This goal machine proved all too mortal but there is nothing robotic about him in the opinion of those he worked with
Plenty of people have fixed preconceptions about Michael Owen. Selfish, cold, detached and robotic are frequent descriptions from those who have viewed the former England striker from afar and struggled to warm to his clinically matter-of-fact public persona. Those who have worked with Owen tend to buy into a very different narrative.
This, after all, is a man who, minutes after being told he had ruptured the cruciate ligament in his right knee during the opening minutes of the 2006 World Cup match against Sweden, texted Glenn Roeder, then his club manager at Newcastle United, to apologise for the inconvenience. As appointments were made with Richard Steadman, the celebrated lower limb surgeon, in the United States and Owen was told his knee would be reconstructed using an allograft – namely a cadaver's tendon – as opposed to an autograft from his own hamstring, the striker could have been forgiven for thinking purely about himself. Instead he kept telling Roeder he was sorry for somehow letting Newcastle down.
After spending a year recovering, Owen hired John Green, a specialist athletics coach, to teach him how to sprint again, but all most Newcastle fans saw was a player who, preferring to commute from Cheshire, did not engage with the local community on Tyneside. Part of the problem was that Owen is not a hypocrite. He regarded his job at St James' Park purely as scoring goals and did not see the point of gaining acceptance as some sort of adopted Geordie. Always unsentimental about his profession, the 33-year-old will have made the decision to retire at the end of this season, when his contract at Stoke City runs out, with a sense of brutal realism.
Although he has said he was "born to score goals", the finest English forward of his generation resolutely refused to romanticise his uncanny knack, never resorting to hyperbole when it came to describing the gift that has made him extremely wealthy. "Scoring goals gives you a 10-second buzz but I wouldn't describe it as joyful," Owen once said. A dedicated trainer, he has always taken understated pride and pleasure from the craft involved in his vocation but his apparent ability to compartmentalise football as a job seems to have offended some.
A passion for breeding racehorses has almost certainly offered Owen more excitement than football in recent years, but the most cursory glance at his medical history suggests it would be extraordinary if his career had not sometimes felt like a chore. Set against the wonderful highs of scoring 40 times for England – including that goal for England against Argentina as an 18-year-old at France 98 – while winning 89 caps and playing for Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle and Manchester United, there have been many grindingly dull moments.
Most have involved hours of slow rehabilitation from the assorted injuries and operations that have blemished the career of the 2001 European Footballer of the Year. "He's cold, he's a killer," said Sven-Goran Eriksson after Owen demolished Germany courtesy of a Munich hat-trick during a 5-1 England victory that year but, sadly for spectators, this goal machine was also all too mortal.
Even in his pomp, the days when Owen scored 158 goals in 297 appearances for Liverpool, his hamstrings began playing up, necessitating frequent visits to the Munich clinic of that renowned repair man for crocked footballers, Hans Müller-Wohlfahrt. Later Steadman's number would be placed on speed-dial in Owen's phone. Indeed as football became, imperceptibly, more about medical appointments and procedures than hanging off the shoulder of the last defender, it is surely a blessing that the striker was able to derive so much happiness from his home life with his wife, Louise, their four children and the horses.
In May 2010 Owen, newly recovered from the hamstring surgery that had ended his first season at Old Trafford, sat in an office building near Manchester airport and reflected on a summer that would entail watching the forthcoming World Cup in South Africa on television. "I'll be working with the physios every day to try and get back for next season," he said. "They're giving me two weeks off for a family holiday but that's it."
Sanguine, he explained it was the price he had to pay for pushing his body to the limits during a season in which he had claimed a Champions League hat-trick at Wolfsburg and a winning goal against Manchester City as well as scoring in the League Cup final. "No I don't feel cursed," he said. "Watching Wayne Rooney play for England now is almost exciting as doing it myself."
Such equanimity was possible because, in between all the hamstring and knee scares, Owen hit heights most others rarely approach. If perfection is a flame that many touch but few can hold, he most definitely falls into the latter bracket. "I have been very fortunate that my career has taken me on a journey I could only have dreamed of," he said announcing his impending retirement.
Rather than saving the best until last, Owen peaked early. It is a rare, or extremely youthful, England fan who does not see him as synonymous with his brilliant 16th-minute goal in the 2-2 draw against Argentina in Saint-Etienne in the second round of the 1998 World Cup. Although Glenn Hoddle's side, who had David Beckham sent off, eventually lost on penalties, Owen returned to Liverpool a national hero.
Hoddle's World Cup diary was hardly a literary classic but the former England coach's description of Owen's goal remains highly evocative. "Becks chipped a cute little early ball through the middle," Hoddle wrote. "Michael's first touch with the outside of his boot took him past the defender on the halfway line. After that he had just one thing on his mind. He went at their defence. His pace took him past a second defender and towards their sweeper, Ayala. When Michael's acceleration took him past Ayala on his right hand side it was like lightning. It was as if Ayala was standing still. We've always been amazed at how fast Michael runs with the ball at his feet. A little dummy and he was just away on the outside of the last man.
"Paul Scholes was steaming up on the outside and we were all thinking Michael was gong to give it to Scholesy who looked as if he had a straight on view of goal. Then suddenly, as his body was falling away, Michael cut across the ball and hit it back across goal. When the ball hit the net the feeling was fantastic. Unbelievable." And to think Hoddle once said Owen was "not a natural goalscorer".
Glory years ensued under Gérard Houllier at Liverpool, including two goals in the 2001 FA Cup final against Arsenal, undermined only slightly by increasingly disobedient hamstrings. Then, in 2004, Rafael Benítez sold Owen to Real Madrid. Driving to the airport to collect British newspapers rather than wandering out to the numerous city-centre kiosks displaying them, and struggling to learn Spanish, he always looked a slightly uneasy galáctico alongside Raúl, Luís Figo and Roberto Carlos. With Raúl often restricting him to the bench, Owen started only 15 games but still managed 18 goals in 41 appearances.
Outright predators in the Owen mould were going slightly out of tactical fashion and a £16m move to Newcastle, the ultimate trophy signing of the Freddy Shepherd era, reflected contracting options. Owen would play under six managers during four largely unfulfilled years on Tyneside and one of them, Kevin Keegan, reinvented him in thrilling fashion. As England coach Keegan had seemed to prefer Andy Cole up front but at Newcastle he turned Owen into an attacking midfielder with considerable success. Compensating for the striker's loss of pace, Keegan cleverly utilised Owen's brain and undervalued technical abilities.
"Michael can keep the ball all day, sees a pass and knows when to release it, he'll score lots of goals from deep and, if he can stay fit, he'll play on in midfield until 36 or 37," he said. "I didn't realise what a good footballer Michael was before."
Little did he know it but Keegan had arguably hit upon the perfect epitaph for Owen's fabulous yet sometimes frustratingly underrated career. He will be missed far more than many people may imagine.