By Liam Twomey
Some 14 years ago, as a young and fearless Michael Owen was shrugging off Jose Chamot and bursting past Roberto Ayala before firing coolly beyond Carlos Roa to score one of the greatest goals in World Cup history against Argentina in Saint Etienne, a recently-relegated Stoke City were preparing for life back in the third tier of English football.
The idea that the paths of player and club would ever converge was beyond fanciful. The fact that they have is testament not only to the Potters' remarkable rise under Tony Pulis over the past five years, but also to Owen's equally astonishing fall.
The 32-year-old will forever be remembered as one of this country's greatest lost talents. It was believed that stunning strike at France '98 would be the first of many priceless memories he would bestow upon his legions of fans. Instead, it proved to be a peak he would never surpass.
Of course, Owen still amassed a list of trophies and achievements the envy of many a footballer. Twice a Premier League Golden Boot winner with Liverpool, he also became England's first recipient of the coveted Ballon d'Or award for 22 years in 2001. He enjoyed domestic and continental cup success at Anfield, and added the Premier League title to his collection with Manchester United in 2011.
|MICHAEL OWEN'S CAREER STATS
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Gone was the blistering pace which had instilled fear in the hearts and doubt in the minds of some of the world's greatest defenders and, as a result of his club's over-reliance on him for goals and his irrepressible desire to play in every match he could, the debilitating injuries stacked up.
Gradually Owen was reduced, first to a penalty area poacher – yet still a superb one – and then, by the time he arrived at Newcastle in 2005, to a regular fixture on the treatment table and the victim of a horrific cruciate ligament rupture at the 2006 World Cup which sidelined him for almost a year.
At 29, when he should have been cementing his legacy as England's most prolific goalscorer and one of the greatest strikers of the modern era, Owen was instead a mere squad player at United and coming to terms with the realisation that his international career was over.
The quality of old shone through occasionally - a 97th-minute winner in a pulsating derby against bitter rivals Manchester City in 2009 temporarily earned him hero status at Old Trafford - but in recent times the former Liverpool man had struggled even to make it onto the bench, making Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to discard him this summer almost inevitable.
Speculation was rife that Owen would retire. His critics have accused him of going through the motions in the latter half of his career, content to pick up an idle wage at United while focusing his efforts on the business investments and horse-racing empire which will sustain him when his footballing days are officially done.
But the decision to sign for Stoke suggests the fire for the game still burns within him. The Potters can offer him nothing except the opportunity to prolong his career at the top level, and to end his bittersweet journey in professional football on a positive note.
Whether Owen's body is a spent force remains to be seen. Perhaps Pulis' motivation is the embarrassment of dismissing Demba Ba as a "ticking time bomb" in injury terms last summer, only to watch the Senegalese striker make a superb impact at Newcastle. Perhaps it is simply blind hope.
Either way it is clear that, if he can stay relatively healthy, Owen still has something to offer, and remains more than capable of making Brendan Rodgers rue the decision not to try to enlist him to help solve the current striking crisis at Liverpool.
He will never lose the razor-sharp instincts which marked him out as a truly natural goalscorer, and he tends to produce his best when paired with a tall and muscular target man in the mould of Emile Heskey. Stoke, to put it mildly, have no shortage of these.
For most who watch Owen these days, the lingering feeling is invariably one of what might have been. All we can hope for at this stage is that he conjures one more memory to savour.
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