Sir Alex Ferguson has proved an astute player in the transfer market during his time at Old Trafford. Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel and even Cristiano Ronaldo signed for relatively small fees. But this summer’s acquisition of Michael Owen on a free transfer from Newcastle United could prove his most outrageous signing yet.
When supporters appealed for Sir Alex to “sign up” Carlos Tevez on a permanent basis few could have predicted that Owen would walk through Old Trafford’s doors in his stead. But the £25 million fee demanded by Tevez’ owners towards the tail end of last season, together with Owen’s non-contract status at Newcastle, made the deal a no-brainer.
A simple review of the statistics said as much. Tevez scored just 15 goals last season. Owen already has four this, the same number as Manchester City’s new recruit. Owen’s current strike-rate of a goal every game and a half on the pitch mean the forward will hit 15 by the season’s end. Aside from the Argentinian’s tenacity, United has missed little about the former West Ham United striker this campaign.
Many supporters were rightly concerned about Owen’s record of injuries. The former-Liverpool striker has lost a couple of yards of pace but has improved in other areas. Like Ryan Giggs before him, Owen has adapted to his advancing years and concentrated on the aspects of his game that don’t rely on the sheer pace of his youth.
Critics will point to the chances that Owen still misses, including two against Everton last weekend. But this does not detract from those that the England international has put away. The forward’s strike against City in United’s 4-3 derby victory was nothing short of World class. And of the strikers at Ferguson’s disposal, only Rooney is more reliable in front of goal when the big chance arrives.
Owen also recognises the opportunity he has been given by Sir Alex, despite spending much of the campaign warming the bench.
“I’ve played in a team that was struggling and I much prefer a winning club, even if it means I don’t play every minute of every game,” Owen said recently.
“I’ve had my fair share of starts and minutes on the pitch this season so I’m not about to complain.”
Although Owen is unlikely to make the England squad that travels to South Africa for the World Cup, his chances are still best served at United. While Jermaine Defoe and Darren Bent have scored more goals this season – and each has a fighting chance of being on Fabio Capello’s list – Owen’s confidence and fitness will increase throughout the season. If Owen hadn’t moved to United this summer, England would be a long forgotten dream.
United fans care little for England of course. But as soon as the Chester-born forward netted against City, Old Trafford’s faithful accept him. Forget the shirts of the past, the here and now is what matters for supporters and Owen alike.
“Scoring the derby winner was really special,” Owen said.
“When I retire and I’m thinking about my top five or six thrills I got out of football, I’ll think about my goal against Argentina and scoring two in an FA Cup final (against Arsenal in 2001).
“But scoring that goal against City is right up there.”
It was a moment that will define Owen’s time at United. The instant in which Owen – former Liverpool striker – became part of the club for the first time.
While Liverpool fans have offered Owen some abuse it has been no more so than in the player’s five years away from Anfield. Almost any fan would agree, Owen’s move to United was the right one for the player. A transfer that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable.
How would Owen’s career have progressed if the youngster had taken up Sir Alex’ contract offer at 14? There’s a good argument to say he would not only have been close to being England’s record goalscorer, but perhaps United’s too.