Belfast Telegraph

Michael Owen on Liverpool, Manchester United and who will win the title

By Steven Beacom

The call comes in at 3.30pm. It's Michael Owen's assistant. 'Michael will ring you at 4pm, if that's okay, Steven'," she says sweetly.

Experience of these interviews with big name footballers tells me I could be waiting for a while.

Mobile phone rings. It's 4pm on the button. Owen's on the line. Good to see he hasn't lost his sense of timing.

In his pomp as a player with Liverpool and England, that was his greatest quality.

Sure, he had searing pace, but it was the instinctive timing of the run and the exquisite timing of the finish past bemused goalkeepers which for several years made him one of the most feared strikers on the planet.

Some say he never truly fulfilled his astonishing early promise, but Owen himself will tell you he's content with all he achieved since exploding onto the scene aged 17 and all fresh faced with a debut goal for Liverpool.

Just a year later he became a global superstar with his World Cup wonder strike against Argentina.

Child star he may have been, but it wasn't like he sunk without trace once he hit adulthood. He revelled in a few hits late in his career like winning a league title with Manchester United the season after scoring that celebrated 'Fergie Time' winner against Manchester City

Owen's other favourite memories are scoring late goals to win FA Cup and League Cup finals for Liverpool (pictured below) and notching 40 goals for his country in 89 appearances.

And even though he had a troubled spell at Real Madrid, spending months living in a hotel room, he did score against Barcelona during his one season in Spain.

Oh, and he was also named European Footballer of the Year in 2001, the last Brit to be awarded the coveted prize.

Owen's 33 now. He's been around for so long, you would think he should be older.

More good timing saw him retire at the end of the season, after an injury-plagued spell at Stoke City. He knew his race was run.

No pre-season training for Owen this summer, but still he's had much to do.

There's his stables in Cheshire, a breeding ground for future champion horses on the flat, one of which Brown Panther has a genuine chance of glory at the Goodwood Cup today.

He recently entered the murky world of sport agents... though the father of four prefers to call it sports management of talented young footballers.

And then there's his other new job as BT Sport's flagship co-commentator as they take on the might of Sky.

Owen is relishing the role as well as the new season which he feels with all the managerial upheaval could be one of the best the Premier League has ever seen.

On the transfer front, he feels Chelsea target Wayne Rooney wants to feel loved at Manchester United, Luis Suarez moving to Arsenal from Liverpool would be a sideways step and believes Gareth Bale should think very carefully about leaving Spurs for Real Madrid.

Ask him any question, and he'll answer it.

From how he felt when he was on the losing side with England at Windsor Park to why he respects and admires Ulster jump jockey Tony McCoy so much.

So, who is going to win the Premier League, then Michael?

"As we stand, Manchester United are the team to beat but if Jose Mourinho gets who he is looking for I'd be really fearful if I were at United," says Owen.

"I'm a massive fan of Jose Mourinho. I believe with him in charge again every player at Chelsea will raise their game. It's a bit like 'the Messiah is back'. The players love him and the fans love him and the whole place will get a huge lift. If they get another striker, they'll be the team everyone will be looking out for."

The situation at Old Trafford intrigues Owen. He rates new boss David Moyes, but with Sir Alex Ferguson gone states success is no longer guaranteed for United.

"David Moyes is a very good appointment and I do believe he was the outstanding candidate for the job. That's not to say though that they are going to take off the way they finished last season winning the league.

"Whoever took over from Sir Alex Ferguson was going to be questioned and David Moyes has faced a quite a few already.

"In his favour, there can't be too many question marks against his squad. I don't think he will change it around that much. He'll try and add one or two players but he won't be looking to get rid of many.

"The main thing for United this season will be to adapt to the new manager and the new coaching staff because it will be different to what went before. If they adapt then United will be perfectly fine. They are the champions and to me have very few weaknesses."

Even the most optimistic Liverpool fan could not say that about their club as Carnlough man Brendan Rodgers continues the building process at Anfield.

Owen's verdict on his first club?

"I'm expecting a good season from Liverpool. They finished the last one well and should be buoyed by that when they start this time," he says.

"There is still time between now and then to strengthen the squad and I think they need to do that and at the same time they certainly don't want to be losing Luis Suarez.

"This is the second season in charge now for Brendan Rodgers and I expect him to keep improving the team.

"It wasn't easy when Brendan started at Liverpool, but over the final few months of last season there were signs that the side was starting to click under him. If they can begin this campaign with the form they finished with last time I think they could be a major player."

Quizzed on how he feels about being jeered at Anfield by the fans who once cheered him, he's keen to make the point: "When I walk the streets of Liverpool I never have a bad word said to me. I might get a few boos in the stadium but generally people in Liverpool come up and shake my hand and talk about the good times I had there."

Owen seems happy about that. In fact, he comes across as satisfied with just about everything in his life.

Not every ex-footballer can say that.

Bland and boring? Not me... I'll have a pop at old pals if they deserve it

Bland, boring, wooden. Michael Owen has been called them all in his short career as a television pundit to date.

Sitting on the Match of the Day sofa certainly didn't do him many favours, yet speak to him in person and Owen is frank, forthright and more fun than you might imagine.

And unlike many of today's footballers, he actually loves and studies the game.

Just as well, because like when he was on the pitch, there will be no hiding place in his new role as BT Sport's main co-commentator.

Viewers are much more media savvy nowadays and if Owen isn't cutting it behind the microphone, he can expect stick in the press, on radio phone-ins and his Twitter account which has over two million followers.

Talking about the match as it happens and the freedom that brings may suit Owen more than the stilted studio work he did for the BBC.

