The Ascent of Michael Owen

Michael Owen’s career trajectory has seen him fulfil a number of defined roles that read like a skewed footballing equivalent of the ascent of man: prodigal teen, international mainstay, Galactico, injury-prone milquetoast, mercenary, washed-up substitute.

These days he occupies the role of abused, benevolent veteran, trying in vain to steer a course through the twilight of his playing career in peace. He seems absolutely happy with life, despite not playing much. He tweets a lot, espousing the virtues of domestic life, asking for opinions on his coaching badge coursework, and generally comes across as an affable man. Yet this apparent inertia is frequently met with ire, which Owen occasionally reacts to. To wit:

The first tweet, met with sarcasm and scorn, comes from a man who is clearly perfectly happy with his lot. Of course, you would imagine that comes easy for a millionaire footballer, but his lot right now is rather modest in comparison with his more vaunted and youthful colleagues, who can expect to play more football. He is an example of a man growing old gracefully, in a profession where that isn’t always to be taken for granted. They become poor/lazy/misogynistic pundits. They ghost write vapid, boilerplate columns for The Sun. They have affairs and tear families apart.

There should be more Michael Owen’s, happy to cede the limelight once they’ve taken their own share, thankful for what they’ve had without greedily expecting more. David Beckham still clings to desperate delusions of international relevance. Frank Lampard complains about his role at Chelsea which diminishes in direct proportion to his obviously waning powers. Ryan Giggs is forced to continue in workmanlike concession to the paucity of options available to his employer, like Boxer in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Others seek cynical, dollar-chasing moves to the MLS (that retirement home of such washed-up Premiership has-beens and never-weres like Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan).

"I will work harder. Sir Alex is always right."

Perhaps it is an inherently English problem. His career, perhaps more than most others, is summarised by one iconic moment, and it weighs upon him like a millstone. That goal against Argentina, that symbiotic burst of pace and promise, represented a prelude to a brighter tomorrow, a warning shot to the rest of the world that Owen (and England) would achieve wonderful things together.

He went on to win trophies as part of the most successful Liverpool side of the Premier League era (the small matter of a Champions League win notwithstanding). He won a Ballon D’or in 2001, becoming the first Englishman to do so for 22 years. He acquired an international goalscoring record which has few peers. In short, his career was no failure, and yet still there persists this feeling that he didn’t do enough, his achievements harshly tainted by the misfortune of his late-20’s and early-30’s.

Injuries haven’t helped him, the same way they haven’t helped countless others before and since. The opprobrium targeted at Owen for such bad luck is misplaced: yes, the later years of his career were ravaged by injury, but what of the likes of Owen Hargreaves? Jamie Redknapp? Kieron Dyer? Are they all to be subject to the same venom aimed at Owen for the betrayal of their bodies?

His career is petering out, just like those of so many before him. The state of semi-retirement we find him in now may not befit the teenage sensation, or the Ballon D’or winner, or the Galactico incarnation of Michael Owen. But he’s in a different stage of his career and life now. There is no public raging at the dying of the light. But when that light flickers out, you sense that he will accept it with more grace than most.