Owen happy to have the world at his feet

Liverpool's sensational young striker is pressing hard for a place in England's starting line-up.
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IF Paul Gascoigne met his non-inclusion in the World Cup with tears and a tantrum, how would Michael Owen have confronted the disappointment? With a dry, blank stare in all probability and a icy determination to confound Glenn Hoddle's estimation. Hod help Premiership defences next season.

At the turn of the year it was crown prince rather than the clown one who appeared more likely to miss out on France 98 but by last week the prospect was impossible. Leave Owen at home? Abandon hope for France if you do.

"I know Michael will be a good international player in five years," the England coach said in January, "but what I need to know is whether he can be one in five months?" Owen, who has been ahead of himself for most of his life, arrived with plenty to spare. The nation was surprised when Gascoigne was omitted, the clamour would have been deafening if the England coach had done the same with Owen.

Which is due in part to the declining faith in the Sheringham-Shearer axis of Euro 96 but far, far more to the astonishing precocity of the Liverpool striker. Not since whispers heralded Diego Maradona has a World Cup awaited the arrival of a new talent with such anticipation, and, ironically, Cesar Menotti, excluded the young genius from the 1978 tournament.

Cesare Maldini, the Italian coach, has sign-posted Owen's potential impact while Hoddle, whose protective instincts appear to have needed more convincing than most, is toying with starting with him against Tunisia in England's opening match. As Roy Evans, his Liverpool club manager, said: "You have gone beyond this stage where you talk about Michael's potential. He's there already.''

Owen has been there or racing towards it almost from the moment he began kicking a ball. He made an Under-11 side shortly after his eighth birthday; he broke Ian Rush's record of 72 goals in a season for Flintshire Schoolboys with 92; until he failed to find the net against Chile for England last February he had scored on his first appearance at every level.

"He scored adult goals in schoolboy football," John Owens, who managed the England Schoolboys side in 1994-95 when Owen got 12 in seven matches, said. "By that he mean he didn't get any efforts that are bundled over the line and have an element of luck often seen at schoolboy level. He scored the sort of goals that would not look out of place in the Premiership. That is some talent.''

Owens confirms that stems partly from a confidence within the youngster that has nothing to do with brash cockiness but the absolute certainty in his ability. That was obvious beating boys it was also apparent against men, with his first international goal against Saudi Arabia last week. He could have passed but was so sure he would find the net he shot. Naturally he scored.

Did anything in his rise from Liverpool reserves take him by surprise? "Not really," Owen replied. "You watch football on the television, you analyse how fast it is and you learn. If you believe in your ability you can make the next step.

"Glenn Hoddle told me before my first game for England: `Just play the same way as you do for your club'. That's the way you have to look at it because you wouldn't have been picked if the manager didn't think you were good enough.''

It would be very hard to reach that conclusion. I can remember watching Owen play for Liverpool against Burnley in December 1996 in the Youth Cup when the only thing that appeared lacking in him was the ability of his team-mates to co-ordinate their less gifted efforts with his lightning movement and rapid thoughts.

Even so he got two goals that day and hit the bar. Only a fool could not have recognised Owen's potential, only a hopeless optimist would have projected his career 18 months on to the point where the country's World Cup hopes could rest on his quicksilver feet. The romantic was right, we cynics were confounded by his strength of mind.

The talent, the sheer unbridled speed are one thing but having the enduring aplomb to use it is another. A lot of young players are gifted (few as much as Owen admittedly) but they are unable to consistently expose it. Even the best are prone to burn-out early in their careers and most managers cultivate them carefully.

Ryan Giggs was given odd games off by Alex Ferguson, but Owen has played in 54 matches this season and there have been no sign of the mental rather than physical weariness that can afflict the young. "Several times last season I began the week thinking I'd give Michael a rest," Evans, who omitted him totally from only two of Liverpool's games, said, "but he has very rarely looked jaded so we have stayed with him.''

That temperament makes Owen an 18 year old going on 28. He still lives with his parents near Chester but, that apart, only his youthful features betray his age. He shares the same agent as Alan Shearer, Tony Stephens, and the same deadpan, no-chance-of-a-racy-comment, demeanour of the Newcastle striker when he meets the press.

Cold, clinical, he could be facing an opposition goalkeeper instead of a thicket of tape recorders. "It's part and parcel of football now that if you're in the limelight you'll get a lot of media attention," he said. "You cope with it because you know it's going to happen.

"Yes, my career has gone better than I expected. The backroom staff at Liverpool have looked out for me but I don't think they've needed to keep my feet on the ground so far. I'm enjoying myself but I'm not getting carried away with it.''

That last sentence was superfluous because, sendings off against Manchester United and in an Under-18 international apart, no one thought for a moment that he was. Just the rest of us are getting transported into fantasy, as a poll on ITV's Teletext this week, which placed Owen level with Ronaldo to be the World Cup's leading scorer, reveals.

Even Owen is unlikely to achieve that. In England's first match against Tunisia, Owen could become the third youngest World Cup player after Norman Whiteside and Pele, the former impressive in his first tournament, the latter sensational. Owen would be happy to be anywhere in between.