When Michael James Owen burst onto the Premier League scene in May 1997 the nation salivated at the pace and finishing prowess he exhibited right from his very first appearance. When he then took the international scene by storm at France ’98 the nation fell head over heels for the young man.
Twelve years on from “that” wonder goal in Saint-Étienne, the golden boy of English football now finds himself a regular on the Old Trafford substitute’s bench. Alright, so it is the bench belonging to the most successful English side of the past 20 years; a team that considers any trophyless season to be the exception rather than the rule.
Even so, at the age of just 30 years old Owen now finds himself battling to establish himself as more than just a Manchester United mascot.
In fairness, the diminutive striker is a stalwart of Fergie’s Carling Cup side. His contribution to last season’s success in this competition was emphasised when he cancelled out James Milner’s early penalty to provide the catalyst for a 2-1 final defeat of Aston Villa.
In the first game of this year’s competition, he helped himself to a brace in a lively performance that stimulated a victory against a plucky Scunthorpe outfit. It was a great way to show the manager what he is all about and what he can still contribute as part of United’s striking options.
But the two goal haul was not enough to secure Owen a starting berth against Bolton in the Premier League this weekend. In truth, he could have scored 22 in his League Cup appearance and he would still have found himself sat behind Sir Alex in the Reebok Stadium dug out.
Although Owen rescued a point for the Red Devils with his cameo performance against the Trotters, he has not been given the opportunity to contribute prolifically to his team’s early fixtures this term.
Prior to the Bolton game, the number seven shirt had seen just 46 minutes of football since August’s Community Shield and he has often been overlooked when the United coaching staff have sought inspiration from their substitutes.
In the previous league game versus Liverpool, Sir Alex Ferguson left the former Kop idol on the bench as he shuffled his pack in search of a winning goal, instead putting his faith in young prospect Federico Macheda.
The odds of Owen being granted a starting berth for the next Premier League game at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light on Saturday are slim. Although the Premier League’s most successful boss has reserved praise for Owen’s recent performances, he also stated that the current form of Dimitar Berbatov means other strikers must play second fiddle for now.
Judging by Ferguson’s actions so far this season, he has little desire to start the little man from Chester alongside the big Bulgarian. For a start, that would probably mean having to drop talisman Wayne Rooney, an act that is unlikely even if the rogue star is wallowing in indifferent form just now.
Even when Rooney was left at home for the recent trip to Everton Owen did not make the first eleven and failed to appear as a sub that day. And Fergie stated last year he was reluctant to utilise the Rooney/Owen combination as it did not allow Rooney to operate in his most effective position.
The evidence so far suggests that the onetime Real Madrid star will struggle to become more than an option from the bench whilst he stays at Manchester United. He is unsurprisingly finding his lack of involvement frustrating, but he has also suggested that he will wait until the end of the season to review his position rather than demand a move in January.
For many players approaching veteran status, with the end of their careers on the horizon, their primary objective is to secure regular first team football. Conversely, Owen is seemingly willing to tolerate a bit part role, at least for the time being.
Many will have their own opinion as to why. Certainly there is a financial benefit to being at a club with United’s turnover (see the opinion of the NOTW’s Andy Dunn). There is also the lure of Champion’s League football, something Owen is sure to play some part in as Sir Alex rotates his squad.
Perhaps more likely is the burning desire within Owen to add a League title to the array of honours he has already accumulated during his glittering career.
Whilst he has FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup winner’s medals to his name, he has yet to finish top of the pile after a long, gruelling 38 game season. The prospect of achieving that goal and filling that cavernous void would appear to be one for which he is prepared to sacrifice game time.
The striker’s name would still be amongst the first on the team sheet for the majority of Premier League clubs even though some people would argue he no longer has the ability to perform at the very top level. The stats would suggest he can still cut it, with 12 goals in 13 starts since his arrival from Newcastle and an overall Manchester United strike rate of one goal every three games.
Granted, he is not the same player he was as a spritely 18 year old and the legendary pace that helped him to become European Footballer of the year in 2001 is no longer a weapon he possesses.
However, he retains fantastic movement, the ability to find space in a crowded penalty area and the capacity to bury a chance that falls his way – as proved on Sunday.
A consistent run of games could be all it takes for Michael Owen to re-establish himself in the hearts and minds of Premier League followers. He has always thrived when he has been able to put together a string of appearances and his goals then tend to follow in bundles.
But whilst he harbours the desire to win a league title with the 11 time Premier League champions he is unlikely to get that run of games leaving fans bereft of seeing a top international goalscorer grace the field of play on a consistent basis.
He is also likely to remain stranded on 40 international goals when he once seemed destined to break Bobby Charlton’s 49 goal England scoring record.
Owen will unquestionably look back on his career with great satisfaction and no doubt all the wasted match minutes will appear insignificant if he can secure that elusive championship medal. If…? Someone had better tell Chelsea.