Retiring Michael Owen can look back on career with pride
In the end there were just too many tearing injuries, slowing him down and taking away that first searing certainty, but Michael Owen was right to be proud when he announced that he would retire at the end of the season.
If his career was cruelly punctuated, if he didn't win as many caps as Beckham or score as many goals as Charlton, Lineker or Greaves, he had his own unforgettable distinction.
It came in blazing speed and a predatory touch no less thrilling because of its essential simplicity. Owen's purpose was brilliant and unadorned. He came to score, that only, and with such breathtaking precocity he was still only 18 when Cesare Maldini, coach of Italy and father of the great Paolo, declared, "Where have England been hiding this boy? With such a player, you could beat the world."
The promise was worn down in treatment rooms over the years but not before Maldini Senior's prophecy had come hauntingly close to fulfilment.
Owen inspired it with his superb goal on a warm June night in Saint Etienne when he ran through the Argentina defence to give England the lead in their second-round tie at the 1998 World Cup. If you were there in the cramped and heaving Geoffroy Guichard Stadium, you saw something you would keep forever.
Owen took a pass from David Beckham and bore down on Argentina. He swept by Jose Chamot and created an agony of doubt in the formidable defender Roberto Ayala before sweeping the ball high and unanswerably beyond Carlos Roa.
It was the impact of a teenager on a World Cup that briefly threatened to rival Pele's 40 years earlier but then Beckham, absurdly, earned a red card and England went down 4-3 in the shoot-out. If Owen had disappeared into that French night, he would surely have lingered in the memory.
As it was, there would be thunder-clap echoes of the drama in the Rhone Valley. He scored a hat-trick at the Olympic Stadium in Munich as England beat Germany 5-1 and performed the most elaborate cartwheel of celebration, and then less than a year later on a baking day in Shizuoka, Japan, he shot England into the lead against Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final. Though he was nursing injury, Owen scored a trademarked goal, swooping on a clumsy touch by the big defender Lucio.
It was arguably England's best chance of winning the great prize since 1966. Brazil were buoyed by the brilliance of Ronaldinho but they had never been so vulnerable, especially when the Brazilian playmaker was dismissed early in the second half for a callous foul. What Owen couldn't conquer, not then and not ever, was neither England's misadventure nor his own. David Seaman made his catastrophic error and England could not enforce their man advantage. Owen, their most significant threat, left drained and hurt in the 79th minute, replaced by Darius Vassell.
Four years later, in Cologne, he hobbled out of another World Cup and he would not play again for nearly a year. There it was, the outline of a career on the world stage that had come so close to touching the stars, but there was hardly a hint of angst when Owen, the scorer of one goal in seven appearances so far in his final professional stint with Stoke City, said it was time to go. "I've been fortunate," he declared, "to have had so much support from great coaches and team-mates and family."
It was an admirable perspective from a man who might have complained about the vagaries of fate and the tide of physical mishap that brought him career-ravaging hamstring, metatarsal and cruciate ligament injuries. Instead, he chose to pick up a glass much more than half-filled with some excellent vintage.
He scored 40 goals for England in 89 appearances, 158 for Liverpool in 297 games, and when he was said to be so miscast at the Bernabeu in the company of such as Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo he still managed 14 in 40 appearances, many of them starting from the bench. There was a similar profile at Newcastle United, where he suffered some of the worst of his injuries.
He scored 30 in 79 games and then if he was becalmed for much of his time at Manchester United there was still a reminder of the very best of his talent. It came with his late arrival in a tumultuous Manchester derby and a goal of the sweetest touch.
In 2001, he was voted European Footballer of the Year, 22 years after the previous Englishman, Kevin Keegan. He stole the FA Cup from Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium. In kinder circumstances, he would have smashed the England scoring record. Some may say that Michael Owen was a nearly man. But then they may also bay at the moon.
Goal machine: Owen's record
1996-04 Liverpool (158 gls/297 gms)
2004-05 Real Madrid (14/40)
2005-09 Newcastle (30/79)
2009-12 Man United (17/52)
2012-13 Stoke City (1/7)
1998-2008 40 goals, 89 caps
2001 FA Cup, League Cup, Uefa Cup
2003 League Cup
2010 League Cup
2011 Premier League