Del Amitri and football are not something that usually mix. Certainly not with any success, anyway (see this example of World Cup pessimism for details). But whilst musing over Michael Owen’s “Eastenders-end-scene” switch to Manchester United this weekend, it was hard to ignore one of Justin Currie’s lyrics.
“It’s hard to say you love someone, and it’s hard to say you don’t”
Football fans tend to be a strange lot, immune from the usual boundaries of love and affection, but still willing to put their heart on the line time and time again. How many times has a promising start to a relationship been soured by a missed penalty, a serious injury, a murky transfer request, a painful departure? How many times have you thought your new £10m striker was “the one”, only to find he was actually El-Hadji Diouf? Or Emile Heskey?
In Owen’s case, things were a little easier. Liverpool fans had heard for years how this wonderkid was tearing up records for our youth team, and leading the charge for England schoolboys simultaneously. We had heard about his electrifying pace, his cold-eyed, surgical nature in front of goal, and the fact that he had a rock-solid personality. We had high hopes.
And then, in May 1997, we saw him. Seventeen years of age, not so much as a whisker adorning his chin, running clear of the Wimbledon defence to latch onto a pass from Stig Inge Bjørnebye, and sidefoot past Neil Sullivan with the panache and confidence that would become his trademark. It was in vain, defeat at Selhurst Park that night extinguished our bid for a title that had looked in the bag at the turn of the year (we famously ended up finishing fourth in a two horse race that season), but a star was very much born, the 1997-98 season was awaited with renewed optimism.
I remember that summer, 1997. All the talk was of one thing. Owen & Fowler. Fowler & Owen. These two strikers would go on to become the greatest partnership ever to wear the red of Liverpool, no doubt. Fowler had scored 31 goals in 1996-97, 36 the year before, 31 the season before that, and 18 in his debut campaign. He already wore the moniker of God as if it had been invented for him, fusing- as the Guardian’s Rob Smyth astutely observed recently- “the mischief of Ferris Bueller with the swagger of Liam Gallagher”. Now he had a sidekick, and not just any sidekick, one with the acceleration, awareness and self-belief to notch goals in any situation, against any defence.
And so we fell in love. We knew Owen had grown up an Evertonian, but then so had Fowler. And McManaman. And Rush. Never bothered us then, why should it concern us now? Especially when the kid was cool enough on his first senior start for the club to convert a penalty, again at Selhurst Park, again against Wimbledon, to earn us an opening day point. A week later his goal earned another draw at Blackburn, and his pace was already causing seasoned defenders to experience a set of emotions ranging from mild discomfort to all-out-distress. All of a sudden Liverpool had the hottest property in world football, and it looked like a marriage made in heaven.
Twenty three goals in his debut season was better than Fowler had managed in an admittedly weaker side four years previously, and his eighteen league strikes earned him a share of the golden boot with Dion Dublin & Chris Sutton (honest). But that spring, something changed with Owen and Liverpool fans. Something happened that really shouldn’t have made us feel the way it did. He made his England debut.
Aged 18 years and 59 days, Owen was the youngest England cap of the 20th century when he turned out against Chile at Wembley, and instantly the public clamour for his inclusion in the 1998 World Cup reached fever pitch. This kid simply had to go to France, Glenn Hoddle owed it to the nation. Not to Liverpool, but to England.
Some cynics argue that from the moment he made his England debut, Owen became England’s Michael Owen, rather than Liverpool’s. It is a tad harsh, after all it wasn’t Owen’s fault he scored the most incredible goal for his country at that World Cup, thus propelling himself to almost iconic status.
And it wasn’t as if his performances for Liverpool diminished either, the following season he managed 23 goals again, despite picking up a serious hamstring injury towards the back end of the season at Leeds. But still Liverpool fans found it hard to admit their feelings. Most still felt a sense of loyalty towards Fowler, even though God’s influence was waning as injuries took their toll on his youthfulness, whilst some simply found Owen’s apparent lack of personality a barrier. Either way, it is undeniable that he was never afforded the reverence his achievements arguably merited.
In my case, it was a little different. I can remember where I was when I fell in love with him. I was in my Grandad’s house, watching Liverpool, or more specifically, Owen, systematically dismantle Newcastle United at St James’ Park in August 1998. The game had an extra edge to it because it was the first game since the departure from Tyneside of Kenny Dalglish, to be replaced by Ruud Gullit and his brand of “sexy football”, the Gallowgate End was packed with dreadlocked wigs and optimism. And Owen humiliated them.
His first was a clinical poacher’s effort, smashing a rebound inside Shay Given’s near post after the Irishman had saved Paul Ince’s long-ranger, his second was all about pace and finishing as he raced clear onto McManaman’s pass to slide through Given’s legs, and his third was simply special, and secured my affections.
