Early Doors

Time to accept Owen’s lowly status

Early Doors

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Maybe it is because Early Doors is of a certain age, but there seems to be an inescapable sadness about Michael Owen.

When his name flashes across Sky Sports News, or his latest tweet drops into a timeline, as the brain's synapses crackle in response a subliminal image recurs.

It is the image of an 18-year-old with wide eyes and arms stretched even wider, a stadium in St Etienne erupting, Roberto Ayala and team-mates left strewn across the turf by Owen's five-second burst of brilliance. A moment when anything seemed possible.

Trophies followed, as did the Ballon d'Or and a total of 259 goals - achievements that would satisfy all but the very best players - yet the inescapable sadness comes in the knowledge that here is a player who peaked at 18 and enjoyed his defining moment in just the 59th of his 548 games. That goal in St Etienne has come to define him more than any singular goal should any prolific goalscorer.

That is the image that stays with us, that endures. The image that has prevented many of us from accepting with good grace the decline of a once great striker and the fact that, following Tuesday's announcement that Stoke had struck a deal to sign the 32-year-old subject to Premier League approval, he is now merely a bit-part player at a middling club. Even at Newcastle a pretence could be maintained, but no longer.

That image is why, despite all the injuries, despite the hamstring-injury-induced loss of those legendary two yards of pace that so inhibited his later career, some still hold Owen, if not to those standards, then to some hope that they might be replicated in fleeting instances.

A parallel can be found in music. Despite the sub-standard clothing line, the awfulness of Beady Eye and the dated swagger, Liam Gallagher remains a figure of relevance. The opening strains of 'Cigarettes and Alcohol' remain so potent that his is a legacy we are not yet ready to abandon.

But the magic's gone, and it ain't coming back.

You could see it in Owen himself during his time at United: the tragi-comic nature of his tweets two seasons ago when, as games ticked inexorably by, he kept telling his followers to watch out for the one big goal he had left in him that season, the one big goal that never materialised.

It jars horribly when reconciling the fact that the once poster boy of English football, the wunderkind who appeared certain to smash Sir Bobby Charlton's goalscoring record with the national team, has signed up to an incentive-based deal at Stoke.

But this is the reality Owen finds himself in, and though he should feature more than he did at United - where his last competitive appearance came in November - it is hard to envisage a scenario where Owen will become an important part of Tony Pulis's team.

He certainly lacks the physical advantages of Peter Crouch - essential in a team that takes its succession of long throwers more seriously than some countries do their monarchs - while the energy of Jon Walters and his ability to pull wide with intent make him the obvious foil for the front man.

It is as an impact substitute that you can see Owen playing a role - sniffing out knockdowns from Crouch in the box could prove to be his forte - yet here too he has competition from Kenwyne Jones and Cameron Jerome. He will have to work hard to activate the substantial goal bonus that is believed to accompany his reported basic wage of £25,000 per week.

Owen rationalised the spell spent at Old Trafford by arguing it was better to get fewer games at a bigger club. Now desperate for matches, that argument eludes him and while, if the Premier League waves the deal through, he will certainly have a more prominent role than he did at United, he is still likely to struggle to get off the bench with regularity.

But if Owen can accept this status then so should we. For much of the past two seasons he has been a punchline - uniquely uniting Liverpool and Manchester United fans in that respect - but this is undoubtedly a chance to prove he still has some relevance in the Premier League.

If we can just accept he is an ageing, deeply average player who might nick the odd goal from the bench then perhaps he can get on with it in peace.

But for many, the idea of Michael Owen will forever be more than that.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Usain's a character and a big United fan. It's interesting he says he'd like to play in a charity game. It could be brilliant, and next year when we play Real Madrid's Legends again, there could be opportunities to bring him up and see how he does." - Sir Alex Ferguson, the big tease, says the world's fastest man may get a run out for Manchester United in a charity game.

FOREIGN VIEW: "That I am feeling sad and have expressed this sadness has created a huge stir. I am accused of wanting more money, but one day it will be shown that this is not the case." - Cristiano Ronaldo prolongs the circus surrounding his comments about being unhappy at Real Madrid with another rather cryptic message. Of course, if he genuinely is fed up of accusations of greed, he could always explain just what is making him so sad.

COMING UP: Arsenal's resurgent talent Abou Diaby goes Under the Microscope this morning, while we give you the chance to vote on the Premier League Goal of the Week at lunchtime. Jim White also files his latest column while Andy Mitten brings us up to speed on the Ronaldo situation this evening.

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