By Ben Hayward
In many ways, he has become football's forgotten man. Michael Owen announced his retirement from the professional game on Tuesday, closing the curtains on a career which hit the heights in its early years, but which has flickered faintly since he left Liverpool in 2004.
Career choices can make or break footballers, and when Owen opted out of Anfield for a move to Real Madrid in 2004, it marked the beginning of a downward spiral from which he would ultimately never recover.
The striker enjoyed eight successful seasons at Anfield, scoring 158 goals in 297 games and starring in the side which won a cup treble in 2001, a triumph which saw him surprisingly claim the Ballon d'Or. Yet when Gerard Houllier was dismissed as coach in 2004, he decided on a move to Madrid, excited by the prospect of emulating former Reds team-mate Steve McManaman, who had picked up two Champions League medals in his own Spanish stint.
But there was no Champions League trophy for Owen at Madrid. Instead, Liverpool won it with that epic comeback against AC Milan in 2005, when they fought back from 3-0 down before winning on penalties. The striker could and perhaps should have been part of it. Instead, he was stagnating on the Bernabeu bench.
Owen was also criticised in Spain for his all-round game, and the local press saw him as little more than a pacy poacher. In one report, Marca took the unusual step of giving the striker no player rating. "It is impossible to rate Michael Owen's performances," the sports paper argued. "Either he scores, or he doesn't."
A series of hamstring injuries at Liverpool had hampered the forward and he had lost the explosive pace which saw him burst brilliantly onto the international scene with his special goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup.
His Madrid move had its moments, too, and he is remembered as a decent player by most madridistas. Unfortunately, however, he joined with the team in decline and was naturally compared to the Galactico generation before him. And as good a player as he was, Owen could not compare with Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo or even, for that matter, David Beckham.
Disillusioned with life on the bench, Owen joined Newcastle in the summer of 2005, only to spend long periods on the treatment table over the next few years. After a very promising start to his career in the North-East, the striker snapped his metatarsal against Tottenham in December and returned right at the end of the season, just in time for the 2006 World Cup.
The playerr worked extremely hard to gain full fitness for the Germany summer showpiece, but has since said he should have stayed at home. As it was, he produced two indifferent displays against Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago, before damaging his anterior cruciate ligament after just 51 seconds in the third group game, versus Sweden.
That kept him out of action for almost a year and his last two seasons at Newcastle were blighted by persistent problems he later revealed were linked to the World Cup injury, including thigh and calf tears and a double hernia which required surgery.
He let his contract run out at Newcastle, who were relegated, and his management company sent out a 34-page dossier to Premier League clubs in the summer of 2009, in the hope that one would sign him. And in the end, Owen joined the most successful of them all as he moved to Manchester United in a surprise deal which upset Liverpool fans, many of whom washed their hands of their former hero.
At Old Trafford, Owen enjoyed some highs, such as his first hat-trick since 2005 and a dramatic winner in a memorable Manchester derby against City which United won 4-3. At this point, the striker was seemingly back in England contention, but a hamstring injury in the League Cup final curtailed his return to form and the next two campaigns were similarly disrupted by groin and thigh problems.
For United, he was merely a bit-part player behind several others in the pecking order and few fans were sad to see him leave last summer. That move, however, has tainted his status with Liverpool supporters, who never took him to their hearts in the way they did with others, such as Steven Gerrard and Robbie Fowler, in any case. For Madrid, meanwhile, he turned out to be little more than a second-rate Galactico with an eye for goal, while Newcastle never saw much of him during his four-year spell and were upset by the nature of his departure and unwillingness to commit to the club.
His England record remains remarkable, though, with 40 goals in 89 appearances making him the fourth-highest scorer in the history of the Three Lions. Owen netted in four major tournaments for England but was unable to replicate his explosive entrance in 1998 when his country needed him most. And his last appearance in the national side came back in 2008. There will be no more now.
So as he hangs up his boots this summer, few fans will miss Michael Owen. Many will not even notice he has gone. After all, he has barely been around these last few years, and if he fails to return for Stoke against Everton next week, it'll be the 250th club game he will have missed since joining Newcastle in August 2005. It's a sad end to a great career as mismanagement of his injuries continues to take its toll on the forward's fragile frame. The story of this one-time great goalscorer deserved a better finish.
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