In the days leading up to my interview with Michael Owen, I’d stressed about what questions I should ask him. When you’re dealing with someone so familiar to so many, it can be difficult to find things to talk about that haven’t been talked about before. I mean, all of us could talk about that Argentina goal until the streetlights come on (and me and Michael do talk about it, albeit briefly), but I wanted to go further.
I decided to approach the subject of retirement from football. Ground which I felt more like common ground than our actual careers, even if they had crossed each other on a couple of occasions.
After making polite introductions, fiddling and scrambling around for a way to kick things off, Owen jumps in with a “Where did you play?” I reel off the first six clubs before he stops me again and asks if I played much at Sunderland. I’m always embarrassed at revealing the return of the six years at my hometown club when asked that questions, so I tell him I was on the bench for a fair bit—but that I did play in the last ever game at Roker Park against Liverpool.
“Wow. Isn’t that mad?” he says. “That was the first time I ever travelled with the first team as part of the playing squad. Ronnie Moran pulled me over that morning and said I was in the squad. I didn’t have anything with me, my tracksuit or anything. I remember getting to Roker Park and standing in the centre circle absolutely shitting myself. I had to ask one of the older lads to borrow their mobile so I could call my mum’s house and tell her.”
I’d been wondering how I was going to soften Michael up so I’d get something different, yet here he was putting me at ease. Not just because he’d lead the conversation so far, but that there was common ground for us to tread. I knew that game was going to be my last ever time at Roker Park, both as a player and a fan. The old place was soon to be demolished and I’d signed for Darlington. Michael Owen wasn’t the only one who was shitting himself.
There was another occasion mine and Michael’s paths crossed—when Gérard Houllier brought his Liverpool side up to Pittodrie to celebrate Aberdeen’s centenary year, but it was only his playing performance I could pass judgement on that time.
So what did I think of him as a player? The most surprising aspect of his game to me was how clever he was. I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that he was simply a supreme finisher, a poacher. But Michael Owen was far from that. His movement around Emile Heskey was incredible, quickly identifying the quality of the ball up to his striking partner and responding to it immediately. If the ball came in to a man-marked Heskey’s feet or chest, he’d drop deep to offer himself as an option. It was at head height or Heskey had time to turn, his runs in behind the defence were timed to perfection. His action and movement in the build-up play is something he probably doesn’t get enough credit for. And when he picked the ball up from deep and was able to turn and run at defenders, all they would feel would be the cool breeze of the draught as he past them. He was a very clever footballer.
I want to know how he had handled retirement. Again, the general consensus would probably be having had such a stellar career, a sensible business head on his shoulders and what can be described as a keen interest in “the horses” to take up much of his time, that retirement would be kinder to him than most. I wanted to know if other players—players who had achieved what I only dreamed of—still had to cope with what I went through when struggling to come to terms with the end of my playing career.
My decision to retire was a long, drawn-out affair, one that was made more by football itself than me. Perhaps that’s where the difference lay, so I asked Michael if he remembers the day he decided to retire.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision,” he says. “I had been desperate to retire for a while. I hated not being the player I once was...” There’s a pause, more noticeable because of how rapid fire the conversation has been and how easy Owen’s words have flowed until now.
“I don’t have many regrets. Not even the injuries. I couldn’t do anything about them. I just wish that everyone remembered the player I was from 18 to 24 and that I could erase the second half of my career from everyone’s memories.
“Don’t get me wrong, there were still highlights. I scored in an El Clásico and the Manchester derby, but generally, the last thing fans remember you for is what they take away with them forever.” And with that, there was a helpless shrug of the shoulders in surrender to the fate of the hand he’d been dealt.
The frustration at not being able to perform to those early standards because of the hamstring struggles at Liverpool, and the following broken metatarsal at Newcastle that lead to the cruciate ligament injury suffered at the 2006 World Cup, was difficult to take.
I mention an old interview with Victoria Derbyshire on 5 Live. Michael was supposed to play in a Carling Cup match for Manchester United against Wolves but pulled out just before the game with a hamstring strain.
He sounded as deflated as anyone I’d ever heard in such a situation, and was clearly affected by what was yet another setback. As someone who’s also struggled with injuries, including sciatica and back problems from the age of 15 alongside numerous others—from broken metatarsals to ruptured biceps—I know how much of a test of mental strength it can be, and I wondered how greatly they affected him.
