Michael Owen: One-on-One
Being Michael Owen can be a strange business at times. The 27-year old has been conspicious by his absence from the Premiership since returning from Real Madrid in August 2005 following two freak injuries which first ended his 2005-06 campaign with a broken metarsal and later shredded his 2006 World Cup ambitions when he hit the deck against Sweden with torn cruciate ligaments in his knee. An enforced period of rehabilitation and telly watching has followed and he’s yet to appear this season.
Yet Owen has been a busy boy, spending more time at work than his fully fit Newcastle colleagues. And when FourFourTwo meets the Toon striker at a makeshift studio in Woking, he’s already recording an advert for the new Umbro England strip. Make-up girls powder his nose, lighting equipment whirrs noisily and fixed grins are fired into nearby cameras on request. Indeed, despite the injury, it appears to be business as usual for Owen, who, despite suggestions from the media that his trademark pace will never fully return, shows no signs of slowing down.
And as with referees, man markers and over exuberant make-up artists, he’ll be handling your questions with the expected levels of diplomacy. Plus the occasional wince of embarrassment...
You went to the same school as Gary Speed. Was your PE teacher some Mickey-from-Rocky-type motivational genius?
The Unfortunoid, Kingston
[Laughs] I guess he was. It was a guy called Mr Ledgham and he was a top man. He was hard but fair and he liked the people that tried and he didn’t like the people that didn’t try – like most PE teachers I guess. Our school had quite a good reputation in the area for sports – Ian Rush came from just down the road too, so maybe there’s something in the water. I know a lot of players came from that area who went on to have successful football careers.
He was a strict teacher, which was probably why he did quite well. Like most teachers he had his own unique style and I loved PE. Whether it was spring, summer, autumn or winter, football or athletics or games, it was my favourite lesson. I always used to put the effort in. I never got any detentions because I tried loads. I think I got a few off my French teacher, though!
What’s the best goal you’ve ever scored? Apart from the ones against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, of course...
Pete Simpson, Liverpool
I scored a brilliant one for England U15s at St James’ Park. We were playing Scotland and I remember they had just equalised to bring the game to 1-1. I was standing on the centre spot for the kick-off, the ball was tapped to me and that was it, I was off. I beat about four people and put it past the keeper. Sky were televising it too, so I got to see it afterwards. We ended up winning the game 2-1 and won the Victory Shield as well, so it was quite a good night, all in all.
Do you keep your goals in a large video vault that you watch when you’re bored?
Johnny Allen, Petts Wood
[Laughs] No, only if one of them comes on when I’m watching the telly, but apart from that, no. I probably will when I retire so I can remember what I used to be like, but I don’t bother now.
Being a former Everton fan, why did you celebrate in front of their fans when you scored your first derby goal? Was it a difficult moment?
No, not really, because I’d been playing at Liverpool for a while and obviously you build relationships with fans and players when you move to a new club. I can’t understand it when players kiss the club badge when they score their first goal, because it’s like going into a relationship with a new girlfriend – you don’t have those feelings straightaway, they develop after a while. After being at a team for so long, as was the case with Liverpool, that’s when you develop passions for a club.
So when I scored against our biggest rivals it was a big deal. But I’m not one of those players who hate Everton, I supported them as a kid and they’re a great club and brilliant for the area, but it’s great to score in the local derby.
How are Everton fans with you these days?
Len Barrett, Workington
They’re OK. They used to sing a lot of chants at me, but in general they’re fine. Where I live there are a lot of Everton fans and my mum and dad and brother were all born in the centre of Liverpool, so when I go back I run into a few, but they’re good to me.
A hat-trick against the Germans on their own turf: can you explain what went through your mind when the third went in?
It was amazing. The first was very different from the third because it was the equaliser and I thought, “Yes, we’re back in the game!”. Plus I knew at that moment that we could beat them. The second was great and the third was the icing on the cake. A hat-trick in any international is tough, but it’s particularly hard against a team like Germany. It was one of my best moments in an England jersey. It’s also a moment that most England fans can really look back on and feel a sense of pride. That was a great occasion and it was as about exciting as it gets for a footballer.
