Damaged goods

He's 25, an automatic selection for England and by reputation one of the greatest goalscorers in the world. So why did none of europe's big clubs seek the services of Michael Owen?

The transfer of Owen from Hawarden Rangers to St David's Park had all the elements to convince this child prodigy that a career in football rewards the most richly talented: first success, then betrayal, then the sweetest of revenge. A compelling narrative for a schoolboy who already had a sense of his own potential. If, at 25, Owen cares to remember that transfer today, the first of only three he has been involved in throughout his career, then he will be entitled to think that life as an adult professional has not worked out quite so smoothly.

This morning Owen is a Newcastle United player. His new club sit 19th in the Premiership without a goal in their first four matches of the season, they are untroubled by European competition and certain squad members have resolved their violent differences in the limited privacy of a 52,100-seat stadium filled to capacity. But for a former European Footballer of the Year, now approaching the prime of his goalscoring career, the fact that he has signed for Newcastle is not even the most devastating part of this summer.

What must hurt the most is that no one else wanted Owen. That great, enduring conspiracy of the transfer window that something promising must be happening somewhere else was proved wrong. Chelsea were not waiting in the wings. There was no crafty Plan B hatched on a yacht off Monte Carlo. As the clock ran down to 31 August it really was just Newcastle alone, unabashed by their constant rejection, living on hope, who waited plaintively outside the door yet never quite believing they would be ushered in.

Since Kevin Keegan joined Southampton in 1982 there has been no transfer where the status of the player so vastly outweighed that of his new club. In rejecting Owen, some of Europe's biggest clubs have cited the profile of their existing squad, some have worried about money and some have pointed, a little hurtfully, to Owen's unsuitability to their style or formation. None of them, it must be said, has decided that he is a player of such rare quality that they have to sign him regardless of any other concerns.

That is what we first learned about Owen this summer: that he is no longer a player for whom, the moment he becomes available, the biggest clubs will exercise the nuclear option in their transfer budget. The same way that Manchester United re-organised an entire financial year in the space of a week to accommodate the purchase of Wayne Rooney, or Real Madrid risked bankruptcy to pay £45m for Zinedine Zidane. In a more prudent football world, that strata of top players becomes ever smaller but there is no doubt that a select group of the greatest, to which Owen did once belong, still exists.

The lustre that once surrounded Owen has been diminished and it is important to acknowledge that, with the standards he set so early in his career, this was always a possibility. His goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup would be, for some more modest talents, the culmination of a career's hard graft. For Owen, it came at 18 years old. In our national subconscious this veteran of four international tournaments - with sensible haircuts and no tattoos - is somewhere in his early thirties. He is not - he is just 25 and familiarity with him has meant that he can be taken for granted.

Even despite a slight reduction in his pace, and injuries, Owen has answered every question that football has asked of him, not least with those 16 goals at Real Madrid last season, but his problem is that the beliefs of its very best managers have shifted around him. Owen came to prominence when the vogue was for smallish strikers long on pace who would surge on to through balls and score with a single touch, attackers who were notoriously hard to tackle cleanly in the penalty box.

There has scarcely been a more profound change in football, intensified by the popularity of the 4-5-1 system over the past 12 months, than the current fashion for the strong, lone forward. One who has power with pace and fits a formation, like that favoured by Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson, which accommodates two wingers. Those like Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto'o, Adriano, Hernan Crespo, Andrei Shevchenko, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, if you share the faith that Rafael Benitez places in him, perhaps even Fernando Morientes.

It is, inevitably, back to Liverpool that the trail leads. The reunion of Owen and Anfield looked, for those who require easy answers, like the perfect fit. For those who do not - and they happen to include the Liverpool manager - that was not the case. Benitez sold Owen to Real Madrid last summer with the postscript that the player's refusal to sign his new contract, which had been unsigned for 14 months, made it too dangerous for Liverpool to hang on with only a year of his existing deal left. Benitez's criticism of the conduct of Owen, and his agent Tony Stephens, was mild by football's standards but, from what we have come to know of the man, severe by those of the Liverpool manager.

"Shankly with a Spanish accent" was how the Liverpool chairman, David Moores, described Benitez. And there has been a good deal of the Glenbuck miner in Benitez's stance over Owen. Not in the delivery, he still looks and sounds like a sixth-form careers adviser, but in his staunch refusal to acquiesce to the wishes of the board and the fans over Owen. Benitez's opposition is rooted in his perception of Owen from one year ago.

The statement that Owen issued last week which cited Liverpool as his first choice and Newcastle as - the inference was - some kind of short-term purgatory that would see him to the World Cup, was also remarkable. Here were Owen's agents SFX, the sports management company of the 1990s, laying their cards face up in a move that looked more like a surrender than a negotiating tactic. In the transfer of David Beckham, no longer a client, and in the negotiations over Steven Gerrard's future, not to mention the rest of their stellar client list, SFX have treated the prospect of leaked information with much the same attitude as the Pentagon. Not any more.

As for the rest, Manchester United, it is understood, may have looked at Owen this week had Van Nistelrooy not returned to form in such a clinical manner. The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, was interested but thought better of damaging the fragile self-esteem of Henry, who may not have accepted another famous, young striker alongside him. Chelsea had Crespo back from Milan who, had they been able to buy the Argentinian, might have encouraged Mourinho to bid.

So many circumstances that conspired against Owen: the personnel of the top squads this particular summer allied to shifting tactical fashions. As well as him falling for the old lie that there is no greater honour than to play for Real Madrid. A gluttonous club who make it a policy to emasculate the manager, the one man capable of making a real difference.

Aside from the surprise at the transfer, there is respect among many of Owen's fellow professionals that, regardless of the circumstances, he is ready to take on Newcastle's challenge. All his career, Owen has found himself among football's VIPs: Liverpool, England and Real Madrid - as befits a virtuoso schoolboy sportsman. His first boxing bout came at the age of 10, by 13 his golf handicap was nine. By 14 he was the star pupil at the Football Association's Lilleshall academy. As from yesterday he sits with the naughty boys somewhere near the back of the class. That simple principle of retribution he learned 13 years ago will be harder to apply in the Premiership.

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