There’s a joke doing the rounds regarding today’s announcement that Michael Owen will retire from football at the end of the season. As the line goes: “I thought he’d retired three years ago.
Those engaged in this kind of schadenfreude clearly have short memories. Certainly Owen was a player who became marginalised in his twilight years at Manchester United and, now, Stoke City. In the end he became a victim of his own style, which cruelly went out of fashion.
As defences moved ever deeper – thanks to continued tweaking of the offside rule – and the two-man strikeforce became all but obsolete, Owen’s off-the-shoulder approach to goalscoring grew more or less redundant.
His greatest strength was always finding that elusive yard of space in which to tuck away a trademark finish. Eventually, the space closed in on him and the goals, inevitably, dried up.
But to dwell on this coda of Owen’s career would be to do a disservice to one of England’s greatest ever goalscorers.
Far better to remember him for those exhilarating moments when he had a nation – and it was for England that he reached his most thrilling heights – not so much on the edge of its seat as collectively jumping up and down in their own living rooms.
That incredible, impish sashay through the heart of an experienced Argentina defence in 1998 was the first genuinely world-class goal England supporters had witnessed in a generation.
The country seemed to take a collective sigh of anxiety, as Owen nipped the ball away from Paul Scholes’ toe to clip a shot back across goal. We needn’t have worried. The finish nestled beautifully in the top corner and the 18-year-old with the schoolboy smile and the coolest of heads had arrived on the world stage.
Elsewhere, there was the exquisite, quick-as-a-flash flick and finish against Brazil at Wembley in 2000. In two touches, and what felt like one seamless movement, Owen flummoxed Roberto Carlos, no less, with a world-class drag-back, before arrowing a smart finish into the bottom corner of the net.
The famous hat-trick a year later against Germany, in a World Cup qualifier in Munich, was spectacular, of course. But more than that it underlined Owen’s rapacious reliability in front of goal at that time in his career.
During that purple patch either side of the new millennium, when Owen went through on goal he scored. Simple as that.
For Liverpool, a memorable night in the Stadio delle Alpi in Rome in February 2001 will live long in the memory too. The Reds faced Roma – at that time European heavyweights and leaders of a strong Serie A – in the first leg of a 4th round UEFA Cup tie, with Owen a major fitness doubt having missed the previous eight games.
Owen not only started but scored a devastating second-half double which pretty much secured his status as Europe’s No 1 striker. He was 21 years of age at the time.
Since then, the years, and the public, have been less and less kind. An ill-fated period at Real Madrid – which nonetheless resulted in 13 goals from 13 starts – began a decline which took in an injury-hit spell with Newcastle, a bit-part role at Man United and now, finally, a closing chapter at Stoke.
Fans who laugh at him now have, at various points in his career, questioned his commitment, his professional choices and his failure to adapt to the modern game.
But for the rest of us, the slurs can’t touch his legacy as the star of England’s golden generation who took on, and beat, the world on our behalf.
Owen was the boy wonder who went, in his own words, “from those freezing local parks to terrorising the best defenders in the world.
Now that really is a story worth smiling about.