The bright-eyed assassin

The boy who stunned Argentina is now the man who dismantled Germany. A hunger for goals and a lust for improvement have brought world status. Michael Owen is staring at a bountiful future
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The Independent Football

A walk down the corridor of the Liverpool Academy is not just a journey through a familiar landscape for John Owens, it is like viewing the portraiture of his past. Owens has worked for the past nine years as a part-time youth coach at Liverpool, but recently ended his career as a school teacher to take up a full-time post in the academy. He will take no credit for the development of the crop of young talent bequeathed to the nation in Munich last Saturday, but, as he passes from office to training ground each morning, the image of Michael Owen still prompts a smile of satisfaction.

In consecutive years as manager of the England Under-15 side, Owens had in his charge Michael Owen, Francis Jeffers and Joe Cole. The triumph of his stewardship, he would add, is that he managed not to ruin any of them. "It was just a privilege to work with young players of that calibre," he says. "A player like Michael would have come through anyway, whatever I did or didn't do. The potential was there for all to see. But it is still a thrill to sit back and watch it come to fruition." A sentiment shared by much of the nation by the end of a glorious and giddy week.

As Owen single-handedly dismantled a German institution, Owens' mind rewound to the afternoon of a schoolboy international against Scotland. The England defence had just conceded a daft goal and their leader was incensed. Owen retrieved the ball from his own net, ran back to the centre spot, ordered a minion to pass to him and slalomed through the Scottish defence to score straight from the kick-off. "There were none of the ricochets or messy little goals you'd expect from schoolboys," Owens recalls. "Michael only ever scored adult goals."

Careers of prodigies are always framed in such tales. The difference with Owen is that the snapshot of single-mindedness sounds entirely believable. From his early days at Hawarden Youth Club through his 97-goal season for Deeside Primary Schools in Cheshire, during which he eclipsed the record of Ian Rush, to Gérard Houllier at Liverpool and Sven Goran Eriksson with England, all those associated with Owen's relentless rise to stardom will talk of the extraordinary depth of his hunger and the utter certainty of his ambition. It was not just the goals which were adult. Owen seemed to regard his whole youth as a dress-rehearsal for life beyond. In his diary of the World Cup, Glenn Hoddle recalls Owen's calmness before his first major press conference as the youngest ever England international. "He seemed already prepared for it," he said.

"He was very mature in all aspects of his life, not just on the pitch," added Owens. "He had such a strong mental attitude and such a willingness to learn and develop. There was never any doubt in his mind where he was heading."

By the time the dust had settled on the four adult goals which have taken England to an unlikely spot atop Group Nine and to within a home victory over Greece of a place in the 2002 World Cup finals, Owen had begun to gatecrash the sort of statistical enclosure reserved for legends. The records of Bobby Smith, Martin Chivers and Paul Mariner were vanquished on Wednesday, two ahead of Owen's 14 goals in 32 games lie Tommy Taylor and Tony Woodcock. In the heady aftermath of Munich, few cared to measure Owen's future place in the firmament with any degree of perspective. The best since Diego Maradona? asked one newspaper. All targets seemed within his compass. Except one.

"You are talking about the greatest striker that I have ever seen," said Alan Mullery when called upon to include the names of Owen and Jimmy Greaves in the same sentence. "When I first saw Greavsie at Tottenham, I thought what a lucky sod he was. He used to score goals off his shins, off the post, little tap-ins, everything, but he was still scoring them five years later. Michael's a top-class goalscorer, no question, and he's very young, but come back to me in five years when he's scored 30 a season consistently and then we'll see. Jimmy was gifted by God."

On closer analysis, Mullery will admit to similarities of technique and instinct. "Greaves was lightning over 10 yards, quicker than Michael, I think, and he had this great little shimmy that Michael is starting to develop. They were built quite similarly. If anything Michael is a bit heavier but he's like Jimmy in that he knows exactly what he's going to do with the ball before he's got it and in the areas that he likes to exploit in the box. That goal against Albania, Jimmy would have found the same sort of space. But those two chances given to him by Beckham in the second half? Jimmy would have had them too."

The mind's eye is a privileged place of judgement, but few who witnessed Greaves' genius would quibble with the sentiments. Owen would regard the comparison as a compliment and a challenge. "Don't ever play Michael at snooker or golf," Bryn Jones, the manager of Deeside Primary Schools team, once said. "I wouldn't even bet with him on which raindrop would get to the bottom of the window first." He is not the only victim of Owen's ferociously competitive instinct. On Good Friday 1998 a tackle on Ronnie Johnsen of Manchester United which earned Owen a red card was judged the second worst in the Premiership that season. Captaining the England Under-18 side against Yugoslavia the year before, Owen was sent off for butting an opponent in the chest. Only a difference in stature, one suspects, stopped him from executing the full Glasgow kiss.

