Crocked and dream­ing

Michael Owen ad­mits age and in­juries have taken their toll but he re­mains de­ter­mined to go out at the top.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FOOTBALL - By DANIEL TAY­LOR

THE tone was set on the open­ing night of the sea­son. The first game is al­ways a spe­cial day for foot­ball peo­ple. But when Sir Alex Fer­gu­son an­nounced his team, for one per­son in the Manch­ester United dress­ing room, there was noth­ing but crush­ing dis­ap­point­ment. Wayne Rooney and Dim­i­tar Ber­ba­tov were in from the start; fair enough. Javier Hernán­dez, the new sign­ing, and Fed­erico Macheda were among the sub­sti­tutes, but there was no room for Michael Owen ( pic) – no place in the 18 for the man once re­garded as the most dev­as­tat­ing fin­isher in the sport.

He has grown wearily ac­cus­tomed to watch­ing foot­ball in a club suit, but it never gets eas­ier. In to­tal, he has made only six starts for Manch­ester United in the Premier League, and 14 in to­tal, since mov­ing from New­cas­tle United 16 months ago. They are the kind of statis­tics to prompt le­git­i­mate ques­tions of whether this is a man be­ing shunted to the edges. But Owen in­sists he is set­tled, that he wants to stay and will get more job sat­is­fac­tion from the odd game at Old Traf­ford than he would, say, from play­ing reg­u­larly for a club in the bot­tom half of the league.

Two months away from turn­ing 31, he is also acutely aware that leav­ing United would mean his ca­reer head­ing one way: down. Owen had a mis­er­able time at New­cas­tle. He will al­ways be grate­ful to Sir Alex Fer­gu­son for of­fer­ing him an­other chance to win a league win­ners’ medal when the rest of English foot­ball had vir­tu­ally turned its back on him, and there is only one moment when he ex­presses any­thing re­motely ap­proach­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion with his cur­rent em­ployer.

It is when he is asked why Fer­gu­son has been so re­luc­tant to part­ner him with Rooney when it once worked so well for Eng­land. His body lan­guage changes im­me­di­ately: guarded, wary, look­ing for the right words. He knows the an­swer, he says, be­cause the man­ager has ex­plained it to him, but he does not feel like he should talk about it. Later, he adds to the in­trigue by say­ing it is not a tac­ti­cal de­ci­sion, though he will not be pushed fur­ther. Fer­gu­son’s pref­er­ence is for Rooney to part­ner Ber­ba­tov, though Hernán­dez’s blis­ter­ing form is threat­en­ing the or­der, while he is un­wa­ver­ing in his be­lief that the 19-year-old Fed­erico Macheda will even­tu­ally be a hero of Old Traf­ford. Owen now seems to be fifth in line, re­gard­less of all those goals from a glo­ri­ous past. The in­juries, by his own ad­mis­sion, have taken their toll. “They had taken some­thing away by the time I was 21, to be hon­est. At 18 to 20, I was prob­a­bly one of the quick­est things around, at the peak of my pow­ers. But what can you do? I can play dif­fer­ent ways now. I can link play bet­ter now, I can do things I couldn’t do when I was younger. And you never lose the in­stinct of be­ing a goalscorer, of know­ing where the ball is go­ing to drop. It can just take a bit longer to get into that po­si­tion now.” In Jan­uary he would be six months from the end of his con­tract and free to speak to other clubs. “It’s a ques­tion for the man­ager re­ally, but if you ask my opin­ion I would love to stay. I never thought I would start ev­ery game when I joined the club and I have never com­plained about any­thing.

“Hon­estly, I’ve loved it here. I signed a two-year con­tract, I’m only 60% into that and hope­fully we will talk (about ex­tend­ing it) be­fore the end of the sea­son.”

Gérard Houl­lier, his for­mer man­ager at Liver­pool, is said to be keen to take him to As­ton Villa. Liver­pool, too, have been linked with their for­mer player. There would be no short­age of po­ten­tial suit­ors but Owen feels Old Traf­ford is the sort of place where he be­longs.

“I won’t drop down the leagues and whether I would even want to drop down to a poorer Premier League team … I don’t know. Yes, I could score goals, but I would prob­a­bly get less op­por­tu­ni­ties and less en­joy­ment.

“I think I’d rather play less and train with top play­ers, rather than play­ing ev­ery minute of ev­ery game, get­ting three or four touches and not en­joy­ing it.”

There have been dif­fi­cult mo­ments with United, though. The time, for ex­am­ple, when he scored a hat-trick at Wolsf­burg in the Cham­pi­ons League but was dropped for the next match.

“But I’m 30, I have been around and I un­der­stand how it works. I am not go­ing to kid my­self be­cause I know that if I were fit and scored a hat-trick in the next two or three games, Wayne would still come back into the team when he is fit again. I know I am not as good as him. Maybe 10 years ago you could ar­gue I was – but not now.

“This sea­son, too, I scored two against Scun­thorpe (in the Car­ling Cup). The next game I was on the bench but came on and scored and then the next game we played, at Va­len­cia, we used three strik­ers (even with Rooney left at home) and I was an un­used sub.”

Owen comes armed with his own statis­tic, one that says he has scored in ev­ery 111 min­utes he has been on the pitch. Hernán­dez is the only other striker at Old Traf­ford with a more pro­lific record.

“He’s a goalscorer; you can see it in his eyes,” Owen, an am­bas­sador for BT Chat for Chil­dren, says of the Mex­i­can. “It’s hard to ex­plain this with­out fear of it be­ing taken the wrong way, but it’s still early days, and who knows what will hap­pen? But he’s got some­thing. He knows how to score goals, he knows how to get in the po­si­tions.” Does he re­mind him of any­one? “My­self, prob­a­bly.” This in­ter­view fin­ishes on a sub­ject that makes him wince far more than talk of his game-time: his ham­string. On Fri­day, in the last minute of train­ing, Owen at­tempted a back-heel to John O’Shea and felt a sharp, fa­mil­iar pain. He will be out for four weeks, po­ten­tially missing seven games. “I just want to get fit again and play­ing and I’m sure I can score goals at this level for a long time.” – Guardian News & Me­dia 2010

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