Michael Owen is a very good striker – but does his Spanish experience show that that is no longer enough? Phil Ball assesses what Newcastle have got for their £17m
The mildly interesting aspect of this summer’s Michael Owen yawn-fest has been the contrasting reactions of the English and Spanish media to the issue. In England, despite the prominence of a new hero in Andrew Flintoff, both the quality papers and the tabloids have demonstrated a touching insistence on not forgetting our Michael, stranded out there on the bench, surrounded by unappreciative foreigners. The Spanish in general, and Real Madrid in particular, have hardly raised a line about the matter – but neither would most writers if they had just witnessed the arrival of Robinho and Julio Baptista. However, the Madrileño press itself never once suggested that Owen was suddenly “fifth in the starting order” of strikers – the English phrase of the summer. They know that managers such as Vanderlei Luxemburgo do not think so simplistically. Owen could have had a future at the Bernabéu.
Maybe what the Owen saga has really shown is the beginning of the end for the monothematic “striker” concept, at least at the level of Europe’s richest. Both Real’s carefree attitude to Owen’s future and the Premierships’s less-than-impressive stampede for his signature have to mean something. That he was too expensive? Possibly. But while Thierry Henry was moving to the brink of overtaking Ian Wright’s goal-scoring record at Highbury, a new truth was moving into focus. Ian Wright was a great goalscorer. Thierry Henry is a great footballer. At the levels that now seem to be operating, that’s what you need to be. Owen, for all his poaching and for all his instinct, lacked the touch and vision to seduce the Spanish public.
The last great striker at Real Madrid was Emilio Butragueño and he had exactly what the modern über-hero requires – subtlety, grace, ruthlessness and the ability to drop and create, if necessary. If you don’t have those qualities, then, like Steve McManaman, you muck in and have a laugh, never complain to the press, high-five with Roberto Carlos et al, and eventually find that the paying public interprets your apparent stoicism as a noble act. The Madrid public, as they did with El Macca, have seen Owen’s silence as an example of dignified English behaviour, something they “admire” and “respect” – to use the two verbs chosen by Ivan Helguera when recently talking about Owen. “He doesn’t smile much,” he remarked, “but that’s Michael.” Indeed it is. And although he endeared himself to his team-mates by his habit of reading his Teach Yourself Spanish on the planes to away games (Beckham was heard to ask him early on – “What’s that book Michael?”), Owen is not McManaman. You can’t make a general principle out of one socially adept Scouse laddo.
Owen’s mistake, if he has indeed made one, has been to hold back on the histrionics. That’s the behaviour the Spanish really admire and understand. Anything else is worthy of “respect”, but is seen as basically limp-wristed. In Spain, you must never quietly accept a place on the bench. The kind of tantrums that earn criticism in England are seen as signs of passion. What Owen should have done to guarantee at least a two-year stay would have been to call the occasional linesman a sonovabitch, have an alleged affair with a sexually ambiguous nanny, send some tasty but indiscreet texts out into the ether, strop publicly with the manager and perhaps have a tattoo etched on to some imaginative yet public part of the anatomy. What’s gone wrong with his management agency SFX these days? Tut, tut.
“Michael will score goals wherever he goes,” said Mark Lawrenson. Sure he will. But that isn’t quite the point any more. Graeme Souness, snickered at by so many as an out-of-touch stumbler, has actually signed a potentially better player in Alberto Luque – unheard of by the press hounds who paradoxically applauded his record-busting signing of Owen.
Owen has behaved impeccably and he has played better than most Spanish observers give him credit for. In a fair world, he deserves a bit more than he is being given by his Spanish paymasters, but that’s the nature of the football beast nowadays. History may record that one of England’s finest was cold-shouldered in Spain by a regime in terminal decline, obsessed by grandeur and incapable any longer of knowing how to regain it. Or perhaps our boy just wasn’t up to it? Perish the thought.
From WSC 224 October 2005. What was happening this month