Return of the outsider: Michael Owen

Despite his prolific goalscoring for Liverpool, Michael Owen was never idolised by the fans at Anfield. He returns with Manchester United tomorrow, older and less mobile perhaps, but still a man for the big occasion, writes Ian Herbert
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The Independent Football

Michael Owen knows exactly what he is walking into this weekend.

He was standing in the penalty box in front of Anfield's Kop end four years ago, on his return in Newcastle United colours to the club which made him, when the chant went up from those still heady on a Champions League triumph. "Where were you in Istanbul?" they sang and Jamie Carragher still remembers the moment. "I could see the deflation in his eyes," he said recently of the former team-mate still known to him as plain "Mo". "I recognised the hurt he was feeling after the game, too. I was disgusted on his behalf."

Liverpool's reluctance to take Owen to their hearts – they even sang his name in vain in Istanbul after the trophy was won that night – is a curious one. One theory on why Robbie Fowler, and not Owen, was "God" to the club is that the city likes its heroes flawed, though Carragher has always had his suspicions that Owen's crime was to establish himself with England before Liverpool, with that goal in Saint-Etienne against Argentina in 1998. Whatever the reason, tomorrow is an ominous undertaking for a player still trying to prove he has not lost the prodigious qualities he first displayed on Anfield's turf more than 12 years ago.

For each of the moments that suggest that Owen will rediscover them at Manchester United – the cool derby winner four weeks ago and the quite exquisite goal in off the angle of the upright at Wigan Athletic – there have been others that question the assumption. Two scuffed shots from good positions against Bolton Wanderers and an air shot in the Luzhniki Stadium in the past seven days alone.

Steve Heighway is the man who in many ways knows Owen the footballer best, having shepherded him as an 11-year-old into Liverpool's Centre of Excellence and seen him on his way, and even now it is the striker's unwavering self-belief which sticks in his mind. And that, to Heighway, is the characteristic that will see Owen back to the top. "He is so very, very determined and very single-minded," he reflects. "He knows his own mind, has always held his own counsel. He only takes advice from a small network of people."

But Heighway, to whom Owen still turned for advice after he left Anfield for the Bernabeu in the summer of 2004, does not discount how challenging it is for a 29-year-old to force himself into the England reckoning from a seat on the substitutes' bench, where he has started 10 of United's 14 games this season. "When you are a forward, the more you play the better you play and only if you play all the time can you be at the peak of your physical fitness," says Heighway, whose 329 starts across 11 years for Liverpool were in a day when managers did not have a bank of strikers. "Football is creating a different type of animal now. Someone who has to produce on demand. There are very few strikers these days who are privileged enough to play all the time. But scoring is a familiarity thing and the more times you are in a goalscoring situation the easier it is.

"If you don't drive a car for 10 years and then get back in, it would be unfamiliar to you, and playing football is about familiarity. When you come in off the bench it's enormously difficult. Your lungs burn like hell. Their heartbeats are up to a particular level and you are stone cold. Unless you've got more than 20 minutes you won't get into the flow of the game. Unless you've got pace, it's hard to make an impact." Owen's average time as a playing substitute this season has been only 17 minutes.

For all those challenges, Heighway is convinced Owen does have what it takes to find his way back to the top and into Fabio Capello's England plans. But does he still have the pace of old? The former United player Lou Macari concludes from the Bolton game, when Owen was given just six minutes to prove something, that he is not yet at his fastest, which is why defenders he would have once shaken off are on his shoulder at the point of execution, making the finish more difficult. The presence of Bolton's Zat Knight was enough to turn a gilt-edged opportunity two yards out into a badly skewed toe-poke, for instance. "The extra pace from fitness will give Michael that second extra to shoot," Macari believes.

Owen insists he has the same old speed. "I am not slower now than I was seven, eight years ago. No chance," he said in a recent interview, though another Liverpool man who had such an influence on his breakthrough, Gérard Houllier, feels his pace is not necessarily material to the debate. "Pace is one thing but game intelligence can play a part as well. If he does not have 100 per cent the same pace, he has the experience to give and receive the final pass and is better in giving and receiving the final pass," Houllier says. "He always did have very quick feet, too." It was a point Sir Alex Ferguson picked up in his own discussion of Owen yesterday. "I see it all the time – what he brings to us in that last third of the field," Ferguson said. "There is no one better at holding the line in the last third of the field. He is very seldom offside and that is down to his experience but also the talent he's got to beat the offside and run the line and find the proper angles and the right timing."