How long after you joined Real Madrid did you realise that certain players were undroppable – or were you aware of that before you went?
Stuart Staves, Guildford
I wouldn’t say players were undroppable, but you didn’t want to give anyone an excuse to drop you. I think I went on a run where I scored for seven games on the spin. Then in the next game I didn’t score for 55 minutes and I was taken off. I was on the bench for the next game. [Laughs] That just shows you how difficult it is.
My time in Madrid was better than most people make out. I started a lot more games than the ones where I came on as sub, though a lot was made of the time I’d spent on the bench. I think I was more involved than most of the players in the squad that season – even the goalkeeper.
But playing in Spain was an eye-opener for me, that’s for sure. I played in a lot of different stadiums against some fantastic players and the fans were great. I had a really good relationship with the fans. I loved it and I wouldn’t have changed my time there for anything, but I definitely wanted to come back to the Premiership – it’s a league that I enjoy.
Did Steve McManaman fill you in on the lifestyle in Madrid?
Kelly Dodd, Ipswich
Well, I think he enjoyed it over there more than me. Macca is easy going and loved the lifestyle, whereas I like the comforts of family and friends and being at home – the things that us English people generally enjoy doing. I like restaurants that open at normal times rather than in the early hours of the morning. Macca is a laid back guy and he settled in well. He was more suited to it all than me, but having said that, I really enjoyed it out there.
How did you spend your time �between training and games in Madrid? Did you socialise with Becks a lot?
Yeah, I did. It was good that we had each other there – we’re mates, we’re English speaking and we get on well. It actually took us longer to learn Spanish because we could get away with talking English with one another, though I could speak a bit of Spanish to get by. And there was Woody [Jonathan Woodgate] as well, so there were a few of us out there. We would go out for meals together – it’s a country for dining out really.
The restaurants are good, the food is fantastic. You can go to a restaurant, have a meal and chat away over a glass of wine into the early – or the late – hours of the morning. It’s difficult in a way because it’s hard to get babysitters and it’s hard to get to know the other lads because you don’t talk the language, but it was a great experience.
Which language can you speak better: Spanish or Welsh?
John Williams, via e-mail
Spanish, definitely. I can’t say much in Welsh – probably just “Happy Birthday” or something. I think the first line of spoken Spanish was during my first press conference and I said: “I’m learning my Spanish little by little.” [Laughs] All the journalists thought I could speak after that and started asking me more questions in Spanish.
How did you feel when you watched Liverpool winning the Champions League Final against AC Milan – the year after you'd left them?
Joey Voce, Crosby
I was watching it in my living room in Madrid with the wife. The kids were upstairs asleep. At 3-0 down I thought they were dead and buried, but once they came back into it after an hour you knew they had it in them. Funny thing was, I was probably the last to text them all, wishing them good luck, and the first to text them with congratulations. We’re still all good mates. Stevie Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Dietmar Hamann – while he was still there – were my big friends at the club.
I was speaking to them all after the game. I was so pleased for them. And yeah, you do think 'What if I was there? What could I have done for them during the game?' But I’m not one to look back with regrets. Winning the European Cup is something that I want to do in my career. I’m not jealous, but I’d love to do it. Another part of you also thinks, ‘I’ve been there all that time and I never won it and then I leave and they win’. [Laughs] Proves that I’m crap, really! But seriously, it was great for the lads. I was there for the semi-final against Chelsea and that was a great game as well.
What is the truth behind the whole ‘Will he, won’t he return to Anfield?’ saga before you moved to Newcastle?
David Owens, Telford
It was real. I spoke to the chief executive Rick Parry and I was in Liverpool with Rafa Benitez and we were pretty close to agreeing things. The main issue was Real Madrid and Liverpool settling on a deal and they couldn’t agree a fee – plus Newcastle were quite aggressive in their offer to Madrid. So Madrid felt that Liverpool weren’t matching their valuation of me and I thought it would be good to go to Newcastle.
