28 January ~ Oscar Wilde memorably summed up the climax of The Old Curiosity Shop by remarking that "one would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing". The modern reader may well have had the same reaction to Michael Owen's exclusive interview with the Guardian at the weekend. The subject matter was entirely predictable – essentially this was a straightforward plea to a certain tall, dark and handsome England manager to whisk the doe-eyed Owen off on a romantic break to South Africa this summer. What was remarkable was the overwhelming sense of bathos that pervaded the piece.
"I've watched all the games. I know what the manager is looking for, even though I'm not there listening. For example, I ask Wayne 'what does he expect when you've not got the ball?'" The image of Owen pestering Wayne Rooney for second-hand titbits from training should, theoretically, elicit some sympathy. So why is it so funny? Here is a player who, on paper at least, should be approaching the status of an England legend. Yet the reaction of fans to Owen's international exile has largely been a collective shrug of the shoulders. Supporters of the national team may be sentimental but they also want England to win and Owen has done little to justify selection in the last two years. Equally, there is a genuine admiration among fans for the way the England manager has distanced himself from the big names in his squad. Steve McClaren was rightly pilloried for his overly chummy relationship with "JT" et al and Capello is not about to repeat those mistakes. But the ex-superstar raging against the dying of the light is usually a narrative that strikes a chord with fans. Why is Owen different?
To put it bluntly, it's quite hard to like Michael Owen. Of course, this hardly makes him unique in the world of Premier League stars but what is remarkable is how far his stock has fallen from the heights of St Etienne and Munich. Few players have earned as much goodwill so early in their career, only to see it so comprehensively eroded. Liverpool and England fans adored him during the first half of his career. Even Real Madrid supporters had a soft spot for Owen because they recognised him as a trier who, despite injuries, wasn't played as often as he might have been. But his time at Newcastle was disastrous. Fans became increasingly frustrated with a player who collected £25 million in basic wages alone for the 71 games he played during four injury-plagued years in the north-east. Not Owen's fault, some might say – nobody forced Newcastle to sign an injury-prone player for £17m on a wage of £120,000 a week.
Yet there were other reasons why the fans never quite took to Owen. The fact that he often commuted to the north-east from Cheshire by helicopter, for instance. Or the relatively few public appearances he made in the city despite being made captain at the start of 2008. Fans grumbled that Owen seemed more interested in his stable of racehorses than saving Newcastle from relegation. Parochial sniping? Perhaps, but these things matter to supporters. Then there was the deliberate running down of his contract and constant press speculation about a return to Liverpool that eventually led to an exasperated Freddy Shepherd offering to drive Owen to Merseyside himself (admittedly, upsetting Freddy Shepherd is one of the few things in the plus column for Michael in recent years). On the pitch his lack of form eventually led to him being dropped by his old England team-mate Alan Shearer. Then, with the city still in mourning after relegation, Owen became embroiled in "brochure-gate", the leaking of a glossy document produced by his management company that sought new employers for "Michael Owen: the athlete, the ambassador, the icon" and talked of the "charismatic" (sic) England star as a player who, without unhappy spells at Real Madrid and Newcastle, (i.e. the last five years of his career) "would be spoken about in the same breath as Fernando Torres and Cristiano Ronaldo and valued in the priceless figures that only match-winning goalscorers ever justify." Hmm.
Here was the state of Owen's career in a 34-page nutshell. From the innocent exuberance of the 18-year-old prodigy to a player weighed down with all the tawdry baggage that accompanies the modern footballer. At Newcastle there was always a sense that Owen was biding his time, waiting for an offer from a bigger club (the emergence of a buyout clause in his initial contract did little to dispel this) and the theory was given further credence by his surprise summer transfer to Old Trafford. Reportedly taking a 50 per cent pay cut to join Man Utd, the move felt like Owen announcing that this was where he should have been all along – a prestige club befitting a player of his status. Except his status is not what it was and both his club and national manager now appear unable or unwilling to accommodate him – banished from the England squad and sometimes fourth choice at United behind the unloved Dimitar Berbatov and the unheralded Mame Biram Diouf. First team football should have been a priority for a player seeking to catch the eye of the England coach and it's difficult to imagine that Sir Alex Ferguson ever promised Owen a regular starting berth – so whose fault is it that Capello's decision to look elsewhere for strikers has been made so much easier?
It's a question that goes unasked in the Guardian interview – a predictably easy ride for Owen, given that the interviewer is Paul Hayward, co-author of Owen's autobiography. Just as depressing is the large picture of Owen holding his boots that adorns most of the inside spread – a transparent puff for one of his sponsors who presumably arranged the interview ("Michael Owen is wearing the new white, black and gold Umbro Speciali boots this season...") Meanwhile, three paragraphs in, Michael modestly observes that "England's bigger than Michael Owen", immediately putting us at ease by referring to himself in the third person. It's a predictable bit of rhetoric. Sadly for Michael, even if he doesn't believe what he's saying, most England fans do. Tom Lines