Picking up possession 45 yards from goal, Owen showed his strength to hold off the challenge of Laurent Charvet, before knocking the ball beyond the challenge of Phillipe Albert, and clipping the most exquisite of finishes beyond the flailing Given with the outside of his right foot, before celebrating with a surprisingly-amusing rub of his hands. It was class, and cheek, personified, and if you couldn’t love that then you didn’t deserve the lad.
Yet some people didn’t. They still cringed every time he appeared on television talking about wanting to do well for club and country, they still cursed when he sold his soul to advertise Lucozade et al, they still longed for Fowler to return to his old ways and give them someone edgier to worship again. But, painful as it is to say this, Fowler’s best days ended when his cruciate went at Goodison Park in 1998, and from then on it was Owen who carried the mantle for Liverpool, who Gérard Houllier built his team around, and who the fans were forced to build their dreams around.
For a while, it looked like our dreams- and Houllier’s- would be realised. Owen’s 24 goals in 2000/2001 helped Liverpool to an unprecedented League Cup, FA Cup & UEFA Cup treble, with his most memorable contribution coming in single-handedly overturning a goal deficit to Arsenal in the first ever Cardiff FA Cup final (the day even the non-believers were forced to believe).
The same year he picked up his most-famous hat-trick, in Munich against Germany, and in December, he became the first Englishman in twenty years to pick up the prestigious Ballon d’Or award as European Footballer of the Year. Meanwhile he was very much the premier striker at Liverpool now, with Fowler jettisoned to Leeds after an era-ending row with Phil Thompson. How could anyone doubt him? Especially as the next two seasons brought about the best goals return of his career (29 in all competitions), second place in the Premier League, and another League Cup triumph.
Yet in the meantime, there was an underlying problem with Owen at Liverpool. His contract, signed as a 20 year old with the world at his feet, was edging ominously close to its expiry date, and Owen was visibly disheartened at the diminishing quality of Liverpool’s squad under Houllier, and the increased burden he (along with the likes of Steven Gerrard & Jamie Carragher) was being forced to shoulder as a result.
Houllier’s departure in 2004 saw the arrival of Rafa Benítez and, with funds and squad depth in short supply, one of the Spaniard’s first acts was to take the tricky decision to sell Owen to Real Madrid for a cut-price £8m+ Real squad player Antonio Núñez. Liverpool fans were outraged and heartbroken in equal measures. Both at the board for allowing our best forward to leave for such a fee, but equally at Owen for seemingly walking out on the only club who would ever love him.
His year’s (under-rated) soiree in Spain completed, and with Liverpool bagging an improbable and unforgettable Champions League triumph, the time came for Owen to return to the Premier League. Would Liverpool be willing to forgive and forget? Would Owen? The answer seemed to be yes to both, but on 30 August 2005 came the news that all but ended a love affair that had seemed destined to last forever- Owen had joined Newcastle.
Liverpool it seemed could not match Real’s asking price, and England’s number one striker would be heading for the North East instead. His return to Anfield on Boxing Day 2005 saw what is commonly described as “a mixed reception”, the truth was there were more boos than cheers, and the only reason they seemed a bit muted were because we felt sorry for him having to play for such a poor side.
And to be fair, the sympathy was retained pretty much throughout his stay on Tyneside. Injury after injury, manager after manager, messiah after messiah, we all felt for Owen as his career faltered beneath the circus of St James’. He still showed glimpses of his old self, a brief reminder for England in the autumn of 2007, an apparent rebirth as an attacking midfielder under Kevin Keegan, but the general consensus was that Liverpool had seen the best days of Michael Owen, and for that it was perhaps time to let bygones be bygones, and appreciate the memories he gave us.
But then, this. Owen had been linked with some pretty surprising moves this summer in the wake of Newcastle’s relegation, Stoke, Hull, even Everton seemed well placed to snap him up. His advisors even commissioned a brochure advertising his services to potential suitors, with some pretty cringeworthy adjectives banded about (Owen apparently is not only “good-looking” and “cool” but also “sincere”).
It is doubtful that Sir Alex Ferguson would place too much stock in such a gimmick, but if, by chance, he did peruse the paraphernalia during his summer, then it is likely that one statistic will have jumped off the page at him. Owen last season managed just ten goals for Newcastle, but his chance conversion rate was statistically the best in the league. In a struggling side under immense pressure, that is no mean feat. At a better side that can be priceless. So United took the plunge. His wages are likely to be hefty (though no heftier than some), as is his signing on fee, but in truth the move represents little gambling from either side. Owen knows he will get chances, United know he will get goals.
But from a Liverpool fan’s perspective, it is a move that finally severs any ties Owen may still have with the club. It’s hard to say you love someone, but I loved Michael Owen. And it’s hard to say you don’t, well I don’t. Sorry Michael.