A disclaimer before I begin: I’m a Michael Owen fan.
I’m of an age that means that I was just starting to be aware of football, and starting to play football when Owen was at his peak. The first football match I can ever remember seeing on TV? Germany vs England, in Munich. He was pretty good that day, along with fellow Liverpool players Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey.
When I watched the Premier League highlights after that, I looked out for that same contingent – especially Owen. So I looked out for Liverpool, who became my team. Given my immediate family weren’t football fans, I had my pick and, if I’m honest, I obviously liked Owen before I liked Liverpool. ‘Liked’ is too weak though; I idolised Owen. My first football shirt? Liverpool, Owen, 10. Where did I play? Striker. First pair of boots? Umbro, like Owen. You get the picture.
After his departure, I looked out for him. I’d see his goals at Real and then when it sounded like he was coming back to the UK, I hoped it would be Liverpool. It wasn’t, and then he went to Manchester United. Not ideal for sure, but understandable to my mind – a chance to play at the highest level again, amongst the best, to try and rekindle the glory years of his career. That the focus of Saturday night’s interview for some appears to have been on his re-assertion that he wanted to return (and thus some kind of cry for sympathy) is a shame.
The interview was likely catharsis for Owen. The reality is we know very little about him, he’s a fiercely private individual whose flame arguably shone brightest around two decades ago. These days, it seems he’s primarily the focus of jokes about his football analysis. But, on Saturday night, we got a fleeting glimpse into Owen’s psyche and he publicly verbalised the difficulties he faced in the latter part of his career. Owen let us into the turmoil he faced, as his body, devastated by injuries, no longer allowed him to play the way that made him great. He told his side of the story, with “disarming honesty” according to his colleague Jake Humphrey, about the latter part of his career that jars so strikingly with the first part. We, football fans across the country (and now across the world), could finally gain an understanding of how one of Liverpool and England’s greatest strikers felt as his career drifted to a seemingly long desired end, as Owen revealed, “I couldn’t wait to retire.”
Owen’s explanation was particularly powerful when one considers the way his physical decline ultimately shaped his career trajectory and how the turmoil he experienced helps to frame some of his most critiqued career decisions. Perhaps at his physical peak whilst still a teenager, and at the peak of his prowess as a footballer by the time he was twenty-two, Owen’s career truly was one of concentrated brilliance, brilliance that was threatened by hamstring issues that had already taken a yard of pace away with Owen still in his early twenties. On Saturday, Owen revealed that he couldn’t stop to bask in its brilliance, always cognisant of the need to press on, and to ask, “Where’s the next trophy, where’s the next goal, where’s the next performance?”
Furthermore, his boyhood club, the club where he rose to superstardom, was going nowhere, having failed to kick on from a treble-winning 2000/01 season and a title challenge the following season. With injuries already having an effect, in possession of a relentless attitude with a focus only on the present and playing for a stagnating club, his departure from Liverpool seems almost an inevitability once the Galacticos came calling. It was a chance to rekindle some of the greatness that was perhaps already starting to fade.
If some Liverpool fans turned against him then for the manner of his departure, more did so when he did not return to the club upon his return to England. Many, many more did so when he went to Manchester United. Stoke City, would follow, and then retirement. One should not doubt the words of the man himself when he states that with his injuries, he “lost everything” on the field. He also lost the love of so many of those who once rooted for him, even adored him. He lost his greatness, both in terms of what he could do on the field and the sort of fan-fuelled greatness he enjoyed as a younger player. He was “average” by the end of his career, and to many is just “a great goalscorer but didn’t really do much else” (his own words). Most stark, was his assertion that “I wasn’t me.” This is most striking when one considers that “me” may well be the eighteen-year-old Owen of St Etienne, before his first hamstring injury. After that, for the best part of fifteen years, Owen was someone else, increasingly unrecognisable and undesirable.
The yearning to rekindle who he once was: the great Michael Owen – the loved Michael Owen – was surely the main motivation of his widely vilified move to Manchester United, with Liverpool out of the picture. Some Liverpool fans would say it was counter-productive if he was desirous of being loved once again but with Liverpool uninterested it was a last shot at the big time – the great Michael Owen’s level. But it generally proved not to be the level of this old Owen, the one who Owen himself seemed to loathe. His mind remained sharp, but his body denied him. To understand his turmoil a little is to understand him a little. Saturday night gave us that.
Perhaps it will lead to a more balanced view of him, to more of us reminding ourselves of his greatness, as well as to remembering how fleeting such greatness can sometimes be. Many fans have been hard, arguably too hard on Owen. Now we know that he was just as hard on himself, if not even more so during those final, lonely years, a world away from where he once was.
Thank you for your honesty, Michael, and for the memories, you gave me and countless others. YNWA.