Owen exiled on Main Street
Despite his detractors, the former England striker still has hunger to get back to the top, writes Paul Hayward
Published 25/09/2011 | 05:00
Michael Owen has fought a lot of public battles recently, abandoning his natural reserve to confront widespread condescension. By fighting back, and arguing his case with words and goals, Owen has developed a new purpose, and placed a fresh shine on a career that he insists is no slow obituary.
"I was born to score goals, I feel. How I score them -- how I get the ball into the back of the net -- might have changed. The actual ability of what I was born to do will never leave me," he says. "I used to be able to create a lot for other people, move defences all over the park, make great diagonal runs into channels, turn and beat players. I can't do that as much as I used to be able to. But what I've done is refine my game to be more clever, get into different positions, be more instinctive around the box."
The less he plays for Manchester United, the more startling Owen's contributions when his name is called and he reminds us who he really is. Two goals -- the second, a pearl -- at Leeds on Tuesday night started the first of two debates about lost England stars. Twenty-four hours after he had scored for the 11th time in only 12 starts for United since October 2009, another Owen -- Hargreaves -- returned from the wilderness with a redemptive hit for Manchester City.
If both were fit, Hargreaves would be the more likely to catch Fabio Capello's eye because Owen has been exiled by the England manager. Stranded on 40 international goals and 89 caps, he says: "I was in every squad for over a decade and all of a sudden it stopped one day. I would never turn my back on it, but obviously there's a scar there that still hurts a bit. But I don't get upset now when I'm not in the squad, like I used to. If I got a call-up I'd be there within five minutes.
"Fabio Capello picked his first squad and I was on the bench. I thought: 'This might be a sign that he doesn't fancy me'. The next time I wasn't in the squad. I think he came to watch me twice in a year when I was at Newcastle, both times at the Emirates. Arsenal were one of the best teams in the league. We got tonked and whoever was the striker for Newcastle away at Arsenal wasn't going to get too many touches, so I did feel a bit sorry for myself at that point."
But Owen's immediate priority is to force his way into a Manchester United side overflowing with attacking talent. At Liverpool for a time he grappled with Robbie Fowler and Emile Heskey for a starting shirt and Real Madrid brought new struggles with Ronaldo and Raul. Now he laughs at the sheer scale of competition at United, where Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Dimitar Berbatov and increasingly Danny Welbeck block his path.
"In many ways that's what harms your chances of a place -- the fact that we are so bloody good. The strikers are just fabulous. No matter where you look there are world-class players, and they're a good range of ages, virtually every type of striker. It's one position where we're particularly well off. Even at 31 I'm enjoying learning how different people play and how you can play along side them. That's the positive."
The negative, though, is frustration: battening down the desperate urge to play more regularly. After the Carling Cup tie at Leeds, Owen admits he left the pitch not expecting to start yesterday. "You've got to enjoy the good days, haven't you? It's nice to remind people you're still on this planet and that you can do it still at this top level."
On Twitter and elsewhere he has quashed the most persistent of the allegations aimed in his direction. The main claim is that he joined United for money when he might by now have signed for a lower-ranked club where he would play every week. This brings out his best debating skills.
"I joined Twitter and you read a lot of the comments. You're biting your lip and you want to reply but you know a headline will be made from it and you don't want to give people the satisfaction. It's obvious I've had a good career and earned money. The last thing I thought I'd be accused of by going to Manchester United was doing it for money.
"I could have gone to lots of other clubs and earned more. The attraction from Man Utd's end was that they could get a free transfer and use their name and their ability to win trophies to attract players such as me. That's where they've got an advantage, where they wouldn't have to pay bigger wages.
"At other clubs a wealthy investor might have to pay twice as much as everyone else because if they don't they won't get the player. My situation is the opposite. I've been attracted to the club by the players, by the manager, the ability to win things. Money is not the motivation. I've had a great career. I've done really well. My management company [the Wasserman Media Group] concluded the deal with United in hours. That shows you. I wanted to play under the manager and in a fantastic team."