It was a World Cup year and I wanted to be playing, plus Madrid had bought two more strikers, so I went to St James’ Park and thought it was great. It’s a very similar place to Liverpool in a lot of ways – especially the people, who are football mad. I thought that, as much as it would have been great to go back to Liverpool, going to Newcastle would be just as enjoyable an experience.
You seem to be a quiet and reserved guy. What are you like in the dressing room?
Luis Tovar, via email
I’d say I’m quite shy around people I don’t know. To start with anyway. In my first year at Newcastle – and probably Madrid – people thought I was quite quiet to begin with. The same with Liverpool probably, but after a while I’m as cheerful and as jokey as everyone else really.
With your recent injury, what are you like when you’re watching England play?
James Marker, Brighton
[Laughs] Fortunately it hasn’t happened too often. I prefer being out there, obviously. I don’t get too animated when I’m watching football. The worst thing is when you’re playing and you come off and sit on the bench. You’ve been playing so your emotions are as involved as everyone on the pitch, but you’re not involved. You sit there and everyone is nervous, the manager is shouting and soon enough you start getting nervous yourself. If I’m watching or playing I’m fine, but if I come off and we’ve got ten minutes to play and we’re hanging on to a lead then it’s not so good.
Cheese & Owen or Salt & Lineker?
I actually quite like both flavours to be honest. I’m not a ready salted man, but obviously I’ve got to go for mine, haven’t I? It’s quite weird having your name on a bag of crisps, but that’s football. The only normal bit is when you’re out there playing in front of supporters. It was nice meeting Gary Lineker, though. He was a boyhood hero of mine.
I’ve heard you’re the daddy of ping pong. Who in the England camp can hold a paddle to you?
Ping Pong Will, London
I do like to play and I remember when I first got into the squad, Gazza was brilliant at it. Gazza would play double handed, backhand and forehand. He would squeeze both hands around the bat and he was amazing. Ian Wright and Glenn Hoddle were good and Rio is quite good these days, too.
According to your team mates, you’re the best all round sportsman in the England team. Is there any sport you can’t play?
Lee Stamms, Guildford
[Laughs] I’m not great at ping pong, actually! It’s funny, I only play sports that I know I can win at! If I play table tennis then I’ll watch to see who’s at my standard before challenging them to a game. If they’re better than me, I won’t play them!
Is it true that you give your sister £50 a month to get the latest music because you can’t decide what to get yourself?
Shelly Newman, Cardiff
I wouldn’t say it’s a monthly arrangement but yes, sometimes I’ll do that. I’m rubbish with songs, so I’ll hear something I like and I’ll sing her the chorus and she’ll get it for me. In terms of knowing who sang what and the song titles, I’m garbage. What does she usually come back with? Whatever I’m going on about at the time. I actually flew to Dubai recently and I was listening to The Beatles’ Number 1s album on the in-flight system. I came back with a massive list for her and now I’m a big fan.
Has the burden of expectation on Wayne Rooney taken the pressure off you?
Tim Short, via email
In terms of burden I don’t really think of it like that. I certainly don’t go onto a pitch feeling a burden. Yeah, there is some pressure in football – there’s pressure to win or whatever – but it’s something I’ve always lived with and I certainly don’t go onto a pitch thinking, “Oh if we lose, what will happen?” You just play the game and what follows, follows.
It was weird seeing him go through the same experiences �I had after France ’98. It’s OK people saying to you that you should keep your feet on the ground and tread carefully, but it’s rare those people have experienced the same thing. I could empathise with him because I was shot to stardom over a couple of weeks in 1998. Going from nothing to a hero is an experience that not too many people can understand.
For some people it happens in a gradual process. But for myself and Wayne we both came home to a massive hoo-ha. It’s exciting at the time but you know it won’t last forever. It’s important to stay mentally sound and stable after that, otherwise you get into the realms of madness.
But Wayne’s a brilliant player to play with and I’ve been fortunate enough to play with a lot of very good strikers. Wayne is definitely up there with the best of them. He’s a fantastic talent and I hope he continues to develop and improve.
How accurate is the newspaper coverage of your life and what’s the most outrageous story that’s ever been written about you?
