You’re a former European Footballer of the Year. You’re one of your country’s greatest ever goal scorers. You’ve led a trouble and scandal free life. You’re even nice to animals and children. So why do so many people hate Michael Owen?
The recent volley of abuse fired at him when he attempted to engage in a live Q&A on twitter demonstrated that his current public stock has hit rock bottom. With the latter part of his career marked more by jeering than cheering. How did he turn from a teenage sensation to a figure of derision and ridicule?
The prevailing perception of Owen is of a fading force. Yet despite this, he continues to score goals. Owen’s career record remains just shy of 1-in-2 – despite the injuries and the increasing role as a substitute. Clearly, this negative public view of the former England international can’t be about what he delivers on the pitch.
Intriguingly, Owen is little loved even at the clubs he’s served. At Liverpool, he had the misfortune to displace club legend Robbie Fowler. Never considered a true scouser, Owen burnt his bridges on the Kop by later signing for arch-rivals Manchester United.
At Newcastle he was hailed as the second coming – or possibly fourth, after Keegan and Shearer – but the initial fervour quickly fizzled out. Opinion amongst the St James Park faithful being blighted by unfortunate injuries, but also by the self-inflicted wounds of a contract clause which left Owen free to jump ship for ‘bigger’ clubs.
Had Owen fired in the goals that kept Newcastle in the Premiership in his final season, his reputation may have survived his refusal to sign a new contract. Unfortunately, Newcastle were relegated.
But this only explains the feelings of football fans in Tyneside and Merseyside and not how he became an orphan of the nation’s affections.
Part of the answer lies in his international career. After announcing himself on the international stage by hurtling through the Argentinian defence in 1998, we see again a similar pattern of promise followed by lingering disappointment. Here, Owen was unlucky in that his international career coincided with the rise of the much derided ‘golden generation’.
Whether they were really good enough or not, fans and certainly the players themselves believed the hype. Successive tournament ‘failures’ have subsequently tainted a goal scoring and tournament record which compares favourably with any England international – with the exception of the Class of ’66.
Then there’s the man himself. When Owen broke through as an 18 year old, he earned just as much praise for his composure off the pitch as he did on it. Confident and fluent, his interviews seemed to come from a relaxed media veteran not a footballing ingénue.
But what was at first charming, quickly become dull. Yes, he spoke coherently and didn’t ‘um’ and ‘ah’, but nothing he said was ever really that interesting. A perception heightened by an off-the-field life which failed to provide any fuel for the tabloids.
Perhaps just a private man, the end result was that Michael Owen was, well, just a little bit boring. No crime in itself, but far lesser players have been elevated to footballing legend status on the basis of an ability to deliver a pithy one-liner whilst stumbling out of Stringfellows with a former Miss World on their arms.
During Owen’s time at Manchester United all these views seem to have crystalized and become the prism through which we view events. Did he really meekly accept a bit-part substitute role in exchange for trophies – or did he just keep his frustration to himself?
When he announced this summer that he was unprepared to drop down a division, he was hardly the first player to make such a comment. Yet the vitriol which met the statement showed that different standards apply to Owen. A point echoed again in
Pointless twitter spats with journalists about his record and ambition haven’t helped. Touchy and arrogant? Or just tired and irritated at trying to defend himself from unfair accusations?
So with the new football season cranking into gear, Michael Owen is football’s lonely man. Without a club and without anyone seeming to care that the career of one of Britain’s most talented footballers is about to limp to an end.
Will this be how he’s ultimately written into our football history? I fancy that, given a bit of time and distance from his football career, the public’s attitude will soften and he’ll end up a respected and popular figure. In which case that transformation will make as much sense as the current jaundiced view towards him.
Written by James Albion