Thursday 19 September 2019

'When players kiss the badge I reach for the sick bucket...'

After his row on social media with Alan Shearer, Michael Owen tells Chris Bascombe why club loyalty is overhyped

For all Michael Owen’s contentious transfers, the truly defining moment of his career was the torn hamstring that erased his superpower pace aged 24. Photo: Getty
For all Michael Owen’s contentious transfers, the truly defining moment of his career was the torn hamstring that erased his superpower pace aged 24. Photo: Getty

Chris Bascombe

Michael Owen is settling into his role as deliverer of home truths and slayer of local heroes when a brutal but depressing observation is put to him.

It cuts to the heart of why, after his social media row with Alan Shearer, no cavalry charge followed him. "None of the fans of clubs you played for love you."

In the spirit of his second autobiography, 'Reboot', Owen shoots back like a free-scoring 17-year-old.

"I'm not bothered," he says. "I would like to be liked rather than disliked but nowadays I have had so much criticism, whether it be through punditry, through football and moving to a different team, those thoughts are long gone. I am what I am.

''People might see more of the real person now but I do not need to prove to anyone they should like me. Circumstances in my career dictated how people view you. Not many people actually know me."

The latest memoir addresses that, 39-year-old Owen therapeutically rationalising career-defining moments.

After becoming a teenage superstar in Saint-Etienne in the 1998 World Cup there is a sense of exasperation the Ballon d'Or-winning striker for Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United fends off so much disapproval. Mutual affection eludes him.

"I will never be a John Terry, Frank Lampard, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs because at some point in my career I thought the Real Madrid move (in 2004) is so tempting I have to give it a go," says Owen.

"That made me beholden to where my career took me. The club I first played for (Liverpool) is the one I have a real affinity to. What I struggle with is the fact that if some people had the same opportunity they would have done exactly the same. They will forever be viewed as loyal, players who would run through a brick wall, and it is a load of rubbish.

"I could have written two books and been even more hard-hitting because I know how it was with some people - I mentioned one on Twitter the other day - and could say a lot more. I can accept being viewed as I am. What makes my blood boil is the adulation some are held in and you think, 'Oh my God, if only you knew.'"

It is no surprise that Owen finds the idea of loyalty in football over-hyped, especially when seeing players kiss their badge.

"I reach for the sick bucket. Listen, I did it when I scored in the FA Youth Cup against Crystal Palace because I had seen my heroes do it. When I used my brain and was more informed I realised it was just for the fans."

The flaw in Owen's argument is that, regardless of whether those idols considered leaving the cities where they are legends, they did not.

And while many of his generation showed their true personality on and off the field, Owen was micro-managed to such extremes his advisers had a vote around the family table on whether he should join Newcastle. Owen voted "no" but still went. Had he presented himself more honestly would such a "reboot" be needed after retirement?

"Three or four of things I have said, I could never have said as a player," says Owen. "I can't sign for Manchester United and say two weeks later that I was on the phone to the Liverpool manager, can I?

"When I signed for Newcastle and I went onto the pitch. Jim White interviewed me in front of 25,000 Geordies and the first thing he does is stick a microphone in my face and say, 'We all know you wanted to play for Liverpool - how do you feel about being here?'

"Everyone knew I wanted to go home. I don't need to ram that down the Geordies' face. They pay me a wage, I'm their new star signing. I can't say that."

All true, but it is the broader perception which caused damage as much as the more sensitive details - of Owen being robotic and following a choreographed career plan in which clubs seemed a means to an end.

"A lot of that is down to who you are represented by. Coincidentally it was the same agent as Alan Shearer," says Owen. "He (Tony Stephens) was fiercely protective and I found that out later. When I look back I think, 'Jeez! He's made me look whiter than white.'

"You have to understand I was a pup when I got into the first team. I didn't need to think about what image I needed. I was just thinking about who am I going to bloomin' score against next. You have to trust the people around you. They are the experts in different fields."

For most on the Kop there was no way back after he joined Manchester United in 2009.

"As soon as I joined Man United that obviously tipped an extra few over the edge. I would still suggest that the absolute majority respect me. I get it. I totally get it. This is why I did the book, to explain - but a lot of it was unavoidable."

For all the contentious transfers, the truly defining moment was the torn hamstring that erased Owen's superpower pace aged 24. He was never the same again.

"I was wired to be the best. For the first half of my career I was right up there and got to the top, and then in the second half it hurt me massively mentally," he says.

"I was running at bang average players who I would eat for breakfast for the first six years of my career and thinking, 'I am not fast enough or strong enough.'

"It did not put me off football. I adore the game. But playing and thinking like that caused mental anguish."

There is enough in the book to suggest that anguish has not completely gone, the former global superstar now seeking understanding rather than goals. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport