Michael Owen: “After France '98, I’d get home at 1pm every day and sit there until 11pm replying to mail"
Illustration: The Sporting Press
I had so much belief in my own ability that night against Argentina. Physically, I wasn’t as strong as Kylian Mbappe at 19 – you don’t look at him and think he looks like a young kid, whereas I really did. Technically, I wasn’t as good as Mbappe either – I couldn’t do some of the skills he does. I’m not sure who would have been the quickest, but I was possibly mentally stronger than him at an earlier age. He’s a year older than I was in ’98.
In my mind, I was always older than my age. Mentally I was tough, and that was the key. I was clinical in front of goal. Whenever there’s a chance to score, most players’ heart rates go up. You need to go the other way. You need to be ice cool.
Mentally, going to Lilleshall turned me into a man. Leaving home at 14 is tough, spending two years away from your family. But it teaches you things quickly. Living with 31 other lads, I learned what it was like and what would come later on when I walked into a senior dressing room. Wes Brown, Alan Smith and Michael Ball were at Lilleshall at the same time as me – we all went on to play for England.
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Growing up fast
I’d been at Liverpool for four years when they sent me to have trials at Lilleshall, the FA’s School of Excellence. Myself and Steven Gerrard were in the last trial, but he missed out. I had posters of Liverpool players like Robbie Fowler and Neil Ruddock on my bedroom wall, as it was the club I was always going back to. I aspired to be like Fowler.
Many of the first experiences I had in football were successful. I got into the England U15 team and smashed all the records, played for the U16s and U17s, then broke into Liverpool’s reserve team when I was a kid and won the FA Youth Cup.
I would ask myself which came first – was it the goals I scored that gave me belief, or did I score because I had belief in the first place? Mentally, I was ready. I scored on my Liverpool debut against Wimbledon at the end of the 1996/97 season, but still didn’t think I was going to play much the following year.
Stan Collymore joined Aston Villa but Liverpool then signed Karl-Heinz Riedle, who’d played for Germany millions of times, so I thought I’d never get in the first team – it was going to be Fowler and Riedle up top. That’s not how things turned out, though – I started the first game of 1997/98 – at Wimbledon again – and played pretty much every match. I ended up scoring 18 goals and shared the Premier League Golden Boot with Dion Dublin and Chris Sutton, which was amazing for someone who’d started the campaign as a 17-year-old – particularly when strikers like Ian Wright, Andy Cole, Alan Shearer and Robbie Fowler were around at the time.
For most of that season, though, I didn’t think I was anywhere near the national side. I thought if I kept scoring and won the Golden Boot, I might have a chance the next season.
But in February, I was playing golf with my dad and heard my phone ringing. It was Doug Livermore, Liverpool’s assistant manager. I thought, ‘What have I done wrong?’ When I answered, he said, ‘I’ve got some good news for you. You’re in the England squad.’ I was four up against my dad before that call and ended up losing, which shows you what that did to my concentration. I was just so excited – I couldn’t wait to call everyone I knew.
Joining up with the squad for the first time, I was very respectful of everyone – I met Paul Gascoigne, my childhood hero. But I went there believing I was good enough. When I crossed that white line, I didn’t really have any respect for anyone in football. I felt I belonged, or that I was the best player on the pitch – that horrible attitude you’ve got to have.
It makes you cringe when a boxer says, ‘I’m the best in the world and I’m going to knock someone’s head off.’ But if you don’t think like that, you’re never going to be the best. Off the pitch, you don’t have to act like that in football, but on the pitch it’s going through your head. I’d get compared to various other young players when I was 17 or 18 and I’d think, ‘Are you sure? I could play blindfolded with two feet tied together and be better than him.’
Having said that, when I scored my first goal for England, a month before the World Cup, it was still a huge relief. If you haven’t scored, you can get edgy and snatch at chances. But after that goal against Morocco, I thought, ‘OK, I’m up and running now’. Glenn Hoddle said to me, ‘You’re not coming to the World Cup as a passenger. You won’t be starting the first game but I will be using you.’ That was amazing – to know I was going to come on and be trusted to make a difference.
The first group game against Tunisia was the worst match to come into, from a selfish point of view. You want to make a real statement and get in the team, so being in the lead when you come on with five minutes to go is the worst.
But we were 1-0 down in the second game against Romania – that was my opportunity. I came on, scored, and that was that. I started the last group game against Colombia, though I did an interview with Glenn a few months ago and he told me that he’d always planned on starting me in that game.
He knew Colombia played with a high line and thought I would be tailor-made against them. That surprised me. I’d put all that pressure on myself to score against Romania so I could get in the team, and I would have played the next game anyway…
Then, after Colombia, came Argentina. I kept my place and the rest is history. It was a massive game so there were nerves, but no doubts. I had so much self-belief that night – I didn’t even know who we were playing, basically.
I’d heard of Gabriel Batistuta, but that was about it. I wish I could have bottled that feeling throughout my whole career – that innocence of youth, that fearlessness, that total confidence in my ability, and that contempt for the opposition. You lose some of that as you get older. Later in my career I’d think, ‘I’m playing this team today. The right centre-half is quick and strong, so I’ll try to play off the left centre-half.’ Back in the day, I didn’t give a monkeys who we played – it was just, ‘How many am I going to score today?’
I didn’t know many of Argentina’s players, and they can’t have seen too much of me because they played right into my hands. I went on a run early in the game and it sent shockwaves through their team.
I beat one or two players, got nudged over and won a penalty, which Alan Shearer scored to make it 1-1. That made me think, ‘Right, I’ve got them’, and it probably put a big seed of doubt in their minds, too.
If you look at the goal I scored a few minutes later, you could take a picture of where players were standing on the pitch and you’ll never see that again. David Beckham gave me the ball, and at that moment I was thinking about keeping it and laying it off to Paul Ince or David Batty, because I was near the halfway line.
Then I noticed Jose Chamot was a yard too close to me, and that if I took a decent touch I could sprint past him. It was when I took that first touch, wriggled past him and got my head up that my eyes lit up. I thought, ‘I’m through’. Then I saw Roberto Ayala what seemed like a million miles away. He’d felt my speed for the penalty and dropped so far back. You never see defenders positioned like that.
I just ran. Paul Scholes came up alongside me, but I was never going to leave it to him at that point. When I scored, it was a huge outburst of adrenaline and emotion for 10 seconds, while everyone else jumped on me. But so quickly you refocus on the game. You forget how many millions of people are watching back in England.