Owen has started 16 times since his free transfer in July 2009 and appeared 33 more times as substitute, scoring on 16 occasions. Defying expectation, Alex Ferguson renewed Owen's contract this year, citing his professionalism and influence on United's younger players.
"I can't find him a regular place in the team at the moment but what I've always said about Michael Owen is that if you need a goal out of nothing there is no one better, and I think that is still the case," his manager said. "He's just got a gift for it. His attitude is excellent. He's a good professional and a good presence to have around the dressing room."
Ferguson likes to be surrounded by allies and Owen has become an adopted Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs though he resists this characterisation: "Naturally I'm quite laid-back, more shy than outgoing, so I wouldn't say I'm good at pressing myself on people and taking them to one side and telling them what to do.
"I'm probably like Scholesy and Giggs in many ways, so I'm always there if people have got anything to say or ask. We lost a lot of players of that ilk. It's only really Giggsy, me and Rio [Ferdinand] from that generation. I think I'm the third oldest there, which is bloody frightening."
He peers down the age scale and sees Hernandez, a player in his own image. "He's a great example to kids. If you just watch him, he works hard. In terms of playing the game a lot of people compare our styles. I don't think he's like me when I was young, he's a better version of me now. We're both that type of predatory player but he's got legs that are 10 years younger, so he can do it faster.
"Chicho does his fair share outside the box but he really comes alive inside it. Even though I scored a lot in there when I was younger, the one thing you associate me with is the goal against Argentina [in the 1998 World Cup]. I could get wide, I could run at people, I could beat players, cross the ball for others. The older I've got the more I've defined my style and played more as a penalty-box player. He's a sharper version of me now."
Change is a favourite theme in his autumn years and it's here that he is at his most insistent: "The way I look at myself, the biggest achievement in my eyes -- forget winning trophies or scoring in World Cups -- is that I'm still at a top club playing at a really high standard having been almost two different players. When you look around, Paul Scholes used to be a centre midfielder and score goals regularly, bombing in, late runs, headers, great finishing. Look at him in the last two years of his career. He was still one of the world's best, but doing a totally different job. When you lose half a yard of pace you have to refine your game."
At Elland Road, Ferguson admitted: "He's not getting the games he deserves and that's unfortunate," and there is no escaping the sheer strangeness of his predicament, which was the talk of the industry this week. He wrestles with it too: "At Liverpool for a while I was one of the first names on the team-sheet, and the same with England after France '98. There was a bit of a change in Madrid -- though one of my pet hates is people asking why it didn't go well in Spain.
"People think I never started a game. As it happens, I started about 20 games and came on in 18 and scored a lot of goals, had a great time out there. Then I came back to Newcastle as the star signing and was in the team every time again. At Man United it's just that there's a mass of world-class players."
Which was part of the attraction. "No disrespect to other teams but when you're training every single day with top, top players, your level doesn't really come down," he says, explaining his ability to locate scoring form after long spells on the margins. "For all that people talk about injuries I've been pretty fit at United. I've had a problem at the end of the first season and couple of little ones in the second, but I haven't had problems that have kept me out for months and months. I'm normally always there and on my toes and training with the lads.
"You've got Rooney and Berbatov and Welbeck's fit now as well. I'm looking really at the next Carling Cup and Champions League games. So it's definitely a different mental state, but it doesn't change having that hunger to play all the time.
"The difficult bit is explaining to people who say: 'You're just happy to play out your career there,' -- that I'm not. I want to play on, I don't want to drop down leagues but I want to play on for a few more years. My absolute ideal is to play where I'm playing, because it doesn't get any better. But I'm not stupid, I know one of the best players in the world plays up front, with world-class players in behind. I've got great respect for the manager and I know he respects me as well."
With England and United, you might call him some days an exile on Main Street, but in word and deed he is still fighting his way back in.
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