I dealt with those tests my own way. I’d initially isolate myself from everyone I knew. I’d just be a nightmare in company and end up taking my frustrations out on those around me. Then there’d be the denial stage where I’d convince myself the best way to deal with it was to drown my sorrows. Only after I’d passed these two stages could get on the road to a more positive recovery, where getting fit is seen as a challenge to overcome.
“I never got that down about the injuries at the time,” he says. “I could deal with the actual injuries themselves no problem. Yeah, I’d be disappointed for a few days but once I knew the extent of the problem and when I was due to be back, I could get my head down and work towards that goal. But it was the toll the injuries were taking on my body. I hated the player I’d become.
“By the end of my time, all I was doing was either coming short to link the play or hanging around the box waiting for a chance. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t anything to do with falling out of love with the game. I’d fallen out of love with me. I was only 70% of the player I was, at best.”
TIME IS UNKIND
You might think this is the way Mother Nature works, that we all reach our peak at an early age and fall into a long decline, yearning for the person we once were. Yeah, maybe. But imagine being Superman and waking up one morning only to discover you have lost your superhuman physical powers, your X-ray vision, and the ability to fly. But Michael Owen wasn’t like the rest of us. He’s been mocked for a tweet where he stated that he “shook the world” in his day, but there can be no denying that he did. Michael was capable of changing the course of a game on his own and now it was no longer there.
“People forget about the human side,” he says. “I didn’t care how much money I earned, I wanted to be the best at what I did. I wanted to score goals and win games. It’s what made me get up in the morning. It’s different now. That drive to be the best at whatever I’m doing just isn’t there, so money might take precedence now because apart from the TV work which I do, and enjoy doing, the rest isn’t that important. People might not understand that if they have never wanted something that badly, that drive to be the very best…
“I don’t mean good,” he adds, “I mean the very best. And when you’ve been there at the top, they might find it hard to understand how much it hurts when your body won’t let you do it anymore. It hurts more than you can imagine.”
The void that football can leave in your life can be huge, especially when it is inextricably linked to who you are as a person...
“The one big mistake I made was going straight into co-commentary first,” he says. “I’d love to sit down with everyone and explain to them what happens and show them how difficult commentating is. Let them have a go and see. It’s the hardest part of this job and I really wish I’d just gone in the studio first so the public could get to know me a bit more and see that I’m quite a nice fella who hasn’t done a lot wrong away from the pitch.”
There’s a hint of disappointment in his voice here, and rightly so. More roguish figures are more readily taken to the hearts of fans yet there has always been this distance between them and Michael. Well received, yes, but not loved.
You can probably put that down being someone who is naturally shy. “I was never the most boisterous person but football turned me inside out,” he says. “I was a shy lad who all of a sudden found himself acting in Pepsi adverts and now I’m more comfortable doing stuff like this. Before I could even become accomplished at commentating I was being criticised. The way I see it, I couldn’t win. Nobody ever says that the commentator had a good game. A bit like a ref. They only mention you if you do something bad.”
There’s an injustice to how he’s portrayed and, although he doesn’t go too much into it, you can tell it’s something that gnaws away at him. In the same way that he got injured playing for Newcastle and leaving the pitch to his own fans singing “What a waste of money”, it would be impossible for him not to feel a sense of “What did I do to deserve this?”
We did talk about ‘that’ goal against Argentina. Of course, it should be the overriding memory whenever his name is mentioned, but it’s part of a story that has been tainted by injury and a love with Liverpool that will always remain filed under unfinished business.
I’m not in the habit of feeling sympathy for millionaire ex-footballers. There’ll always be a touch of envy towards those who I will always wish I was as good as. Wrongly, we equate money with happiness and forget they are just like us, just better at kicking a football. Sadly for Michael Owen, people will just remember the injuries and the criticism he got for being thrown into football punditry’s deep end. After sitting down with him for a while my opinion has changed about him though because now I actually have one.
It takes time to allow your guard to drop when you’re in front of TV cameras or behind a mic, and now it feels like that’s happened with Michael. He looks as though he’s in the process of trying to put things right. He might wish everyone could forget the second half of his career, but for his sake, I wish there was a way he could forget it as well, so we all just remember the real Michael Owen. Super Michael Owen.
This originally appeared in Issue 15. To make sure you don't miss out, subscribe to our mag and get four delivered to your door over the next year.