Michael Owen, a player born with greatness, but always on the fringe of being great


Michael Owen, who has this week announced his retirement at the age of 33, will be remembered above all for two things: scoring arguably England’s greatest ever individual goal against Argentina at the World Cup in France at the age of 18, and that hat trick in September 2001 against Germany, on the way to England’s famous, thumping victory over their old foe, who had never previously lost a World Cup qualifier in their Munich fortress, the former Olympic Stadium. In both matches, Owen put the fear of God into England’s opponents, who were simply unable to cope with his extraordinary velocity and lethal finishing. Of the modern England footballer at his peak, surely only Wayne Rooney and Paul Gascoigne have been as unplayable, and Owen remains the only English footballer during the era of the Premier League to win European Footballer of the Year, in 2001.

The England all-time top goal-scoring record looked certain not just to be broken by Owen, but smashed, yet for all his young brilliance, he suffered what is also the curse of the modern England footballer; persistent hamstring problems in his early 20s probably mugged him of a yard of pace, and following his tournament-ending cruciate ligament agony at the World Cup in Germany in 2006, he earned, astonishingly, only nine more caps.  

Liverpool sold him to Real Madrid in 2004, where he was considered one of the Galácticos, along with Beckham, Ronaldo, Zidane and co. Even though his appearances were mostly from the bench, his goals-per-minutes-played ratio was the highest in La Liga for that season. He should have stuck it out at Madrid, where a higher technical and less physical style would have benefitted him and perhaps prevented more injury. Instead he made a surely-inferior move to Newcastle United, and his decline in form took its steepest plunge. 

Despite not having a proven goalscorer with Owen’s record or predatory instincts, Fabio Capello showed little interest in giving Owen another opportunity, and in turn he gradually became peripheral for Newcastle, Manchester United and finally Stoke. Some at this point even asked whether his motivation to stay in the game was nothing other than to collect his pay-packet. A sad end, really, for one who as youngster showed abilities of breathtaking potential; had he been able to develop naturally without the blight of injury, he would surely have become not just an England legend, but joined the pantheon of world greats.

For England fans, Munich will never be forgotten: that surreal scoreboard, Oliver Kahn’s look of stupefied, punch-drunk bewilderment as Michael Owen tore his German defence to ribbons, and his and England’s reveling ecstasy as he completed his ruthlessly magnificent hat-trick. But surely the most indelible image of Michael Owen for an England fan is that brazen 18 year-old gliding unassailably through an Argentinian defence reduced to the role of spectators. After that goal was scored, Jon Champion, the BBC TV commentator, remarked, "Is there nothing beyond this 18 year-old?" Oh, how the answer should have been "no."

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