When teenagers break onto the scene in world football already performing at a high level, football fans are known to get over excited.
We’ve seen it countless times over the years where said player struggles to really hit the heights that people think they can, so it becomes even more special when those same players do make a memorable career out of their talents.
If you look back over the talent that England have produced over the last 30 years, there haven’t been many talents bigger than Michael Owen.
Breaking into the first-team scene at Liverpool is hard enough, but to do it as a striker at 17 years old in a squad that included the likes of Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore is even more special.
He scored on his first team debut at the end of the 1996/97 season against Crystal Palace, before becoming the first choice striker the following season when Fowler picked up an injury. What followed in that season was one of the greatest debut seasons of all-time, as an 18-year-old Owen scored 23 goals in all competitions including 18 in the Premier League to earn himself the golden boot.
That remarkable season earned him a call-up to the England squad for the World Cup under Glenn Hoddle. He scored his first international goal in a pre-tournament friendly against Morocco, where he became the youngest scorer in the countries history at the time.
He was taken to the tournament as a wildcard, an attacking talent that would be unknown to the vast majority of defenders and opposition coaches despite having signed a new bumper contract at Liverpool during the season to make him the highest-paid teenager of all-time.
It was at the World Cup in France where he really made his name, with the stunning solo goal against Argentina remembered by all even until this day. It’s forgotten though that he scored as a substitute in the defeat to Romania in the group stages and won the penalty from which Alan Shearer equalised before his strike. The game memorably went to penalties and Owen converted his too – he was one of few English players who came away with their reputation heightened.
That year he was the runner-up to Zinedine Zidane in the World Player of the Year award and finished in fourth place in both the FIFA World Player of the Year and European Player of the Year awards. He was a superstar.
The following season his greatness continued as he retained the golden boot, but it was arguably the beginning of the end for him already. He picked up a hamstring injury in April against Leeds when running through on goal that ruled him out for the rest of the campaign and it was an issue that plagued him for the rest of his career.
So known for his lightning quick pace, the injury robbed him of his greatest and most dangerous asset less than two full seasons into his career. He was forced to adapt his game after returning and while he was still a phenomenal goalscoring threat, would only ever better the totals of 18 league goals twice more in his entire career.
He was still Liverpool’s main man, with arguably his most iconic Liverpool moment coming in the 2001 FA Cup final against Arsenal. The Gunners took the lead at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff thanks to Freddie Ljungberg’s goal in the 72nd minute.
Liverpool had struggled to get a foot-hold in the game and rode their luck, with Thierry Henry having a shot cleared off the line moments later and Arsenal just generally dominating the play. Then Owen decided enough was enough and it was his time to take the limelight.
He equalised when a free-kick was nodded down and Owen reacted first from eight yards out to fire low into the corner, before the winner just two minutes from time. Owen showed his trademark pace hadn’t completely left him as he latched onto a pass from Patrick Berger and with just two touches managed to evade Lee Dixon, outpace Tony Adams and then fire past David Seaman on his “weaker” foot into the far corner.
His career after that was riddled by injuries and bad decisions. He eventually moved to Real Madrid in 2004 for the lowly amount of £8m and Antonio Nunez in part-exchange, with a year remaining on his contract. To sum up how good he was for Liverpool, he was their top goalscorer every single season from 1997/98 all the way until he exit following the 2003/04 season.
The time he spent in Madrid is often regarded as a failure but lets apply some context. He failed to break into the starting lineup on a regular basis despite his reputation, but the men ahead of him in the striker positions were Raul – the club’s greatest ever goalscorer at that time – and Ronaldo. The Brazilian one.
He couldn’t play out wide or deeper because he was a striker, a cold-blooded striker. When he did play, he played well though. He scored 16 goals in 45 games that season, but only 26 of those games were starts. He scored in El Clasico, he scored in the Champions League and he finished the season with the best goals-to-minutes ratio of anyone in the squad.
He could have stayed and battled for his spot a bit more, even when Madrid signed two new shiny toys, but he chose to return to England to play regularly. He chose wrong though, opting for Newcastle United when Madrid chose to let him go and both Merseyside clubs couldn’t afford his £16.8m asking price.
From then on, it was a disaster. His body was broken down and he could barely string together a run of games anymore, especially in the more physical Premier League. Despite playing for eight more seasons with Newcastle, Manchester United and Stoke he scored just 32 more goals in England’s top flight.
Internationally, his injuries no doubt robbed him of the honour of becoming England’s all-time greatest goalscorer. He ended up with 40 goals for his country, a tally only bettered by Gary Lineker and Sir Bobby Charlton at the time of his retirement.
When you think of Owen, many people will think of “wasted talent” but this is to remind you of his greatness. All the praise he receives and all the plaudits he gets are well deserved, he was that good as a teenager and young adult.
Think of everything he achieved and how good he was, then remembered that he was never the same again after his second full season. That’s how good Michael Owen was.
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