Friday 18 August 2017

High hopes keeping Owen part of the supporting cast

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

Very few footballers have played out the entirety of their careers at the very highest level. Most realise there comes a time when they will be surrounded by players they once considered inferior at clubs who don't compete for trophies. While it could be argued he has already done this during his time at Newcastle United, it seems Michael Owen isn't prepared to contemplate it again.

Last week, he broke a life-long habit and actually said something of interest in an interview. "I think I'd rather play less and train with top players, rather than playing every minute of every game, getting three or four touches and not enjoying it."

It's a departure from the chat you normally hear about the endless joy to be had playing football, training hard and scoring goals. Usually players feel obliged to constantly reiterate their love of the game and their passion to stay involved, despite their status as multi-millionaires who never have to work again. Whether it's how they feel or not, it's usually always what they say. Owen is taking a different approach.

But Owen has always been different. He was an outstanding goalscorer, something he hasn't forgotten. It's clear he has an addiction to the thrill of goals but also a calmness in the moments leading up to them. His refusal to drop down the divisions or play at a lower level may be part of that adrenaline rush, but most lads say they are happy to play anywhere and prolong the buzz that comes with it.

Owen's needs appear to be served by coming off the bench at United with the chance of scoring a decisive goal rather than a 38-game season with Wigan or Bolton. It's always been that way for him.

The obvious response is to wonder how a player who has performed as Owen has since his return to England would have the cheek to come out with such a comment.

That a 30-year-old player would openly scoff at the idea of extending his career if it meant a drop in standard is unusual. Coming from one who has spent as long on treatment tables and substitutes benches as he has, it is even more surprising.

But for Owen, it appears the love of competing does not extend to playing in games in which nothing is at stake, a lesson he surely learned during a lucrative but injury-hit spell at St James' Park.

A former European Footballer of the Year with considerable commercial interests away from the game, he is not burdened with the same fears felt by others about the onset of a life away from playing.

I played with a lad who spent his time away from training tending to his cattery; some studied, but I'm finding it hard to think of many others with any passions beyond playing football. All dreaded the day when they walked off the pitch for the final time and assumed a role in coaching would await them. An existence away from the training ground was never contemplated.

Owen has an equestrian centre in which he has invested heavily, and walking away from football holds no fears for him. The adrenaline-fuelled world of horse racing may well satisfy his needs in a way mid-table football won't. He is certainly not alone on that front.

Training can be repetitive and boring to many players. Several friends of mine still playing at the top level play in games when they would rather be elsewhere. Though you seldom hear any come out and say it with the same level of honesty, Owen's comments will resonate with many of his peers. It's not what fans anywhere can understand, but it's the way it is in many cases. Speculation he may retire if his United deal is not extended beyond the summer may not be too wide of the mark.

He has surprised many by declaring he is capable of performing again at the highest level, for it has been a very long time since he last did so. To Owen, training with top players and occasionally performing in games is preferable to starting each week alongside mediocre ones. Owen is looking for more.

If the biggest clubs are really all that interest him, maybe he should rejoin Liverpool. Then at least he'll have the thrill of a relegation battle.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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