05 March, 2008

Is Michael Owen Finished?

It’s always sad when someone you remember starting their career already seems to be reaching the end of it, but few cases are as affecting as Michael Owen’s, who last weekend reportedly apologized to his team for fluffing his lines on far too many occasions this year. On paper, his record is pretty staggering; 118 goals in 216 matches for Liverpool between 1997 and 2004 in his prime, as well as 40 international goals for England in 88 matches, making him our fourth highest ranked goal-scorer of all time. In 2001 he also became the first English player in twenty years, and the only Liverpool player ever, to win the European Footballer of the Year award; he scored a hat-trick against Germany in Munich; and of course he scored that goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup aged just 18.

Injuries however have plagued his career since the turn of the new Millenium, with hamstring strains, broken meta-tarsels and suspect knee ligaments keeping him from ever truly recapturing that original electric form he demonstrated week in week out, for Liverpool. A disrupted year in Madrid with Real didn’t help, and upon returning to England in 2005 with Newcastle, all eyes were on him to prove he could still perform at the top level while still relatively young. Several injuries later and his time out of the game extended further meaning that now the natural sharpness has dampened, and let’s be honest, he simply doesn’t have that game-changing pace anymore. The suggestion is that Owen is yet another victim of the so-called old English curse of playing too many competitive games at too young an age, at a pace that few can handle at the peak of their physical fitness. Junior players are consistently trained harder and harder, always with a view to integrating them into the senior side as early as possible, and if sufficient muscle and bone development has yet to take place this can mean a ticking time-bomb throughout their careers.

During his debut professional season, Owen’s raw speed was obviously an asset, but unlike for example Theo Woolcott, he also had sublime finishing ability and a natural predatory sense of positioning around goal. These attributes haven’t left him, but the physicality of Premier League defences is such that you need the full package these days to truly be effective, and he now lacks the speed and strength to compete at this top level. I think it’s safe to say that at least his international career is over, despite somewhat hyperbolic statements from the likes of Kevin Keegan and Ian Wright recently, but this is by no means the end of his footballing career altogether.

It seems that the romance about his past and his famous striker’s instinct were not enough to tempt any of the ‘Big 4’ clubs to take a chance on him after admitting he wanted to leave Real, and this is normally telling, but surely Newcastle’s recent form cannot have helped matters. Confidence around the club is at all time low in recent memory, and you have to feel that in a side with good team-work and assists, such as a Manchester City or an Aston Villa, certainly Owen would look much better than he does now. As is, he is a powerless onlooker in the bizarre fairground ride that is Keven Keegan’s parousia, with the once-mighty Toon Army blunted to the extent that relegation is not outside the realms of possibility this April.

At the end of the day, Michael Owen still has the right professional attitude that catapulted him into the spotlight at just 17, and will always be fully committed to any training programme he is given. If things do get too much for him in the top flight, he should maybe consider dropping down to the Championship as, without doubt, he would finish among the league’s leading goal-scorers. A lot of players always go on about how much they love football, but simply finish playing when unable to cut it in the Premier League any more. If they really loved the game, in it’s purest abstract sense, as much as they say they do, why not drop down a league or two and give themselves more time playing and to potentially gather some experience in a coaching/management role too?

Perhaps to build himself up again, Owen must admit that he isn’t 18 any more and swallow his pride in the Championship to build up confidence through regular experience, but undoubtedly he still has enough time left in his career to make an impact in the Premier League. STT for one would love to see him back at his best, partly because he’s a genuine guy (with 10 GCSEs no-less) who’s never pandered to the whole ‘WAG and bling’ culture of modern footballing morons, but mainly because he’s training to be a helicopter pilot and we think that’s pretty damn cool.