September 20, 2009. A taut mood blankets the neurotic fans packed inside Old Trafford for the fifty-third Manchester Derby. Wayne Rooney sprints back towards the halfway line to cue up a free kick for a foul conceded by none other than former red turned blue, Carlos Tevez. An irate Mark Hughes paces the touchline, tapping his watch at the fourth official. There were four minutes of stoppage time and the game is in the ninety-fifth minute. Hughes had just witnessed Craig Bellamy intercept a daft pass from Rio Ferdinand and convert it, equalizing the game four seconds from full time. He was happy to settle for a draw and one point.
Rooney lofts the ball into the box. It’s cleared out, but finds its way back to Rooney. He sends it back in. City’s defense converges towards the ball. Michael Owen drops off the defense. The ball is cleared to the feet of Ryan Giggs. Giggs sees a wide-open Michael Owen flailing his arms at the top of the eighteen and delivers a perfectly weighted pass through to his feet. Owen scores, his first inside The Theatre of Dreams and the crowd of 75,066 erupts.
Rewind two months. After an injury-riddled stint at Newcastle, Sir Alex Ferguson snatched up veteran striker Michael Owen as a free agent. Owen’s constant battle with fitness at Newcastle left him with a deal that was largely performance based and his first season at Old Trafford saw him lurking in the shadows of the Red Devils’ unstoppable number ten, Wayne Rooney.
Having to settle for a role of mentoring Sir Alex’s budding young talents, the former England national phenom only tallied nine goals in his thirty-one appearances last season, of which only eleven were starts. So, where does Owen fit in to the current scheme of things in Sir Alex’s potently powerful pecking order for strikers this season? Or does he fit in at all?
Will Owen stay at Old Trafford, or will he be released in the January window?
After coming on in the seventy-first minute against Bolton in September, it only took Owen three minutes to find the back of the net and salvage two points for the Red Devils. That performance, coming only four days after scoring a brace in the Carling Cup clash with Scunthorpe, combined with his trademark off the bench heroics, earned him a bench seat for the Champions League game against Valencia. Owen wasn’t used in that game, though it lead to a start three days later in the Premiere League clash against Sunderland on October second.
After barely touching the ball at all in the first 45, and a rather bland performance by Manchester United as a whole, Owen was swapped at the half for United’s leading goal scorer this season, Dimitar Berbatov. It was Michael's last appearance in the first team.
The match ended as a scoreless draw and Owen hasn’t been seen in the first team since. Owen complained of a tight groin, which could have attributed to his early exit from the Sunderland match. After returning to training following that injury Owen’s reliably unreliable hamstrings have taken him back out of the picture for, as he told BBC Radio 5live back in October, “a few weeks.”
Owen has tactfully expressed his frustrations with finding first team playing time, which had peaked the interest of Aston Villa manager, Gerard Houllier, and now most recently Felix Magath of Bundesliga side Schalke. A move that would see him partnered with former Real Madrid strike partner, Raúl, and Dutch hitman, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Though, prior to his recent groin and hamstring setbacks, any rumors of Owen leaving Old Trafford have already been quashed by the United gaffer. As well as Owen himself stating he’d rather ride the bench at a top-notch club than play regular first team football at a lesser club, arguing he’d rather play with top-class players when given the chance than be frustrated with the level of play around him on a regular basis. But will Sir Alex remain patient with the injury-laden striker and continue using him as a mentor to the younger players? His incentive based contract makes him a cost effective asset to the club, allowing Fergie to start him against weaker sides as a mentor to the fielded younger players, while bringing him on as a super-sub in the bigger games.
Or will Sir Alex become frustrated with his unreliable fitness taking up a spot on his limited twenty-five man roster and decide to sell him while there’s market interest? An option that would leave his leading goal scorer, twenty-nine year old Dimitar Berbatov, as the only savvy veteran striker to fill that void. After Berbatov, the next oldest option is Ferguson’s proven golden child, Wayne Rooney. Having just turned twenty-five and extending his contract, Rooney is not known for his patience on the pitch with imperfect delivery and execution from fellow teammates.
So what’s it going to be, Fergie?