Nigel Chin sits down with former Anfield boy wonder Michael Owen to discuss his colourful career, England crashing out of the World Cup and why he won't go into coaching...
There are few players that will draw a mixed Manchester United and Liverpool crowd, but Michael Owen is definitely somewhere near the top of that list as he flew into Singapore for Wisma Atria shopping mall’s Goal! All The Way event last Saturday.
Our FourFourTwo credentials got us through the throng easily though, as we stepped through some goal netting and into the inner sanctum, where the former Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle United, Manchester United and Stoke City striker was waiting.
That's already quite a list, but Owen's also represented England 89 times as well - scoring a whopping 40 goals, and is probably the best natural goal-scorer England has ever produced (sorry, Gary Lineker).
He's now a regular pundit with BT Sport and occasionally BBC Match of the Day, but there's no mistaking the striker who was once adored by the Anfield faithful as we approach the table in the corner where he's waiting patiently for us.
Dressed neatly in a white shirt with his blue blazer hanging on a peg nearby, the 2001 European Player of the Year pushes his ice cream to one side and we're good to go...
Were you surprised by England’s elimination so early in the World Cup?
No, I don’t think it was a surprise. I think the general feeling around was that it would be 50-50 by the way we qualified [for the World Cup]. I think the performances were okay but obviously one point out of nine is not very good and I’m very disappointed to see us going home so early. We have a lot of improvements to make with a very young team and I don’t think this group has got the right mentality to win tournaments at the moment because we’re easy to beat.
What’s your take on the England squad? Were there any standouts for you despite the results?
I think (Raheem) Sterling was probably the best player in the first game. But no, I don’t think in general we have had any real stars from this tournament. And I don’t think we played badly at all, certainly in the first game I thought we were very good but then again, it is not quite good enough at the moment.
How about the performances from Wayne Rooney? Do you agree with the general consensus that he has underperformed in a major international tournament once again?
I thought Wayne did fine. He scored one goal, his first in the World Cup. He didn’t set the world alight but he played perfectly fine. So, yeah nothing really to say one way or another, but that he was fine.
Do you think that it’s a problem that England are struggling to fit Rooney in the starting lineup instead of building the team around him?
That’s the decision the manager has to make. You know sometimes you have to build the team around certain players and one of the big questions for England is why did we put Wayne on the left and why didn’t we build the team around the better players. If you put Wayne in the different positions he can play it but he’s not as effective and that’s not his fault. So yeah, that was a big discussion point after the first game in particular. After that, the manager put him inside the middle and in behind the striker, and he scored a goal. So it’s a problem the manager has got to work out because we got some very good attacking players and trying to fit them all into positions where they can all have an effect in the game is quite difficult.
Michael, you were part of the so called ‘Golden Generation’ but sadly, the team never once came close to winning any major tournament. Was it a particular disappointment for you not to have achieved any international honours with the Three Lions?
Probably. We qualified for the quarter-finals but it was against Brazil and it’s the furthest we got to. But we qualified past every group stages and it’s better than what happened this time around obviously. I’ve played in some very good England teams and unfortunately we couldn’t win the World Cup either as everyone knows. We got knocked out to the eventual winners in the quarter-finals in Japan. I’ve played in the team before in '98, it was an exceptional team but we got knocked out to Argentina on penalties having played most of the game with ten men. Again we believed we were good enough to go far in the tournament, but as always, you need a lot of luck and a good team, and obviously we haven’t got the team at the moment.
And why do you think England has struggled to add any trophies to the sole 1966 World Cup triumph?
The problem is, when you only play a World Cup once every four years, you can have one bad game and go out of the tournament. As I said, we got knocked out in the quarter-finals to the eventual champions Brazil, and even in that game you always think that maybe if we could have done this or done that. We were 1-0 ahead with ten seconds to go into halftime we conceded the goal. The goal was easily defendable really. If we have gone in 1-0 against Brazil at halftime it might have been different. But you need a lot of luck, a good team and you need a lot of things to go in your favor. We did have a good team but obviously we didn’t win the tournament.
You represented three of the world’s biggest clubs in Liverpool, Real Madrid, and Manchester United. Which club did you truly enjoy playing for?
No question, Liverpool was the team I had the best time of my career at. I was at my best in the early years of my career. But then I started sustaining some injuries and it had an effect on me as I got older. So yeah, no question about it, I was at my best at Liverpool and that’s where I enjoyed it most.
