Michael Owen’s career saw him represent clubs as illustrious as Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle and Manchester United, but he is perhaps best remembered for his exploits with the England national team.
After bursting onto the scene as a 17-year-old for Liverpool, Owen went on to establish himself as one of the most exciting young players in world football.
By the age of 21, he had already finished as the Premier League’s top scorer twice, was coming off the back of a treble-winning season with the Reds and won the Ballon d’Or.
Recency bias means Owen is now often remembered for a disappointing end to his career in which injuries began to take their toll, while his decision to join Manchester United remains unforgiven by many on Merseyside.
But it seems unfair to forget just how fast the striker set hearts racing during his early career thanks to his exhilarating alchemy of blistering pace, deadly finishing and the fearlessness of youth.
While he scored over 200 goals at club level, the one Owen strike which stands out in everybody’s mind came in an England shirt, aged just 18, as he ripped apart a typically cagey Argentinian defence to score one of the Three Lions’ most spectacular goals.
The goal summed up the meteoric rise of the diminutive hitman, whose first memories of watching England came only eight years previous to his goal against La Albiceleste.
“I would have been 10 years old at the time and I remember the World Cup coming up and the usual hype around it,” he says, “but it was only when the games started and everyone in England almost ground to a halt that I realised what international football was all about.
“I just loved it, I was captivated by it and remember it now so vividly.
“It’s easy to knock international football these days and I hear a lot of fans suggesting they would rather watch a great Premier League match or a big Champions League game between two top clubs.
“Yet I bet if you ask many of the players in the England team what their first memory was of watching football as kids, they would probably mention a World Cup or a European Championships and that is because those competitions still mean so much.”
Fast forward to 1998 and Owen, barely out of high school, has scored 24 goals in 46 Liverpool appearances, earning inclusion in Glenn Hoddle’s squad for the World Cup in France as England’s impact option off the bench.
A cameo in the opening win against Tunisia is followed by an equaliser against Romania, but England fall to a 2-1 defeat. Teddy Sheringham is dropped for the teenager as England beat Colombia to secure qualification, and Hoddle keeps his faith in the youngster for the last 16 tie with Argentina.
We all know what happens next, but to this day it remains just as extraordinary.
David Beckham clips the ball forward and Owen flicks it into his stride. His pace takes him past one and he’s left facing a defence already petrified of his frightening ability.
In sheer panic they just retreated even deeper. Owen shimmies past the last man and now he’s into the box.
Paul Scholes, blessed with one of the best right feet English football has ever produced, is awaiting to rifle the ball home, but the Liverpool man is playing his own game now, and he strokes the ball into the top corner.
Nobody has ever made a finish look easier.
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) November 15, 2017
“There was a real buzz about England at that time and we had some great players. To get into that squad for the World Cup in France was a massive achievement for a kid of my age and I remember how proud my family felt when the call-up came.
“It was surreal playing in a World Cup when I was just 18. I did not imagine I would get to that stage in my career so quickly.
“Naturally, when you get into the Liverpool team and start scoring goals, the door to international football will open, but to be part of a tournament like that was amazing.
“I was a bit in awe of people like Gazza when I first got into the squad, but I always felt I was good enough to be in there, even if the senior pros were established in that environment.
“To play in France and score the goal I managed against Argentina was something that changed my life and that is what a World Cup can do for a player.
“I remembered warming up as a substitute for the Romania game and thinking I really fancied my chances of scoring if I got on and thankfully that happened.
“The manager had told me when he put me in the squad that I would get my chance. Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham were going to start, but he told me my chance would come and scoring against Romania was such a fantastic feeling.
“I was picked for the game against Argentina and people still talk about that goal now. I was ready to go, didn’t have any fear of the opposition and I just felt convinced I would score, as that’s what I always did.
“That goal did change things for me. I remember looking up and there was only one guy that I needed to beat and I had a run on him so he had no chance. It looked so easy to me and I clipped it in.
“We were 2-1 up and I just remember seeing my mum and dad in the crowd when I punched the air. It was a special moment and that moment did change my life.
“That is such a big stage and when you score a goal like that, it changes the way you are viewed all over the world.”
• • • •
• • • •
Though Owen would go on to play at another four major tournaments for England, that goal remained the highlight of his career.
Tournament failure has become all too familiar for the England team and their fans, but Owen was part of the last crop of players to give the nation hope they could make a mark on a competition.
The end of Owen’s international career coincided with the start of the only player to capture the imagination quite like the hero of 1998: Wayne Rooney.
Had Rooney been able to avoid injury at Euro 2004, or Owen at the 2006 World Cup, England’s recent fortunes could have been markedly different.
Like Owen, Rooney’s career is often characterised by a sense of ‘what could have been?’, despite becoming his country’s record goalscorer.
“Is Wayne Rooney a great player? I have heard that question a lot down the years,” Owen says.
“I remember when he came into the England side alongside me at Euro 2004 and did so well. All the hype that blew up around him after that inevitable in so many ways, but it is wrong to say he has not gone on to achieve great things in the game for Manchester United and England.
“History will confirm he is a fantastic player as he is the record scorer for England and Manchester United. They are two records that are among the most cherished in English football, so it is wrong to say he has not fulfilled his potential.
“Unfortunately, Wayne hasn’t performed at his best in a World Cup and that’s why people view his England career in a negative light, but you could say the same about so many England players in the last decade.
“Wayne Rooney alone has not been the problem, England as a whole have been the problem.”
England will head to Russia next summer without the expectation or pressure Owen and Rooney had to handle, and the former is urging the players to embrace the challenge.
“The England team will not realise quite what it will mean for their careers if they can make their mark in the biggest tournament of them all.
“I can confirm from personal experience that people remember those big moments for England more than any other.”
By Kevin Palmer