The Last Great Poacher: How Mourinho, modernity and muscles ruined Michael Owen's career

The news that former bright young things have reached the age of retirement always comes as something of a shock, but perhaps more so with Michael Owen than most. Owen has had a long and varied career but he will always be best remembered as the teenager who scored against Argentina, the kid with the world at his feet, the future of English football. In fact, he was anything but.

Owen's story says much about the changing nature of football. When he emerged as a startlingly precocious prodigy, playing for the regional U11s at age eight, just about every team played 4-4-2 and desperately wanted a goal-poacher. By the time he broke into the Liverpool first team in 1997 (aged 16), the Reds had experimented with three at the back, but nobody played one upfront. It was the accepted wisdom that strikers hunt in pairs.

But when Owen returned from Madrid in the autumn of 2005, Jose Mourinho's Chelsea (and, to those of lesser means, Sam Allardyce's Bolton) were popularising the single-striker system that still dominates tactical thinking. And with nobody to play off – no Kenny Dalglish to the poacher's Ian Rush, to use an Anfield exemplar – front-runners like Owen became less popular, overlooked in favour of all-round athletic target men expected to bring midfield runners into play. Instead of a big-man/little-man partnership, coaches sought a big man (Didier Drogba if you had money; Kevin Davies if you didn't) to do the work of two. Suddenly the Jimmy Greaves-style fox in the box was out of vogue. 

Some even regarded poachers as a luxury, no matter how lethal their strike-rate. In the summer of 2006 Manchester United happily sold Ruud van Nistelrooy, whose five years at Old Trafford had brought 150 goals in fewer than 200 starts but only one league title. Only in the last decade have football fans regularly offered the objection: "Yes, but what does he do except score?"


Owen tried to re-establish himself as a modern striker, frequently dropping off between the lines to link up play, but he was never going to be as effective as that young man streaking away from a stranded defence. It was partly physiological: injuries have been a constant worry since his teens. His hamstrings had already started to trouble him by early 1999 as Liverpool sought to exploit his split-second switches from standstill to sprint, a five-month absence a worrying harbinger of troubles to come. After 2002/03 he never again maintained sufficient fitness across a Premier League season to feature in 30 league games – or score 20 goals.

He didn't know it at the time, of course, and in summer 2004 sought to stretch himself – in a positive, non-hamstring-tearing way – by moving to Real Madrid for £8 million. Despite a slow start at the Bernabeu he did his job: scoring goals. Although unable to get a regular place in a first XI featuring Ronaldo, Raul, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham, he scored as a substitute so consistently (18 goals in 41 games, only 15 of which were starts) that he topped the goals-per-minute chart. Owen was still unquestionably one of Europe's most dangerous strikers; he just needed to move to a club where he could prove it.

And so to Newcastle, where it all went wrong. It's fair to say the Magpies weren't Owen's first choice of English club: they had finished the previous season 14th, way behind the two Merseyside clubs who sought his signature: Champions League holders Liverpool and his boyhood idols Everton, who had finished fourth but needed a top-class striker. But Newcastle blew away the opposition by doubling Madrid's money with a £16.8m bid.


It's tempting to see that as the start of the decline, but it's not that simple. Despite a worryingly immediate thigh injury, Owen regained fitness and scored seven in his first 10 Newcastle games. Moreover, in November 2005 he scored two late goals in England's impressive 3-2 friendly win over (who else?) Argentina. That made it 35 international goals at the age of 25, just 14 behind Sir Bobby Charlton's record. Having scored in four successive tournaments, he was looking to the future. 

Then the injuries came in earnest. A broken metatarsal on New Year's Eve effectively ended his season, and although he was ready for the World Cup he tore a cruciate ligament against Sweden, all but demolishing the subsequent season. Newcastle reacted angrily, suing the FA for anything up to £20 million and threatening to withhold his participation in England games.

As the public spat continued, questions arose over Owen's commitment to the club, creating an impression which still lingers that the player was simply collecting pay-cheques. In summer 2007, as the latest manager Sam Allardyce confirmed that Owen had a £9 million release clause, chairman Freddy Shepherd offered to "carry him back" to Liverpool, but the striker pledged his future to his employers, saying, "I believe that these can be good times to be at Newcastle."

He was wrong. Neither Shepherd nor Allardyce lasted long and the club spiralled. Owen missed a slice of the 2007 pre-season with another thigh injury, then needed a double hernia operation, then picked up yet another thigh injury – on England duty. He regained fitness and form in the spring, but it was a false dawn: in summer 2008 his pre-season was once again disturbed, this time by a calf strain and, almost unbelievably, mumps. Owen's contract expiry in 2009 coincided with Newcastle's relegation; the club's £40m investment (£16.8m fee, £110,000 per week in wages) had yielded 26 goals in 71 league games.

He had joined Newcastle with dreams of medals and goalscoring records, but he left them as something of a figure of fun: firmly, if unfairly, established as a liability and mocked when his management circulated a 32-page brochure advertising his eminent employability. He earned a pay-as-you-play contract at Manchester United, crawling past 50 appearances over the three seasons, before the odd cameo at Stoke this season. And that, it seems, is that.

It seems odd that a man who has scored 40 goals for his country and 222 for various clubs, who won the Ballon d'Or and has collected nine senior winners' medals, could come to be regarded as something of a disappointment.

But unlike other products of the media age, and despite dalliances with the usual 21st-century ancillary activities of advertising and videogame endorsements, the somewhat dispassionate Owen was never really widely popular. Goals were always his currency, so when they were harder to come by they became a rapidly receding memory – and, like his style of play, seemed to belong to a past age. He once said, "Scoring gives you a 10-second buzz, but I wouldn't describe it as joyful." For Owen, the buzz was a business – and the business has changed.

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