Michael Owen’s smart double against Leeds United on Tuesday night reignited the debate about the (former) England marksmen’s role, both at Manchester United and with the national team. The Telegraph’s Henry Winter led the charge, openly campaigning for the striker’s recall to Fabio Capello’s England squad. After all, Owen has not scored 40 international goals without knowing where the net lies. Indeed, the striker’s one-in-three ratio for United is impressive given the limited opportunities afforded the 31-year-old at Old Trafford.
Yet, Owen is little better than fifth choice at United in his third season with the club, with the inescapable feeling that the player’s talents remain unfulfilled in Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad. No longer quick enough to cause damage against Europe’s finest defenders, not cute enough to perform in a deeper role, Owen is rarely deployed by the Scot. When the former Liverpool striker gains an opportunity it is almost universally against the country’s lesser lights, for that is now the striker’s fate given the quality available to Ferguson.
If the pace has gone, none of Owen’s finishing skills have waned, amply demonstrated at Elland Road. The smart take and scuffed left-footed finish for his first; the emphatic right foot shot thumped home for the second. Against more limited opposition Owen is lethal, with a record while at Old Trafford that backs up the claim.
That the majority of Owen’s goals have come against second-class opposition is a reflection of the limited opportunities the player is afforded. This is reflected in the goalscorer’s record, which shows just one strike against top-class opposition – the 97th minute goal against Manchester City at Old Trafford in September 2009.
In all that there is a contradiction. Owen’s quality is no longer enough for a regular spot in United’s first team, even if Winter believes the 31-year-old is the answer to Capello’s problems. Yet, the goalscorer in Owen’s core must surely yearn for more.
“I’m not content if I’m not playing,” Owen said on Tuesday.
“I get criticised a lot with things like ‘you don’t play, you pick your money up’ and all the rest of it but I’m not proud of that fact. I want to play all the time. If the season was going to be like the first season I was here then I’d be delighted. That was fantastic and I felt involved. I was always either on the bench or playing. Obviously I want to be involved again but I appreciate that there’s some top players in the team and in the squad and it’s a challenge to get on the bench let alone into the first-team.”
Owen’s sentiment is underlined by the facts, with the player having started just six games in the Premier League during his time with United, and just one last season. And despite Ferguson’s words to the contrary at this campaign’s start, unless an injury crisis hits, Owen’s role will again be limited to cup competitions against predominantly minor opposition.
It’s a situation Owen appears to accept much against the popular conception of modern-day footballers. Indeed, the Chester-born strikers claims that he would rather play irregularly for United than start for an inferior club. The sentiment has always been both an enigma and a contradiction.
“I understand you cannot be given guarantees in football,” adds the striker.
“As last season drew to an end I was 50-50 about what the manager would say when he called me in. If it had gone the other way I wouldn’t have been upset. I am proud to have been involved with such a great club. But secretly when he said he wanted me to stay my fist was clenched under the table. We are all men about it. If I didn’t play at all during the season I would sit down with the manager and have another chat.
“I have been the number one choice and had people chomping at my heels. Now it is roles reversed but I can think of a lot worse places to be. When I train it is with the best players. When I play it is in front of fantastic fans in a great stadium and the quality is high. I hope I can be involved but I am not stupid there are a lot of top players here and if my chances are limited I will still have a smile on my face and still feel part of a fantastic club.”
In that there is a lot to admire in Owen. United supporters suspicious of the player’s Liverpool roots will never be so naïve as to believe the player is a United loyalist. It is, after all, just a job. But contrary to the moniker so often attached to the player – especially by those on Tyneside – Owen’s motive at Old Trafford is little more than glory, whether direct or by association.
But there is also an undeniable truth: at a level not much below United’s a fit Owen would surely score a hat-full of goals. Owen: a talent happy but wasted; never essential to United’s cause but pleased to be a bit part in the effort all the same.