The Blog

Michael Owen Should Have Been Great But Fell Out of Love With Football

Owen could, perhaps should, have been the finest of his generation. Ronaldo instead takes that honour despite also being afflicted by injuries and having issues with stimulating himself on a football pitch. The difference between the pair is Ronaldo is synonymous with greatness whereas Owen just flirted with it.

A friend said he has looked like a lame horse at Cheltenham who can sense his owner loading a shotgun, and now Michael Owen's football career is trotting to an end. Yet rather than be chided, the vast majority of the national press have showered England's fourth-record goalscorer with sycophantic compliments. The BBC appeared intent on becoming the fifth outfit to sign him, Oliver Holt defended the striker from a parody account and Owen was hailed as "the finest of his generation". It is easy to mock Owen for being a perma-crock, for the eight films in his life he has seen and generally being boring, but it is his lack of motivation which is the greatest gripe.

Owen could, perhaps should, have been the finest of his generation. Ronaldo instead takes that honour despite also being afflicted by injuries and having issues with motivating himself on a football pitch. The difference between the pair is Ronaldo is synonymous with greatness whereas Owen just flirted with it.

From Chester whippersnapper to Stoke benchwarmer, his 16-year career is split into two halves, with the downfall beginning with that £16m transfer to Newcastle United. Owen's peak years between 1997 and 2001, when he terrorised Argentina and Germany, won an FA Cup almost single-handedly and lifted more silverware with Liverpool, were enthralling. Continental recognition came via the Ballon d'Or when he became the first English recipient of the accolade since Kevin Keegan wowed West Germany with Hamburg. From Mighty Mouse to Speedy Gonzalez.

The obvious moments - St Etienne in 1998, Munich in 2001 - overawe the subtler yet arguably classier acts, such as the burst and dink at Crystal Palace and his first-half evisceration of Newcastle in 1998, which drew genuine gasps of astonishment. The pace at which he moved belied the composure with which he finished.

Only he was hamstrung - literally - with one tear at Leeds keeping him out for five months and the pace never returned. The finishing did - as evidenced during England's Bavarian hegemony - but Owen had lost his aura as well as his speed. Once the England player schoolboys mimicked at lunchtime, he had been replaced by Wayne Rooney five years after his international debut.

Liverpool fans had already quietly begun to have doubts, too. As one Scouser said, after the 1998 World Cup he was England's Michael Owen, rather than Liverpool's Michael Owen. Post-match interviews included references to an upcoming England game and there was his vocal appreciation for Emile Heskey over Robbie Fowler. Heskey, a bumbling striker, complemented Owen better than Fowler, only Fowler was known as "God" on the Kop and Owen wasn't one of his disciples.

That his 2004 transfer to Real Madrid, one of the biggest and most romantic clubs in world football, amounts to a footnote in his career is further evidence of the post-Anfield malaise. He could have returned to L4 in 2005 but peculiarly opted for Tyneside. Manchester United were linked with him too but the prospect filled supporters with dread. It was the era of the Gallowgate Galacticos, and Owen was a vanity project which had little chance of succeeding.

"Where were you in Istanbul?" Liverpool fans asked him when he returned to Anfield on Boxing Day that year. Owen was useful for Newcastle until he broke his metatarsal days later, which signalled the beginning of the end. Just like at Liverpool, England came first and he played at the 2006 World Cup despite not resembling anything close to full fitness. He even played in a B Team game to prove to the blinkered Sven-Göran Eriksson he should go to Germany and unfortunately, his last World Cup ended with a cruciate ligament injury against Sweden, as he featured for Newcastle only three times the next campaign.

Owen remained on Tyneside until 2009 although he was rarely there. He commuted via helicopter from his Cheshire home and his association with horse racing was growing. A tweeter informed me he was apparently in his Welsh local for one televised match during the club's bid to emerge from the relegation quagmire... watching the horse racing.

When Sir Alex Ferguson, another lover of the equestrine sport, signed Owen in 2009 a faction of United fans were outraged, and his affiliation with Liverpool wasn't even top of the agenda. From maiming Ronny Johnsen, to smugly heckling a 13-year-old to his lack of loyalty, it was chastening that the recently departed Cristiano Ronaldo's number would be given to a player whose advisors sent out a brochure plugging their free agent. Before champions United intervened, Hull, Stoke and Birmingham were interested.

One crucial goal aside, his contribution at United was minimal and he played just 21 times in two seasons - only one of them a Premier League start (he was substituted at half-time). He flukily picked up a Premier League title winner's medal yet displayed more joy at Royal Ascot when Brown Panther, a horse he had bred, triumphed. His greatest sporting passion was on a new kind of turf.

In August last year, he was invited onto Goals on Sunday. A free agent again, he outlined his ideal club.

"I'm wanting to play and eager to start again," he said.

"I just wish the fans on my Twitter account were running the clubs, then I'd sign for anyone I wanted!

"I want to play in the best possible team. If it was local to my house, excellent. I want to play more often, but that's not written in the contract.

"I don't really want to play in the Championship, I know I can still play in the Premier League and can still score goals.

"There's been interest from all corners of the Earth, every nation you can think of - Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey.

"My ideal is the Premier League, I want to play in the Premier League - then it's whoever's the best team, then things like location, the deal, different things will play a part."

He had concocted a club that didn't seem to exist. Stoke are probably not "the best possible team" he could have played for, however they are relatively "local" to Owen's Cheshire residence and his Manor House Stables.

Stoke's interest in Owen was known in June but it took until transfer deadline day for the move to be concluded. Free transfers should never take longer than a matter of days, let alone two months. Owen's circle tellingly admitted he needed to continue earning from football "because he needs money for his horse racing empire at Manor House Stables".

If he hadn't become such a risible figure Owen's decline would be regarded as sad, but he has clocked in more minutes on Match of the Day than on the pitch this season.

As Brian Clough said, if he was a horse he would have been shot long ago.