John Aldridge, a striker Liverpool did take to heart in his two-year spell from 1987, agrees that Owen's qualities are more subtle than some appreciate. "He always did tend to look for space and his experience catches people out," Aldridge says. "His movement around the box remains fantastic." Aldridge was still knocking goals in for Tranmere Rovers at 40 but no manager ever asked him to do so from the bench. "The only time I was on the bench was when I put myself there as manager [as Tranmere player/manager in the late 1990s]," he says. "I can't say I'd have liked that." But the key to longevity as a 30-plus striker is steering clear of injury, Aldridge adds, and that is the incalculable issue for a player who is 30 in December. "He's been dogged by injuries and he really has to have a couple of years without them if he is to get back. He gets injured because he is so fast and that has been his downfall."

Gerry Armstrong, the Northern Ireland striker, whose performances at 32 at the Mexico World Cup prove to Owen he can do it, says it was all down to fitness. "It's balance; you don't want to go too far but you need sharpness and match practice," he says. "I went on loan to Chesterfield and Pat Jennings and I trained at Tottenham before that World Cup."

The sight of Owen limping off with Fabio Capello in residence for United's Champions League game against Wolfsburg reinforced the sense that he is injury prone, and even before the goalscoring run that made him European Player of the Year in 2001, Owen had been on the sidelines. The key back then was his ability to return with impact for the big games. Carragher has always felt disbelief, for example, that Emile Heskey declared himself unfit for Liverpool's 2-0 win in Roma on the way to winning the Uefa Cup in 2001, while Owen returned to the side, scored twice and took Liverpool to the semi-finals. "If the roles had been reversed there is no way Michael would have stepped aside to let Emile play in such a massive game," he reflected in his biography.

Here is the quality that, to Houllier's mind, will see Owen back at the heights. "He loves to play. He likes the game more than anything else," Houllier says. "He is a happy combination of talent, desire and competitiveness and has such a great enthusiasm for the game. I know Michael. He will come back to the top. It's a matter of time and he has to build it."

Armstrong doubts that Capello will take Owen to the World Cup but also says the value of his tournament experience has been understated. "The experience he will have from that is unbelievable. Pressure – that's what makes it different when you're out there. You get one chance and you have to put it away." Which is what Owen has a habit of doing on the big stage – six times in 14 games for Liverpool against United, no less. Houllier smiles at the recollection of the one occasion when he has seen Owen this season, in the Manchester derby, and the reminder it served that Owen is worth gambling on in pressure situations. "That's Michael," he says. "He always – always – scores in the big games." Anfield can't say it hasn't been warned.

Welcome home: Owen v Liverpool

*LIVERPOOL 2 NEWCASTLE 0

Premier League, 26 December 2005

Owen played 90 minutes alongside Alan Shearer, but was not able to make an impact on an emotional Anfield return. Liverpool dominated proceedings from the start, scoring both goals in the first half.

*LIVERPOOL 3 NEWCASTLE 0

Premier League, 8 March 2008

A freakish opener from Jermaine Pennant and two goals either side of half-time made for another unhappy trip back to Anfield. This time paired with Alan Smith, Owen made little impression marooned up front as most of the action took place at the other end of the field.

*NEWCASTLE 1 LIVERPOOL 5

Premier League, 28 December 2008

Only the goalkeeping brilliance of Shay Given prevented a cricket score, as a Reds side in the throes of a title charge destroyed the Toon. An again ineffectual Owen was replaced by Kazenga LuaLua near the end with the game lost.

*LIVERPOOL 3 NEWCASTLE 0

Premier League, 3 May 2009

Owen was restricted to a 10-minute cameo appearance from the bench as a late replacement for Obafemi Martins, with the Reds two goals to the good and a man up. Ollie Wright

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