Growing Old with Michael Owen
After bursting onto the scene with that goal against Argentina, the stand-out moment of my first World Cup, Michael Owen will always be a reminder of that early, unconditional love of football.
It was an act of instinctive, free-wheeling brilliance from the teenager, as he breezed past a couple of defenders before slamming the ball into the top corner.
Here was a superstar-in-waiting, whose slight form and boyish features held the promise of eternal youth.
Yet this was arguably as good as it ever got. Owen burned brightly for a while longer, though never with the same effortless intensity as he did that summer. He peaked so soon and so spectacularly that everything after has carried the distinct air of underachievement.
Like many others back then I invested too much hope in Owen, and the boundless possibilities he seemed to represent, that he couldn't possibly succeed. Even so, adjusting to the inevitable failure has been hard, like the shedding of another childhood illusion.
An even more difficult adjustment is on the horizon, however, as his retirement date approaches. Is there life beyond Owen? It's an issue I've never had to confront before, so closely do his years as a professional align with my interest in the game.
He's simply always been there, his ageless smile looking out from a box of Sporties cereal, Total Action Football (a bastardized version of Subbuteo where the players had magnetic bases) or an episode of Hero to Zero, his short-lived kids' TV show. Don't judge me, I didn't know any better.
On a personal level I still feel an affection for Owen—images of him in full flight providing an almighty Proustian rush—but for the public at large the relationship has soured somewhat.
There's a sense that he's responsible for falling short of our own heady expectations, that greed or disinterest diminished his impact over time. The extent to which he downed tools as Newcastle slid unwittingly towards relegation is difficult to gauge, the view commonly held among the club's supporters rather less so.
His well-publicized fondness for horse racing has also led to accusations that football was no more than a source of money with which to fuel his true passion. The suspicion of many was only strengthened when Owen chose to remain at Manchester United despite falling even further down the pecking order.
He was reduced to a virtual watching brief in his final two seasons yet showed no sign of frustration, only abject acceptance. His stated preference was for a marginal role among the elite over toiling along at a lesser side.
In truth, lasting damage to his ambitions had been done much earlier, a succession of hamstring injuries depriving him of the blistering pace that was his greatest asset.
What made him the Premier League's poster child was gone and, as Owen was becoming less suited to playing off the shoulder of the centre-back, the role itself was becoming obsolete at the very top level anyway. The best teams wanted strikers who could do more than just score goals, involving themselves in build-up play and defending from the front.
While still recognisably the same fresh-faced whelp he'd always been, Owen would never be the same player again.
Driven by physical limitations and the need to change style, he dropped deeper than ever before under Kevin Keegan to stave off a creeping ineffectiveness. From the move to Old Trafford onwards he's been trading on an illustrious past, when we dreamed of something better than his career fading to a close as Stoke City's fifth-choice striker.
It wasn't supposed to end this way.
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