James Lawton: Why Michael Owen falls just short of greatness
No doubt it was unintended but the right arm that wrapped around the shoulders of Michael Owen after he scored the second of his two goals on a rare appearance for Manchester United might have been a reproach.
It came, after all, from Ryan Giggs. Like most of us, Giggs has made his mistakes but they do not include the one that must have haunted his occasional team-mate at least a little as he returned to his country retreat.
At 37, the Welshman is drinking from an apparently endless supply of the summer wine – he took another swig on Tuesday night when he completed the scoring against Leeds United in the Carling Cup tie – while Owen, six years his junior, claims to be content with the merest dribble.
Yes, as we are constantly told, Owen has his passion for the turf and a still enviable income for being the inevitably fading poster boy for United's depth of attacking options.
Yet maybe he will forgive those of us who regret something the great scrum-half Gareth Edwards once defined as a sporting tragedy.
It is when an outstanding talent is put down and abandoned before its time. Edwards talked about the agonies that faced him when it came to deciding when to walk away from the game that had given him so much – "I hated to think I would spend the rest of my life believing I could have had one more season, one more tour" – and these were worries almost certainly provoked by his sublimely gifted countryman Barry John's painfully regretted departure at the age of 27.
Owen never touched the heights of John – though anyone who was in St-Etienne the night he ran through the Argentina defence for one of the great World Cup goals in 1998 knows the extent of his potential – and today he vigorously rails against the opinion that if he hasn't walked away, he has put the last years of his career into mothballs.
It is also true that the Owen who sparkled so beautifully against Argentina – and persuaded the Italian coach Cesare Maldini, father of Paolo, that England had unearthed a new wonder of the football world – had travelled many miles downhill by the time the latest England manager Fabio Capello so brusquely rejected his services.
A tide of injuries had taken away his supreme weapon of deadly speed and there were also the problems presented by the rotations of Gérard Houllier and misadventures in Madrid and Newcastle.
Owen suffered those erosions of the body and not inconsiderable turbulence of the mind. When Kevin Keegan took over England he hinted at a preference for Andy Cole, and when he enforced that leaning in his team selection for a prestige friendly in Paris, Owen was required to reassert himself with a substitute's goal of brilliant acumen and a deliciously measured return to the centre circle.
If we didn't know it then, we knew it soon enough; the fierce glow of Owen when he burst upon that first World Cup was already dimming. He went to Japan in 2002 essentially unfit and was thus unable, beyond a goal stolen against Brazil, to reproduce the predatory force he celebrated by performing cartwheels in Munich in that dramatic but somewhat misleading 5-1 qualifying victory, and it was the same bleak story in Germany four years later.
Perhaps it was then that something snapped in Owen's mind as well as his body; maybe it was then that he settled for less.
There is no cause for blame here, only at least a little sadness. For some of us, anyway, Owen was the most reliable of that failed golden generation.
More than once, he said that front page celebrity left him utterly unmoved. He played his football and was happy to take his rewards, and what no one could dispute was his superior instinct for scoring goals. His time with England spanned nine years and when it was over, in 2007, he trailed only Sir Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker and Jimmy Greaves in the scorers list, with 40 in 89 games. He was just nine goals short of Charlton's mark, in 17 fewer games, a formidable achievement by any standards.
So why was there poignancy at Elland Road when Owen scored his goals, the first a scuff, maybe, but one of the highest quality, another the sweetest of drives? It was because of that sense of waste, the one the great Edwards dreaded when he wondered if he had another season left.
Owen insists he is content to play his minor role in the margins left by Rooney and Hernandez, Berbatov and a clutch of young contenders. He has had the best, he suggests, and he can live comfortably with the rest, a man of the sport of Kings who just happens to play a little football.
No shame here, no certainly not, but surely a pang. The trouble is he still does it so arrestingly well.