Munich provided more positive confirmation of those fighting qualities. "It proved that his career's moved on a stage," said Owens. "He was the Superkid, then as always happens when there's a dip we knock him down and now he's responded to the adversity, first at club level, then at international level. To me, Alan Shearer's decision to retire was crucial to that. Michael is the main striker now, he's not playing second fiddle to anyone and he is thriving on that freedom."

The striker caught in the picture (left), in perfect harmony at the moment of maximum concentration, is a more robust character than the boy who shocked Argentina in St Etienne in the summer of 1998. "He still looks innocent, but inside he is a man," as Oliver Kahn, the German goalkeeper, remarked. The thighs are thicker, the neck muscles tauter, the frame stockier, only the eyes retain the innocent intensity of the schoolboy.

When Owen pulled up clutching his hamstring in April, 1999, the Liverpool's backroom staff were forced into a radical revision of his fitness regime. With help from Germany, of all places, Owen has strengthened the core of his physique, corrected his posture, his way of walking, his way of running and markedly improved his flexibility. "He spends hours away from the training pitch making sure he stays right physically," says Gérard Houllier. "He has dramatically improved his strength and power. Yet the key is that he has managed to retain his speed. He heads and volleys better and his overall game awareness is much more impressive. He's a hard worker and always willing to learn."

Symbolic of Owen's lust for improvement was the goal which won Liverpool the FA Cup last spring, the second leg of an historic treble. Faced with a long run deep into the right side of Arsenal's defence, Owen reacted with a familiar assurance, sweeping past Tony Adams and brushing off Lee Dixon before steering a perfect left-foot shot beyond David Seaman. A few Premiership defenders, used to shepherding Owen on to his weaker left foot, froze with Arsenal's tableau. "I remember a game away to Arsenal," Houllier said. "He had a really good chance on his left foot, but decided to come back on his right. He lost the chance."

In the early stages of England's victory over Albania, Owen darted across the front of his marker, gestured for the ball, then in one movement twisted the other way to create space behind his man. Steven Gerrard read the move, but misdirected the pass. "He used to play only to his own strengths," added Houllier. "Now he's more clever and more patient. He uses the strength of his team-mates. When Heskey nodded the ball down for the second goal against Germany, he waited for the moment; a year or so ago he might have dived in and tried to create something himself."

The frightening conclusion is that Owen is still improving. "If he continues to take our advice on board, then 'Pfouf', God knows how good he can be," says the Frenchman. Owen has already bought a street for members of his family. When the full stops are put on a brand new contract, worth an estimated £60,000 a week, he will be able to complete his own personal Monopoly board. Liverpool, in the meantime, are pulling up the drawbridge in anticipation of some extravagant offers from abroad. "All the money in the world wouldn't even buy his left hand," said Houllier. Some national treasures, it seems, are just not for sale.

The boy done wonders: A brief history of a natural taking the world by storm

Michael James Owen

Nickname: Midget Gem

Born: 14 Dec 1979, Chester (might have been Welsh, but the local maternity unit had just closed so his mother was forced to cross border).

Family: Mother Janette; father Terry; sisters Karen and Lesley; brothers Terry and Andrew; girlfriend Louise Bonsall; dog Bomber (bull terrier).

1985: Starts playing regularly, coached by his father, who played for Everton.

1993: Beats Ian Rush's schoolboy record with 97 goals in one season and wins a place at the Football Association's Lilleshall School of Excellence.

1994: First TV appearance, on Blue Peter.

1996: Stars and scores 11 on way to Reds' FA Youth Cup triumph.

1997: League debut on 6 May v Wimbledon. And, yes, he scores.

1998: In February, becomes youngest England player of 20th century at 18 years and 59 days. Voted PFA Young Player of Year. Scores wonder goal against Argen-tina at World Cup in France. Voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

1999: Sustains serious hamstring injury against Leeds at end of season.

2000: Plays in England's three Euro matches, scoring against Romania.

2001: Starts to regain full fitness and turns the corner with two goals away to Roma in the Uefa Cup, a competition which Liverpool win. Also helps secure FA Cup with two late goals.

1 September 2001: "I feel that every time I get the ball, I'll score," he says before qualifier against Germany. Nets three memorable goals to emulate Hurst's 1966 hat-trick.

Oddities: He is a lifelong Everton fan. Has run the 100m in 10.9 sec. Loves computer games and race-horses (he owns two). Does not drink. Was asked for his autograph by Prince William.

Stats: 90 goals for Liverpool in 168 matches; 14 for England in 32.

What they've said about him:

"I'm not sure that he is a natural born goalscorer." Glenn Hoddle

"He's cold, clinical and he has pace. Put those together and you have a killer." Sven Goran Eriksson

"We all remember the young boy of France 98. Yes, he still looks innocent, but inside he is a man – a grown-up." Germany's Oliver Kahn

By Alex Hayes