Football is full of tales of players who are immeasurably talented, but have been waylaid off the path to success by the miserable scourge of injuries. But even among those, there are few which have taken a player to dizzying heights early in his career, only to let him down later, and make him wake every morning wishing it were those days again. One such player of that ill-fated lot, a real revelation when he first burst on to the scene, and the only Liverpool player to have ever won the European player of the year award, is Michael James Owen.
Hailing from a footballing family where his father, Terry Owen was a former professional footballer, Michael grew up an Everton fan. However, he was just 12 when he became eligible to sign a schoolboy contract with a professional football club; and with Chelsea, Arsenal and Malaga keen on him, he still signed for Liverpool, Everton’s Merseyside rivals. While Owen could not have guessed in his wildest dreams that he would go on to score over a 150 goals for the cheering Kop, it was a decision that was almost immediately vindicated with Liverpool getting Owen to attend the FA’s school of excellence in Lilleshall.
Owen made quick strides at the Liverpool academy, and was soon in contention for a first team spot, with a great season capped by a starring role in the ’96 FA youth cup victory over a West Ham side featuring the likes of Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand. An injury to first team striker Robbie Fowler, saw Owen immediately promoted to the first team, signing his first professional contract just a few days after his 17th birthday.
In his first full season at Liverpool, Michael Owen scored 18 goals, ending up as joint top scorer of the league, and winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award. The season saw Michael Owen score two hat-tricks, one each in the League and League Cup, and even score in European competition; not bad for a 17 year old playing his very first season as a professional. The next season, ’98-’99, Michael scored even more goals for Liverpool, 23 in all. More significantly however, he injured his hamstring in a game against Leeds United on 12th April, 1999.
The road to recovery was slow for Owen, as he faced long spells on the sidelines in the following season, but still managed to score 12 goals for Liverpool. The injury problems were so severe that Owen even received help from Bayern Munich’s team doctor, Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt. This helped Owen get his career back on track with a great showing in the 2000 – ’01 season, scoring a total of 24 goals for Liverpool, helping them win the League Cup, FA Cup, and UEFA Cup treble. Etched in the memories of Liverpool’s faithful, in spite of his later career at Manchester United, will be ‘The Cup of Michael Owen’, in which Arsenal found themselves beaten to the FA Cup by two Michael Owen strikes when they seemingly had the trophy in their grasp.
The victories qualified Liverpool for the Charity Shield, and the UEFA Super Cup, both of which Liverpool won, and both of which featured goals by Michael Owen. The world took note of this prolific talent, who was, and would remain to be Liverpool’s top scorer in every season he played for them since ’98. Owen became the first Liverpool player to win the European Footballer of the Year award. He also became the first Premier League player to win the World Soccer Player of the Year award, and remains to be the only Englishman to do so.
Two more stellar seasons followed for Owen, where he scored 28 goals in each, yet only won a League Cup. The team’s capitulation in the title race saw Gerard Houllier being replaced as the manager of the club, and with it, speculation rose of Michael Owen moving away from Liverpool. Owen even dropped to the bench in a couple of European games to avoid being cup-tied for his new club, which turned out to be Spanish giants Real Madrid.
At Madrid, competition for spots was intense, and a slightly slow start saw Owen being heavily criticised and confined to the bench. Owen, however, made the most of his opportunities in cup games to claw his way back into the Madrid squad, and with it, scored 16 goals overall in his lone season at Madrid. The arrival of Robinho heralded the exit of Owen, who returned to English football with Newcastle United.
Arriving for a club-record fee, Michael Owen suffered a thigh injury in pre-season, ruling him out for a few weeks. While some of the Liverpool fans would still have desperately hoped for him to return, especially when he scored a “Perfect” hat-trick against West Ham United, all such hopes were almost immediately dashed by a broken metatarsal bone in a game against Tottenham. The recovery did not go well at all for Owen, who only made one more appearance for Newcastle that season.
Owen’s luckless streak continued as he damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the very first minute of England’s first world cup game of ’06, against Sweden. This ruled Owen out for close to a year, and sparked a furious row between Newcastle United, and the FA & FIFA. While Newcastle were finally compensated in the field of £10m in total, the damage to Michael Owen was immeasurable.
Where once there was mindless blistering pace, injury replaced with doubt, hesitancy, and inability. Where once offside traps meant nothing but a line to break through, injury forced tactical reassessment. And where once defenders scrambled in fear, injury saw tough, unforgiving defending. Michael Owen was no longer the same beast that had terrorised defences across England.
More injuries followed, a double hernia here, a thigh strain there, and they all took their toll. Owen remained at Newcastle for two further miserable years, and while he scored 13 and 10 goals overall respectively, Newcastle were finally relegated from the Premier League. This prompted speculation over Newcastle offering Owen to other clubs though he only had weeks left on his contract, and he finally declared that he would not be re-signing with the club. This left Owen a free agent, and one with no future, according to a Daily Express report, which was fined for defamation.
Interest did arrive, and how. A call from someone who is considered the best manager to have ever walked the earth would have least been expected by Owen, but when it came, he jumped at it. Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson knew they were taking a huge gamble when they brought Owen in. It was a gamble which had its share of glamorous moments, but much of it was further pain for Owen, as he suffered another hamstring problem. Soon after recovery, Owen suffered a thigh injury. It was no wonder then that he had signed as pay-as-you-play deal.
It is magical, however, that United fans will never forget that Michael Owen goal against Manchester City. The one in ‘Fergie time’, as many would call it, but no United fan would care. And thus it is that Owen, whose profession seems to have become tweeting hopeful messages, and being at the receiving end of trolls, may probably never play professional football again.
But memories they will never take away from him.