28 January ~ In light of the recent race row between Luis Suárez and Patrice Evra, today's FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Manchester United is expected to be played out in a particularly poisonous atmosphere. But there will be one potentially explosive ingredient missing, in the form of an injured Michael Owen. He is deeply disliked by the majority of Liverpool fans. Exactly why he is so unpopular is less well known. The fact that Owen plays for their most hated rivals doesn't endear him to the Liverpool fans. But considering the injury-plagued, bit-part role he has at Old Trafford, most Liverpool supporters are happy to see him on the United bench – as opposed to say, Karim Benzema or David Villa.
The true source of the anti-Owen sentiment can be traced back as far as St Etienne and the 1998 World Cup. Initially Liverpool fans were full of pride that "one of ours" could score one of the great World Cup goals, as he did for England's against Argentina. After returning to the club, however, it was soon evident that the nation's newest sensation was drunk on national adoration. From St Etienne on, he was England's Michael Owen and never Liverpool's.
Suddenly every post-game interview was dominated with references to an upcoming England game, no matter how important the one he had just played in for Liverpool was or how meaningless the England fixture. Owen would routinely rush himself back from injury to prove his fitness ahead of a pointless England friendly. He took considerably longer to return to Liverpool's first team when there was no forthcoming international match.
It soon became abundantly clear that Owen's major career goal was to eclipse Bobby Charlton's international goalscoring record of 49. He clearly thought this would cement his reputation as England's greatest-ever forward. Hindsight has shown him to be misguided. As Robbie Keane has since demonstrated with the Republic of Ireland, you don't need to be world class to reach a half-century of international goals. A willingness to turn up for games against San Marino, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein will suffice.
Owen's obsession with England only explains part of the ill feeling. There is also the question of his personality. First came his covert attempts to oust crowd favourite Robbie Fowler by telling every interviewer he much preferred playing alongside non-scoring battering-ram Emile Heskey. His reasoning, one suspects, was that Fowler was both more popular with the fans and also a better all-round footballer.
When Liverpool sold Fowler to Leeds, Owen became the undisputed king of the club. And boy did he know it. Not content with influencing personnel and playing style, he procrastinated over signing a new contract, allowing it to run down to the point where Real Madrid were able to buy him for £8 million – a scandalous fee for a recent recipient of the European Player of the Year award. The fact that Owen had explicitly promised not to allow this scenario to occur made his actions all the more galling.
Any lingering doubts about where ambition and money came in the Owen pecking order were extinguished upon his return to English football. He chose to play for Newcastle United, a circus show at the time, over newly crowned European champions Liverpool. Unable to match Newcastle's wages, all Liverpool could offer was the chance to play Champions League football with a new manager. They went on to win that season's FA Cup, reach another European Cup final the following season and play Champions League football in every year of Rafa Benitez's reign, unlike Newcastle.
Herein lies the one saving grace of Owen – the amount of schadenfreude he affords Liverpool fans. His career has never reached the peaks it did at Anfield. While he was on the bench at the Bernabéu, Liverpool were busy winning the greatest prize in club football. Contrary to Owen's clearly held belief, it turned out he wasn't bigger than the club after all. Paul Cantwell