Sunday, June 21, 2009

What Next for Michael Owen? For Sale in the Argos Catalogue?

Michael Owen has taken the extraordinary step of making a catalogue of his footballing life as a player and then distributing it around all 20 English Premier League clubs in a bid to build some interest in his flagging career.

"For Sale, one slightly used, uncared for striker. Price is free, will accept bread and water as payment."

This is probably a little bit of an exaggeration, but the very fact that the best English striker of his generation has had to go to such lengths to build some interest in attaining his signature, is proof alone that his time at Real Madrid and Newcastle has almost damaged his career beyond repair.

The only English player to have won the Ballon d'Or (European Footballer of the Year in 2001) since 1979, and the only English player ever to win World Soccer Player of the Year, is now on the verge of seeing his career hit the scrap-heap at the tender age of 29.

But why the lack of interest? What has gone so wrong for Michael Owen?

Owen burst onto the scene in 1997 after he made his debut as a substitute for Liverpool against Joe Kinnear's Wimbledon and then scored to leave the Anfield faithful screaming for more.

Liverpool had snapped up the most wanted teen-ager in Europe, after Owen had held talks with Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, and a host of top clubs from Europe.

In his time at Anfield, he had an excellent goal-to-game ratio, 118 goals in 216 games, and won the PFA Young Player of the Year in his first full season as a pro after he notched up a very respectable 18 goals.

However, he injured his hamstring the following season, and so was to begin his long running problem with that particular recurring injury.

Three years later, Owen's hamstrings were still giving him and his club major problems. He was sent to see hamstring specialist Hans Wolfhart in Germany as Liverpool tried to fix this problem once and for all.

Initially, the operation was deemed a success. The 2000/01 season was a huge one for club and player alike.

Liverpool won five trophies, Owen scored 28 goals and he went on to be the first English player since Kevin Keegan in 1979 to win the Ballon d'Or as well as become the only English player ever to win the World Footballer of the Year award, all by the age of 22.

Michael Owen had the world at his feet.

The next season was another hugely successful one for the player, but his injury problems returned with a vengeance in 2003/04. Without him in the team, Liverpool faltered at every hurdle, and Gerard Houllier was sacked.

Rafael Benitez took over as manager and immediately set about changing the formation at the club, to one that suited neither Owen or Steven Gerrard, the two jewels in the crown at Anfield.

Owen was almost out of contract, with a manager who did not see him as his ideal striker and so began a kind of standoff where Owen did not play any Champions League games in case he became cup tied.

Real Madrid began to show interest in the player and he was sold to the club for around £8m. This move was a huge one for the player, he badly wanted to win the Champions League trophy and Madrid were beginning Florentino Perez's "Galacticos I" phase, so it seemed like the place to be.

Ironically, Liverpool went on to win the trophy in the very year that Owen had chose to move.

At Real Madrid, Owen was never really given a fair crack at the whip. Utilised as a squad player at best, the striker only started 15 of his 41 games at the club. Finding the fact that he was a squad player was hard for Owen to take, and his form dipped dramatically.

Despite his erratic form and not being used to his full potential, Owen still scored an impressive 18 goals at the Bernabeau. But his time was an unhappy one, and the following season, his advisers began to look for a new team in the EPL.

Liverpool did not want him back, Rafael Benitez's project was beginning to find some shape. Steven Gerrard had been moved from midfield into a support striker role, and most of the deadwood had left.

Manchester United were uninterested in the price that Madrid were demanding, as were other heavyweights Chelsea and Arsenal.

It became apparent very quickly, that if Michael Owen was to move back to the Premiership it would be to a team outside of the recognised big four.

Spurs were linked but thought the fee was exorbitant, Aston Villa looked elsewhere, Everton were a non-runner, and all of a sudden the only club with money available were Newcastle United.

The World Cup was only one year away so in August 2005, Michael Owen joined Newcastle United.

And immediately got injured. The training methods at Newcastle were not as scientific or as tailored as those at Liverpool and Madrid, and Owen tore his thigh muscle in one of his first training sessions.

The injury kept him out of action for two months, but true to his class, Owen scored on his debut against Blackburn.

His good form was only temporary though, as a broken metatarsal in December. The injury ruled Owen out for five months and he made his return in the last game of the season against Birmingham.

He was named in Sven Goran-Erikkson's squad for the World Cup in Germany but disaster was to strike again, and he ruptured his cruciate ligament in the first minute of the first game in the tournament.

The injury kept him out for almost one full year.

In pre-season for the 2007/08 season, Owen again damaged a thigh muscle, but was only out for one month this time. But after returning with goals in consecutive games he underwent surgery for a hernia, which kept him out for another month.

He returned to action in November, but was immediately ruled out for another month again after another thigh strain.

Kevin Keegan took over in January, and Owen began his best run of matches in a Newcastle jersey. He played unhindered until the end of the season and managed to bag 11 goals in that time.

The following pre-season, Owen contracted mumps, which kept him out of training for the entire summer, and then picked up a calf strain when he did return to training. Another injury-ravaged season saw Owen only play 27 games and score eight goals.

And now with the striker out of contract, he has the chance to set his career straight and move to a new club. There are precious few takers, though.

Owen could demand around £100k per week in wages based on previous form, but his last five seasons have almost undone all of the good work he put in while wearing the red of Liverpool.

He is not the player he was before he joined Newcastle. Concurrent injuries have robbed him of a few yards of pace, but he still possesses an undeniable killer instinct in front of goal.

The problem with Michael Owen though is that all the top teams in the league play counter attacking football, which relies on pace in their front men. Owen simply cannot bring this gift to the table.

He can play deeper now, he has a keen eye, and is a very creative player on the ball. But again it is hard to see him fit in at a Champions League team, where supporting strikers are expected to slot into midfield when their team is under pressure.

So again it looks as if Owen will find himself outside the Champions League if he is to stay in England.

Spurs and Manchester City don't look like options, Aston Villa, do need that kind of player but have officially said they are not interested.

David Moyes has a habit of bringing the best from players, but it would seem highly unlikely that he would risk the clubs wage bill on such a player.

Moving abroad is pretty much impossible. Owen is now a horse breeder, and has to keep an eye on the day-to-day running of his equestrian business. So staying in the EPL is the only card on the table.

But where to stay?

And now you can see the reason for his agents compiling a catalogue of his career. Smaller teams will be put off by his reputation both in terms of wages and injuries, so it is hard to see a team like Sunderland or Bolton coming in for the star.

But Owen does have an ace up his sleeve.

He is independently wealthy, and does not need the wages from his last big move. So he use a pay as you play contract. Or take a leaf for Giuseppi Signori's book and play for a minimum wage, and get a large bonus for goals.

If Owen was to take this path, he would immediately come on the radar of almost every major club.

His future is in his hands more than it might look from the outside.

And as the old saying goes, "Form is temporary. Class is permanent."

Michael Owen only needs to prove it, and he might even find himself on a plane to South Africa if he does.

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