Michael Owen: The Unloved Liverpool Great

Chris Brunskill

As Michael Owen called time on his career this week, a debate sprang up amongst Liverpool fans as to how good he really was and whereabouts he ranks in the glittering array of past strikers. Some were dismissive, others fawning, but all acknowledged Owen's impact at LFC.

I don't think it's 'talking outside of school' to say that there was general apathy amongst your four resident Liverpool Offside scribblers, when the topic of who would cover the story of Michael Owen's retirement arose. In an almost perfect representation of the way he is remembered by so many Liverpool fans, we pondered stats, great goals, cup wins and collectively shrugged. Michael Owen was easily admired but difficult to love.

How did it come to this for a man who scored 158 goals in 297 Liverpool appearances? This is a player who broke through with immediate goal scoring ferocity at Liverpool as a seventeen year old; who attained world acclaim at eighteen at World Cup '98 with England; who won four major trophies with the Reds and top-scored for them every season from '98 to '04. This is a player whose skills and exuberant, youthful image drew countless new fans to Liverpool Football Club and a player who always behaved impeccably professionally.

Why, then, is Owen not celebrated as the truly great Liverpool footballer that his stats would suggest?

Some, simplistically, put his comparative unpopularity down solely to his controversial decision to join Manchester United as a free agent when Newcastle were relegated in 2009. As offences go, turning out in the red of the Mancunians is pretty heinous but it does not explain the hostile reception he received at Anfield on his return with The Magpies three years earlier, in 2006.

The awkwardness between Liverpool fans and Michael Owen goes back to his time at the club. Nobody can query his record for Liverpool as a player, and in fact, Owen himself would have every right to be aggrieved at his overuse by the club as a youngster. He has directly attributed his later issues with constant hamstring injuries to this early demand on his young, developing body.

Roy Evans and Houllier knew what a wonderful talent they had in Owen and in those years before his injuries began to hamper him, Michael Owen was world class, Liverpool's undisputed star. He even usurped Kop idol Robbie Fowler as first choice under the Frenchman and in 2001, at just 21, he almost single-handedly won the FA Cup for the club and landed the Ballon D'Or.

Owen's on-pitch heroics for Liverpool were unquestionable. He remains the quickest player I've ever seen live and one of the finest finishers. Where distance started to grow between Michael and The Kop was whenever the thorny issue of England arose.

"We're not English, we're Scouse," proclaims the famous banner oft-displayed at Anfield. Many years of Tory indifference and disdain had led Liverpudlians to become even more insular and resentful of people who stereotyped and slandered them. The city, through necessity of circumstance, began to think of itself as a Republic of Merseyside. Jamie Carragher has been vocal on the subject of club over country. Michael Owen, however, like Steven Gerrard, was of a different opinion. For Owen, England was the pinnacle.

From the moment he slalomed past those Argentinian defenders in World Cup '98 to notch that wonder-goal at 18, Owen was all about England. With 40 goals in 89 caps, netting in four major tournaments, he is fourth on the list of his country's all-time scorers. Perhaps his finest hour was in his annus mirabilis of 2001, when he scored three in England's 5-1 rout of Germany.

In stark contrast to Fowler, who, in 1997, was fined for his cheeky public support of the striking dockers, Owen seemed to be distant and somewhat aloof. His media work was slick and platitudinous. He was safe, respectful and focused on furthering his career. There was little or no depth in the connection between Owen and the fans, who always suspected he prioritised his England duty, and his conduct, as his contract wound down in 2004, soured many on the Chester native.

Throughout '03/'04, Owen had been making the right noises about signing a new contract. The club had foolishly allowed it to run down and Owen was seeing out the last of it whilst secretly having no intention of signing a new one. He sat on the bench for the qualifying rounds of the Champions League in order that he wouldn't be cup-tied and forced his move to Real Madrid for the frankly ludicrous price of eight million pounds, with Antonio Nunez coming in the opposite direction.

Most Reds wouldn't have begrudged him the move but his behaviour cost the club a substantial transfer fee and cemented the ideas many had about him. Sadly for Owen, the switch to Real was the beginning of the end for his career.When he left he had spoken about fighting for "the big trophies" with the Spaniards. In his first year away, Liverpool, with their own Spaniards, won the biggest trophy of all. Amidst the delirium, some schadenfreude was evident in certain Liverpool fans.

Owen scored 18 goals in 41 appearances, mostly as sub, for Real and moved on, unwanted, at the end of the season. Jamie Carragher and others have spoken about trying to get Owen back to Liverpool, and Rafa Benitez was genuinely interested, but Madrid wanted over sixteen million pounds. Given the manner and price of his departure, that deal was never going to happen and Newcastle stumped up the money instead.

From that point on, Michael Owen's career has been on a slow and painful wind down due to his horrific injury record. ACL injuries as well as countless hamstring tears, strains and snaps destroyed his electric pace but he still managed 26 goals in 71 appearances over three years before his moves to United and latterly, Stoke.

The 'needle' between Owen and Liverpool fans has built considerably in recent years, with Owen himself stoking the embers of resentment with his constant public wittering about how much he loved his time in Manchester and how wonderful Alex Ferguson is.

Let us rise above such pettiness and wish him well in retirement, whilst reminding ourselves, via the sorcery of moving imagery, of what a fantastic footballer Michael Owen was.

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