Axe hovers over Newcastle star Owen
The 63rd minute of the 34th match of Newcastle United's souring season and Michael Owen is suddenly clean through against Portsmouth.
This is classic Owen territory, 18 yards out, one-on-one with an advancing goalkeeper, in this case his former Liverpool, England and card-school mate David James.
But as he edges towards James with an opportunity to transform the trajectory of Newcastle's drooping campaign, the certainty for which Owen has been known across the globe since that night in St. Etienne eleven summers ago looks to have drained from his once-happy feet and his once-uncluttered mind.
Now there seems to be doubt, hesitation, in Owen's hamstrings and in his head. The shot is scuffed, James saves, Newcastle's chance is gone and Owen's latest manager at Newcastle, his friend Alan Shearer, starts to think thoughts he would rather not: that Owen should be dropped for tomorrow's trip to Anfield.
The difference between thinking and doing is a phrase Shearer uses. He knows the enormity of this decision, for Owen as much as himself. Shearer is probably aware that England manager Fabio Capello plans to be at Anfield and that it could be a difficult enough day for Owen back at his first love Liverpool without sitting among the subs.
Shearer, moreover, was on the pitch with Owen in St. Etienne, the pair share an agent in Tony Stephens and Shearer staked his faith in Owen the afternoon he walked into St. James' Park 30 days ago. Owen is Newcastle's captain.
But when asked yesterday about Owen leading Newcastle tomorrow, Shearer said: “If I believe he can do, then that will be reflected in the team on Sunday; if I believe that he can't, then that is a decision I have to make. But I will go in on Sunday with the team I believe will be best suited for a particular game to get us a result. You'll find out my decision on Sunday.”
Ruthlessness is an attribute in a manager. In the past Owen has spoken admiringly of Shearer having “a decent pair of 'spuds'” when it came to scoring penalties in high-stress matches, and Shearer must demonstrate that quality if he is to be a manager.
Having used Owen alongside Mark Viduka and Obafemi Martins on Monday night, Shearer was asked if it would be either brave or reckless to do so again at Anfield.
“Or mad?” he replied. “I have been mad in my time but I do not want to give away any formations or selections. But I tend to agree that, yeah, it might be mad to go there with three up front.”
Then, reflecting on Owen's moment against Portsmouth, Shearer said: “He's disappointed. Michael would have hoped to put that chance away but he didn't. But he will not wallow in self-pity.
“If you look at the stats, work-rate wise there's no problem, he's always in the top three or four players on the pitch. But it's goals that Michael's made his name from.
“If I do decide to drop one of the three strikers it will be a tough choice. He [Owen] has always been a confident lad but he's not a brash lad telling everyone what he's done. He's a quiet individual and his confidence comes from within. I think if he gets in the same situation on Sunday we'll be looking for him to put it away.”