And there was that ill-fated four-year spell with Newcastle United that was littered with injuries. Have you regretted making that move?
Well at the time, I had no choice in many ways. I tried to get back to Liverpool and Liverpool tried to buy me. I had signed for Real Madrid for 8 million and my idea was to go to Madrid for one or two years and then to come back to Liverpool and that’s what I had hoped to happen. But I got sold for 8 million to Real Madrid and Liverpool tried to buy me back for 8 million, and they said they would pay 10 million as a maximum. Newcastle came in and offered 16 million to Real Madrid and basically Real Madrid told me, "you've got to go to Newcastle; you can’t go to Liverpool because Liverpool are not offering enough money." So I didn’t have an option, Real Madrid was telling me to go to Newcastle at that time.
Along with Jonathan Woodgate and David Beckham, you took your footballing career outside of England, which is hardly seen nowadays. Any reason perhaps why English players tend to only stay in England?
Because you don’t need to play outside of England nowadays. England has got the best players, the best big teams, passionate fans, and there’s lots of money in the English Premier League. There are no real big reasons to leave England. The only clubs you will go outside of the Premier League to maybe get better is only Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. So there’s no real reason for players to go abroad now apart from to those teams and to go to those teams you need to be absolutely world class and obviously Gareth Bale is world class and that’s why he’s there now.
But having said that, there are more foreign players than English ones in the Premier League – surely that is a hindrance for the National Team?
Yeah, this is more of a problem. Not necessarily not playing abroad but the problem is we haven’t got any talents coming through. It used to be 60% of British players playing in the Premier League but now, its only 30%. And that’s not the fault of foreign players. That’s on the English academies for not having a better pathway into the first team. It’s all changed since the time I played. It was the youth team, then the reserves team then the first team. The reserve team then consisted of six or seven first team players and then Owen, Carragher, Gerrard – 3 or 4 young players who could be in the first team and that was another stepping stone. But now there’s no reserves team, its youth team then the first team and it’s too big a jump now. The structure is very bad in England. It’s impossible to go from the youth team into the first team straight because the standards are just too high in the first team. Currently at the Football Association we try to find better ways to get more players coming through the academies into the first team because at the minute it’s impossible. People may look at the players currently in the national teams now, and see a lot of Southampton players. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, and Theo Walcott - all these players came through when Southampton were in the Championship when they got a chance to play. If they were coming through now, they may not get a chance to play in the Premier League because it’s too difficult. That just shows you the problem. We need a structural change in England.
And there have been plans to rectify that, one of which is to create a new League Three for B teams of the big clubs to participate in. What are your thoughts on it?
Well I’ve been part of those discussions with the FA, and it’s very difficult to know what the right formula is. They do B Teams in other countries, I played in Real Madrid and they had a B team with lots of players like Roberto Soldado, Alvaro Arbeloa and Diego Lopez who is in goal now for Real Madrid. Lots of players came through the B team to become established first team players so I do think they help, but we are quite traditional in England and we don’t like changing things. If you add some more B teams into the league, then a few of the smaller teams get pushed down the order so maybe that’s not good. I don’t know what the exact answer is but I do know we need more young players to play professional football and then the national team can improve.
What about your career? Do you feel that it’s a shame that you ended your career the way you did, especially after starting out so brightly? Was it a regret you had to end your playing days that way?
That’s life. I can give you all my statistics, and goals, performances and medals, not many people have had better careers than me. I had a fantastic career. It just happened that I was so exceptionally good at a young age, and I got injury problems because I was so fast, and because of these problems they then took a toll on my body later on. But if you went through what I went through, and you were compromised with your body like I was, and to still be playing for Manchester United running on half a body was just phenomenal. It was better than what I did at the start of my career. I was not as good at 27, 28 as I was at 18 or 19, but to still be at the top level playing in big competitions and representing one of the biggest teams was a phenomenal achievement if you knew what was happening to my body. Everybody can see it, it doesn’t take a genius to see that I was very good early on but I got progressively worse and worse. People asked me why didn’t I continue, and that’s the reason because I didn’t want to play worse than I already was. I wanted to finish with my head held high and have an exceptional career. You can’t regret it; I had one of the best careers any Englishman has ever had.
One final question, Michael. Have you ever thought of moving into coaching?
No, I won’t. I do television at home and I look out for some young football players and I do lots of other things off the pitch. Coaching is just totally a change of life so no; I’m not going to go into that.