Premier League: The Decline of Michael Owen
England's France '98 World Cup campaign is memorable for one game, which provided two high-profile incidents for two emerging megastars.
In the Round of 16 knockout match with Argentina, a precocious and established 23-year-old named David Beckham petulantly kicked out at Diego Simeone, earning a red card that is still blamed as a reason for the Three Lions' exit.
Thirty minutes before that forgettable moment, an 18-year-old named Michael Owen glided past several Argentinean defenders to score one of the greatest individual goals in England history.
That game was a springboard for one England hero and the source of much hatred and regret for another.
Fast-forward fifteen years, however, and the man who was disgraced in France is still enjoying a key role (on and off the field) in that same country, in a side tipped for European triumph in the coming years.
The striker who is four years his junior, on the other hand, is in danger of slipping into obscurity.
Michael Owen, now 33, has started just one game for Stoke City this season—an FA Cup match against Crystal Palace in which he lasted 52 minutes. After recovering from a thigh injury, the former England star was hoping to be involved in Stoke's 2-1 defeat at St James Park on Sunday. Disappointingly, he made his sixth appearance of the season as an unused substitute instead.
The man who scored 32 goals for club and country in 2002/03 has bagged a single goal this season.
According to the Daily Mail, Owen could be forced into retirement at the end of this campaign as his contract will not be renewed. Stoke technical director Mark Cartwright is pushing the club towards a strategy based around youth and foreign talent, while Tony Pulis has become a firm believer in sourcing players from MLS.
With a squad two years older than the average Premier League squad age last year, the days of English veterans like Peter Crouch and Michael Owen at the Britannia are numbered.
As he recently pointed out in a poorly-received Tweet, Owen "shook the world" in his day. In the campaign following the famous World Cup goal, he scored 18 league goals, winning the Premiership Golden Boot for the second consecutive season.
His annus mirabilis was probably 2000/01, when he guided Liverpool to a treble of FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup victories, becoming the first English European Player of the Year since Kevin Keegan in 1979.
That season he caught the attention of Galáctico-hunting Real Madrid, where he eventually teamed up with fellow countryman and France '98 villain David Beckham in 2004.
His season-long stint in Spain did produce 18 goals, but patchy form and a little too much bench-warming appeared to signal the start of his decline.
Injuries that had always peppered his career started to seriously impede his minutes on the field. He missed virtually all of the 2006/07 season with Newcastle after suffering a heartbreaking knee ligament injury minutes into a World Cup match with Sweden.
With Manchester Utd, he was ruled out for months after pulling a hamstring in the 2010 League Cup Final in which he had scored the equalizing goal.
In the following two seasons with the Red Devils, he started just one Premier League game: a trip to Sunderland in which he lasted 45 minutes.
According to Opta, last season with Manchester Utd he played only 2.3 percent of his side's possible league minutes. This term, he has played 2.5 percent.
A player who was once known for having an affable personality—and whose Soccer Skills TV show was essential viewing for myself and my peers growing up—is also losing stock off the field.
His contributions to punditry are not exactly revered. His aforementioned Twitter battle with a member of the military and frequent posting of his own trophy cabinet have drawn out a petty and unlikable side of his character.
Of course, by most accounts Owen is one of the more agreeable players in the game personality-wise, and has been desperately unlucky with injury.
After all, an unfortunate lack of fitness throughout the years is surely the primary catalyst for his decline.
Sadly, an injury-plagued striker who has managed a combined 143 minutes of playing time in the past two seasons seems unlikely to be picked up by another major club if his contract is not renewed. Perhaps he will try his luck in an emerging league, or take a role at Chester City FC, his local side when growing up. Maybe he will leave the public eye to indulge his passion for horse racing.
Whichever path he chooses, Owen shall not be forgotten as the man who "shook the world" in his day.
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