle United's souring season and Michael Owen is suddenly clean through against Portsmouth. This is classic Owen territory, 18 yards out, one-on-one with an advancing goalkeeper, in this case his former Liverpool, England and card-school mate David James.

But as he edges towards James with an opportunity to transform the trajectory of Newcastle's drooping campaign, the certainty for which Owen has been known across the globe since that night in St Etienne eleven summers ago looks to have drained from his once-happy feet and his once-uncluttered mind. Now there seems to be doubt and hesitation in Owen's hamstrings and in his head. The shot is scuffed, James saves, Newcastle's chance is gone and Owen's latest manager at Newcastle, his friend Alan Shearer (right), starts to think thoughts he would rather not: that Owen should be dropped for tomorrow's trip to Liverpool.

The difference between thinking and doing is a phrase Shearer uses. He knows the enormity of this decision, for Owen as much as himself. Shearer is probably aware that England manager Fabio Capello plans to be at Anfield and that it could be a difficult enough day for Owen back at his first love Liverpool without sitting among the substitutes.

Shearer, moreover, was on the pitch with Owen in St Etienne, the pair share an agent in Tony Stephens and Shearer staked his faith in Owen the afternoon he walked into St James' Park 30 days ago. Owen is Newcastle's captain.

But when asked yesterday about Owen leading Newcastle tomorrow, Shearer said: "If I believe he can do, then that will be reflected in the team on Sunday; if I believe that he can't, then that is a decision I have to make. But I will go in on Sunday with the team I believe will be best suited for a particular game to get us a result. You'll find out my decision on Sunday."

Ruthlessness is an attribute in a manager. In the past Owen has spoken admiringly of Shearer having "a decent pair of 'spuds'" when it came to scoring penalties in high-stress matches, and Shearer must demonstrate that quality if he is to be a manager.

Having used Owen alongside Mark Viduka and Obafemi Martins on Monday night, the Newcastle manager was asked if it would be either brave or reckless to do so again at Anfield. "Or mad?" he replied. "I have been mad in my time but I do not want to give away any formations or selections. But I tend to agree that, yeah, it might be mad to go there with three up front."

Then, reflecting on Owen's moment against Portsmouth, Shearer said: "He's disappointed. Michael would have hoped to put that chance away but he didn't. But he will not wallow in self-pity.

"If you look at the stats, work-rate wise there's no problem, he's always in the top three or four players on the pitch. But it's goals that Michael's made his name from.

"If I do decide to drop one of the three strikers it will be a tough choice. He [Owen] has always been a confident lad but he's not a brash lad telling everyone what he's done. He's a quiet individual and his confidence comes from within. I think if he gets in the same situation on Sunday we'll be looking for him to put it away."

It is whether Owen gets the chance to be in the same situation again. As Owen fell on his knees on Monday, it was impossible for the rest of us not to spool backwards to who and what he was. It felt like a moment.

And what Owen could be, as he said in an all-too-early autobiography, was "a devil on the pitch". On Monday, that devil was in disguise.

But for a free-scoring patch at this stage last season, some Newcastle supporters would say it has been this way since Owen arrived on Tyneside from Real Madrid for £16m in August 2005 with his "head spinning" – Owen's description. He was 25 then, 29 now, not old.

But as he half-clapped the Gallowgate End on the final whistle, part of even a confident man like Owen must have shared the uncomfortable realisation that he is not the footballer he was. He has one goal in his last 14 Newcastle appearances.

Some of the sting of dropping Owen may be eased by Shearer withdrawing two of the front three and fielding a 4-5-1 formation. Shearer confirmed that he was at St James' three days after Christmas when Liverpool destroyed Newcastle 5-1 and with Newcastle's goal difference six better than Hull City's, the team three points above them, they cannot afford to let in another five tomorrow.

Owen could be employed as an auxiliary midfielder, though Shearer hinted that Joey Barton may return in an advanced midfield role.

The conversation moved on from Owen and it is expected he is to do the same 23 days from now. Newcastle offered him a four-year extension in December reported to be worth £70,000 per week. Owen declined and said he would re-assess when this season and his current £115,000 per week contract ends. There are understood to be no offers from English clubs on the table.

Or from England. As Capello thinks of next summer's World Cup finals, Owen is in the background. We are not accustomed to seeing him there.

Rise and fall: Owen's goals per season

LIVERPOOL (league only)

1996-97: 2 games 1 goal

1997-98: 36 games 18 goals

1998-99: 30 games 18 goals

1999-2000: 27 games 11 goals

2000-01: 28 games 16 goals

2001-02: 29 games 19 goals

2002-03: 35 games 19 goals

2003-04: 29 games 16 goals

REAL MADRID (league only)

2004-05: 35 games 13 goals

NEWCASTLE (league only)

2005-06: 11 games 7 goals

2006-07: 3 games 0 goals

2007-08: 29 games 11 goals

2008-09: 25 games 8 goals


89 caps, 40 goals