And so it ends not with a bang, but with a whimper – a career that has taken Michael Owen to Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle United and Manchester United will make Stoke City its final destination after the former England striker today announced he is to retire from football at the end of the season.
I’m not going to make jokes about him retiring from football years ago (mainly because everybody on Twitter has already done that for me), but there is no doubt that having gone from teenage prodigy to sitting on the bench at the Britannia Stadium every week, a footballing fate I would not wish upon my mortal enemy, Owen’s career fell away in a manner his talent didn’t deserve.
Wind the clock back to May 1997. Radiohead had just released OK Computer, Princess Di was still alive (for a bit longer) and Owen was the great hope of English football. A goal on his Liverpool debut that month, the first of 158 he would score for the club, came aged just 17 as his electric pace and lethal finishing ability quickly made him one of the most feared strikers in the country.
Just over a year later, Owen was scoring THAT goal for England against Argentina at France 98, the most majestic of the 40 he struck for his country in 89 internationals, which included a memorable hat-trick against Germany in Munich. He remains the only English player to score in four major tournaments, and holds the record for most competitive goals for England, 26 strikes. His charisma by-pass made him the perfect England role model, too, and he looked certain to dominate English football and eventually beat Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time scoring record.
But for all that, his club career had peaked by the time he was 24. By that point, he had single-handedly won an FA Cup final against Arsenal with a brace for Liverpool as part of a treble winning season on Merseyside, but hamstring injuries were already taking their toll and when he left Anfield, his performances were in decline.
Singing for the Galacticos of Real Madrid in 2004 looked a good move on paper, but as Jonathon Woodgate will tell you, it doesn’t always work out for English players in the Spanish capital and within a year Owen was back in England, this time at Newcastle in a £16million deal.
It could be argued that anyone who decides to sign for a team managed by Graeme Souness and owned by Freddie Shepherd deserves all that is coming to them, and Owen had a miserable four years on Tyneside, where he showed all the enthusiasm of Neil Ruddock being told he’s having salad for dinner. Owen’s spell was blighted by injury and ended in relegation to the Championship in 2009, and he is about as welcome back at St James’ Park as Andy Gray at the Women’s Institute Christmas bash.
Not that Sir Alex Ferguson had noticed: the Manchester United manager obviously thought it was 2001 when he took Owen on a free transfer. But a winning goal 113 minutes into Fergie time in the Manchester derby apart, Owen’s Old Trafford career was spent in the League Cup playing against lower league no-hopers with young kids and Anderson.
Tony Pulis took a chance on Owen growing about six inches so he could fit in at Stoke, but a solitary goal this season tells its own tale and it is no real surprise that Owen has finally decided to step off the gravy train and get on with something else.
It was Noel Gallagher who so wonderfully described Owen as having the personality of a ‘trainee policeman’, and now that he is hanging up his boots we have to ask what is next for everybody’s favourite straight-laced, cliché ridden, haircut of blandness?
Owen’s love of horse racing is well known, and as an owner of many horses (most notably Brown Panther, which won at Royal Ascot last year) he has spent the last few years more interested in his thoroughbreds than his football. So there will be takers for the 4/1 that he follows in the footsteps of former footballers Mick Channon and Mickey Quinn and becomes a fully-fledged horse trainer.
At the same price, you can back the 4/1 that he becomes a full-time football pundit, but as anyone that has seen him on Match of the Day 2 will testify, this is not necessarily the option that the football watching community will be happy with. And besides, there is only room for one boring, predictable, doesn’t-tell-you-a-thing-you-couldn’t-see-yourself-and-not-as-funny-as-he-thinks-he-is ex-Newcastle striker on the MOTD couch and Alan Shearer boxed that number off years ago.
He is 8/1 to become a football manager (never going to happen), 12/1 to go into horse racing punditry (I think Clare Balding is safe for now) and a cheeky 100/1 to turn his hand to physiotherapy, which would be the equivalent of Charles Bronson opening up a prison.
But whatever Owen does next, he’ll always be remembered as the boring kid next door that was really good at football for a bit.
Thanks for the memories, Michael. Don’t pull a hammy on your way out.