Rich Evans, Glasgow
I’d say that 90% of stories about you are part true. I’ve had millions that have been written about me that are wrong. Recently, someone found out that I was taking a helicopter up to Newcastle and the next story was about how ‘Freddie Shepherd is on collision course with Michael Owen over his pilot lessons’, or something. I wouldn’t even dream of trying to learn, but I like sitting in the back and reading the papers.
It’s like that, though, and you soon get used to it. Anything you do, anything you buy or anywhere you’re seen, they’ll get some story out of it. They always get half of the story right and the other half completely wrong. I don’t bother getting the hump with it any more – I’m long past that. I used to think, ‘Who wrote that bad story about me?’ but then you calm down. I’ve got kids and stuff now, so I’m more sensible. And who’s bothered if a few thousand people think that Michael Owen is doing this and that? Denying it only fuels the story, so it’s better to ignore it.
Your face was etched with a slow motion look of horror when you went down during the Sweden match at the World Cup in Germany. What went through your mind?
Dave Moone, Raynes Park
To start with I thought, ‘That’s me finished in the game and the World Cup’. I knew it was bad straight away. After that you think about what you need to do. Once that’s done you’re thinking about how long you’re going to be out and what games you’re going to miss. Weirdly you then start feeling sorry for all your family who have flown out to see you, and your sponsors.
Newcastle had only just got me back fit after breaking my foot and I’d only played one game for them, then I got injured and was going to be out for most, if not all, of the next season. Football’s a big business and if I don’t play then there are investments from clubs and sponsors and different things involved. I actually found myself in the treatment room texting everyone to apologise for getting injured, even though it was just a freak incident.
What do you do during the day when you’re injured: read, cook or watch Deal Or No Deal??
Keith Simpson, Theydon Bois
I do like Deal Or No Deal?, actually. Some of it does my head in – the mystic side of it is a bit weird. And I’m sure the producers must take people to one side and get them to wind the audience up. And Noel drags it out a little bit, but it’s still pretty good. I switch off once the the big money boxes have gone, though.
But for a footballer, I’m working long hours at the moment. I don’t leave until 3.30 or four o’clock because I’m working on my injury, so Deal Or No Deal? comes around at the right time for me. But apart from that I like watching the horseracing and other sports on telly.
Are you a modern dad and can you change a nappy?
Sam Jones, Salisbury
I can change a nappy but that’s not to say I do it often. I think to start with I was really hands on with fatherhood and then you settle into a routine – the wife always bathes the kids now and we share other stuff. But at the start you’re both fighting over who does what and when. She definitely does more than me now, though.
When you get an injury do you lose a yard of pace because you’re worried about having a recurrence if you’re running at full speed?
G Parry, via e-mail
If it’s muscular, yeah. One of the things I’m doing with this current injury is making sure that all my past injuries are over and done with and rehabilitated. Obviously I had problems with my hamstrings when I was young and they take their toll – your muscles weaken every time you pull one. So this is a good opportunity to strengthen everything up again. And I’m adamant that I’m going to come back as strong and as sharp as when I was 18 or 19. Since then, as with every hamstring injury, you probably lose half a yard, but this time I’m working to get back to where I was when I was younger.
Who’s the best defender you’ve ever faced?
Alan Carsley, Birmingham
There’s been so many, but I’d have to say Marcel Desailly – when he wanted to be. He was as quick as anyone, as strong as anyone and he was pretty much a machine when he first came over. He was a beast to play against.
Life after football: manager, TV analyst or horse trainer?
Joe 90, via e-mail
All three are possibilities. I’d love to be in touch with the game as a manager or a coach, or even writing newspaper articles or talking on the telly. Football’s been a massive part of my life so I’d love to stay involved. Horses are a big passion too, so I’ll be out on the gallops most days, but I can’t see myself wanting to be a racehorse trainer. I don’t want to be getting up at five in the morning, dealing with problems and looking after 100 owners. That’s not my idea of a peaceful retirement.
From the March 2007 issue of FFT. Interview by Matt Allen