Sadly Michael Owen Has Been Finished For A Decade

I loved Michael Owen. From the moment he burst onto the scene, I was enchanted by him. 

His arrival into the professional ranks was like a fairytale for all to aspire to back in the late '90s. Here was a was boy punching above his weight in a man’s world, and making said men look like they’d never played this beautiful game before. 

Intelligent, good-looking, dedicated and immensely talented – the boy wonder had it all. 

But fast forward to today - as he announces he'll be retiring from football at the end of this season - and while Owen’s sad twilight descent reaches that darkest of places, Stoke City's reserves, the question is: did he have it all too soon?

The early bird catches the worm, they say, and Owen’s career dawn turned into an almighty feast of fame and fortune.

The baby-faced Cheshire lad was just 17 when he scored on his Liverpool debut, in May 1997. Yet barely a year later, he’d won the Premier League Golden Boot with goals like this, starred at the 1998 World Cup with goals like this and finished second to the great Zinedine Zidane in the Ballon d'Or award. 

Meanwhile, he’d signed multi-million pound endorsement deals with at least five blue-chip brands, bought a whole cul-de-sac of mock-Tudor mansions for his family, won the prestigious BBC Sports Personality Of The Year gong and had his legs insured for £40million.

As early birds go, this significant dawn feast was enough to make Gordon Ramsay blush. But it was not without precedent. 

Forty years earlier, a 17-year-old Brazilian boy called Pele had won the World Cup, and universal acclaim, off the back of some awe-striking displays at the 1958 tournament in Sweden. 

Four decades on, Owen’s pace, poise and predatory instincts were thrust into the spotlight, and comparisons between the greatest footballer ever, and England’s rookie star seemed perfectly logical. 

“Owen is a man who looks like a boy,” said Pele in 1998. “He is a chief danger to defences; a major talent. He could be a legend.”

Of course, we now know that in the whole grand scheme of things, Owen will not join Pele in history as one of the greatest players the world has ever seen. In fact he couldn’t even lay claim to being the one of the greatest of his generation. 

Many bandwagon-jumpers will argue he peaked at that first World Cup, where his fearlessness and raw edge were utterly mesmerising. But it was during a period in the early Noughties that Mo was at his irresistible best.  

In 2001, undoubtedly his career season, Owen scored 38 goals. He led Liverpool to a unique domestic and European cup treble, as well as England to World Cup qualification thanks in part to that hat-trick in Germany. The cherry on the icing then came as he beat Zinedine Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo to that year's Ballon d'Or title. 

That was as good as it got, however. At 21 years of age, Owen’s career trajectory was about to begin its slow and awkward descent.

Injuries had become an intermittent problem ever since he pulled a hamstring at Leeds United in April 1999. There were losses of form as a result. There was evidence of burnout at times; a plausible knock-on effect of forcing his underdeveloped pubescent body to compete week in and out in the toughest league in the world. 

In years gone by, it was almost unheard of for a footballer to start his top-level career while still a teenager, especially if that meant starting every game of a 50-fixture season. In the '70s and '80s, you didn't get a regular place until you were 21 or 22. Your late-teen years were spent learning your trade, cleaning boots and, albeit inadvertently, allowing your body to finish its natural growth pattern. 

Yet, so good was Owen as a teen, that he’d consistently been asked to play three or four times a week since the age of 12, being pushed and pulled between various England youth, Cheshire representative and Liverpool academy obligations.

Add to that four years of intense action in the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Cup, major international tournaments and very little time off, and you have a cocktail for disaster - and a talented young man in his early 20s, who should be about to embark on a glorious journey, but was already being washed up. At 21, his 5ft 8in frame, brittle bones and patched up hamstrings were ripping at the seams, no longer able to perform to the level required. 

Owen’s early impact had blazed a trail for prodigious youngsters in the new Premier League era. Suddenly managers up and down the country were less reluctant to make exciting youth team talents a major part of their first team line-ups every week – if Owen could handle it, why shouldn’t other kids?

We soon saw scrawny Rio Ferdinand and spotty Joe Cole starting regularly for West Ham aged just 17. But if you look at how their two careers have panned out, wear and tear injuries and burnout have again proved to be integral issues. Add to the pile fellow former teen stars Alan Smith, Robbie Fowler, Francis Jeffers, Nick Barmby and most recently Wayne Rooney, who, it is suggested, is already at his plateau now. 

Rooney is stockier and made of sterner stuff than Owen, but is ominously close to a similarly premature demise.

Sure it was great to see him - a la Owen - burst onto the scene at the 2004 European Championships. But how much more could we have got out of the scouser had he been wrapped in cotton wool during his formative years as a pro? At 26, he has just released a book entitled: 'My Decade in The Premier League.' Barring a miracle, there won't be a sequel in 2022 entitled: 'My 20 years in the Premier League.' 

These examples should serve as cautionary tales for the future – only when we nurture our talent with care, hold them back longer and place less demand on them while their bodies are still growing, will we see improved longevity, and ultimately fulfilled potential.  

I loved Michael Owen for all that he was and all of the potential that his early success promised. There was a time when I genuinely believed we did have the new Pele on our hands, and his teenage performances did nothing but encourage such hype.

But this early bird caught the worm too soon, and was left with little in the tank when he became hungry again later in the day.

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