Certainly BT Sport have put plenty of faith in the former Liverpool and Manchester United striker as they bid to hit the ground running and challenge Sky Sports as 'the number one football station'.

Owen will make his debut on Saturday for BT Sport when they cover his old team-mate Steven Gerrard's testimonial at Anfield. He'll be back there on August 17 when BT Sport kick off television coverage of the new Premier League season with Liverpool against another of his old sides, Stoke City.

"I'll predominantly be doing the co-commentary which means I'll be out and about at all the stadiums," says Owen.

"It's a role I didn't expect to be involved in when I finished playing. I thought I'd be doing studio work and analysing games from there, but when BT approached me I thought it was a real challenge."

Owen insists he won't be trying to copy others who have been successful in the role such as Andy Gray or more recently Gary Neville, adding that those who believe he won't make the tough calls don't know him.

"There's no point pretending to be like anyone else because people would see through it," states the ex-England hero.

"I'll be myself and will say it how I see it and try to bring some insight to the viewers. Anyone can say 'that was a good cross and a good finish' but it is my job to bring something else to the viewing experience and explain how goals came about and talk about things that people watching may not have spotted.

"It won't be hard for me to criticise friends or former team-mates. If someone has made an error or a poor decision or a good decision for that matter, I will say it, no problem about that. I am certainly not frightened to criticise players. As far as I'm concerned that is part of the role. I believe everyone should be able to take criticism if it is justified."

We deserved to lose THAT night at Windsor Park

Quiz question: Where did Michael Owen play his final game for Manchester United?

Answer: Windsor Park.

Not many will have got that one right, but Owen remembers it.

The match was Harry Gregg's testimonial just a few days after United had agonisingly missed out on title glory to Manchester City in the dying moments of the 2011-2012 season.

United won the friendly game against an Irish League XI, but Owen was on the losing team on his most memorable (well, at least on this side of the Irish Sea) visit to Belfast.

That was in 2005, of course, when Northern Ireland took on England in a World Cup qualifier. Owen led the attack for Sven-Goran Eriksson's side which included David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As a teenager he scored a wonder goal for Liverpool in a pre-season tournament at Windsor Park and was expected to find the net again at the famous old ground.

It didn't work out that way with David Healy the only goalscorer on an epic night.

"That was a game all of your fans will probably never forget," said Owen with a wry smile, adding that Lawrie Sanchez's men were well worthy of their shock victory.

"It was a pretty poor game from our point of view. I walked off the pitch that night thinking it had not been a fluke that Northern Ireland won.

"We didn't play well, but we weren't allowed to play well because Northern Ireland really got about us and made it difficult right from the start of the match to the final whistle.

"The pitch was quite dry and we couldn't get our passing game together. We certainly never looked like winning the game or even scoring. On the night we were outplayed. It was as simple as that. We didn't deserve to win.

"I remember there being a great atmosphere inside the ground that night. The Northern Ireland fans really got behind their team and supported their players every second and made life difficult for us.

"It wasn't that it was hostile, but you could tell how much the Northern Ireland fans wanted the win and the players responded."

Owen added: "I may have had some mixed results but I always loved travelling over to Northern Ireland because the teams I played for, Liverpool and Manchester United, enjoyed such great support. There is great passion for both clubs there.

"I played at Windsor Park as a kid for Liverpool and did well and funny enough my last match for Manchester United was in Belfast in Harry Gregg's testimonial so it's a place that holds quite a few memories for me."

 

Your guide to BT Sport

Q: So Sky Sports have a new rival. Tell me about it.

A: BT Sport is a new group of sports channels launching today in the UK. BT has acquired ESPN's UK channels. The channels will be BT Sport1, BT Sport 1 HD, BT Sport 2, BT Sport 2 HD, ESPN and ESPN HD.

Q: What will be on it?

A: A lot of football – 38 exclusively live Premier League matches this season for starters. Along with Sky, BT Sport has Premier League rights for the next three seasons. Their first match is Liverpool v Stoke at 12:45pm on August 17.

They'll also show the FA Cup, the Football Conference, the Scottish Professional Football League, Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, the Russian Premier League, the Dutch Eredivisie, the Brasileirao, Uefa Europa League matches, the Copa Libertadores, Major League Soccer, the Australian A-League and the FA Women's Super League .

They have rugby too with the Aviva Premiership and French Top 14 as well as WTA Tennis, UFC, MotoGP, NCAA, Major League Baseball and Major League Lacrosse.

Q: Who is on their team?

A: Jake Humphrey will front the Premier League coverage. Owen Hargreaves, Steve McManaman and David James will be pundits.

Ian Darke and Darren Fletcher will commentate, with Michael Owen acting as co-commentator. Ray Stubbs will be a reporter.

Mark Halsey will also offer views as a former referee, and Rio Ferdinand will be popping up as an interviewer, programme-maker and football expert.

Craig Doyle and Lawrence Dallaglio will host the rugby coverage and Clare Balding will have her own weekly sports talk show.

Q: So how do you get it?

A: It's only available direct from BT and is free with BT Infinity and BT Broadband.

There are three ways to watch: on the Sky Digital Satellite Platform (on Sky Guide 413); on a BT TV; or on the BT Sport app or online player.

BT Broadband is available from £10 a month plus line rental, or £15 a month for fibre optic broadband.

All the information is on the BT sport website – http://www.bt.com/sport/

Q: Will BT Sport really challenge Sky?

A: Well, they are going to give it a real go.

They have invested millions upon millions and are confident they can make an impression on their rivals.

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