When Michael Owen joined Manchester United, summer 2009, the theory, with Owen approaching 30 and available on a free transfer, was that was former Liverpool striker would add short-term goals at a reasonable price. Three years on and Owen has proven no more value to United, even with no fee, than he did for Newcastle United, who paid more than £16 million for the errant former England star.
If ever there was a poster-child for the Glazernomic era here was it; a player whose failure at Newcastle United was so conspicuous most Geordies were delighted to see the back of the club’s record signing. Indeed, coming towards the end of a third campaign in Manchester, Owen has succeeded no more at Old Trafford than at St. James’ Park or, indeed, Santiago Bernabeu before that. In truth, it is nearly a decade since the former England star performed at the very height of his game.
At Old Trafford, Owen has scored 17 goals in 52 games for the club – just 18 starts – although it is a record hugely flattering to the striker: 11 goals have flowed in cup competitions, with seven in the Carling Cup, and three of Owen’s four Champions League goals in a dead rubber against Wolfsburg more than two years ago.
Most damning, for a player whom Sir Alex Ferguson still lauds, Owen has scored just once against in the ‘big four’ opponents of Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool – the stunning 96th minute strike in the derby two seasons ago.
On any level bar financial Owen has made little impact at United, appearing and scoring in predominantly second-tier competitions, and low-level opponents.
Yet, both player and manager appear blinded by the striker’s past, with Owen repeatedly proclaiming that he’d rather appear infrequently for a leading club, than each week elsewhere. Fair enough perhaps, except while Owen may be on the books of a “top club,” he has started just once against the aforementioned ‘big five’ opponents.
One suspects that games against Scunthorpe United, Southampton, Burnley, Aldershot, Barnsley, and latterly Oţelul Galaţi, were not what Owen had hoped for when he signed on the dotted line.
Meanwhile, Ferguson has continually praised the striker over the past three years, declaring Owen “still one of the best” as recently as last September. Yet, even after Owen spent another lengthy spell on the sidelines this winter, the 70-year-old United manager went on record once again this week, optimistically predicting a key role for the forward during the run-in.
“If you think about ever needing a player to score an important goal for you is there anyone better than Michael Owen?” mused Ferguson on Friday.
“He will be a really welcome addition to our squad, even if it were to be for the last few games of the season. He’s certainly making good progress. What happened was he came back into our training a couple of weeks ago and then after one of the sessions he did some physical work with the sports science team and overdid it. So it knocked him back a few days, but he should be joining us this week.”
Few United fans, bar those still doe-eyed about an albeit stunning derby-winner, will break out the champagne for horse-owner-cum-footballer Owen’s return to Fergie’s team. Not least while the infinitely more talented Dimitar Berbatov cannot force his way into Ferguson’s squad, let alone first team plans.
Yet, Owen has designs on further time at Old Trafford – a prospect that will bring no cheer to supporters hoping that Berbatov will be replaced in the United squad this summer by a player of equal or greater talent. No matter how inexpensive, surely Owen’s is a squad place better reserve for almost anybody else.
“In life, you have to make hard decisions I have made some good ones and some bad, but in general terms I am pretty proud of my career,” said the 32-year-old on Tuesday.
“I still think I have another two or three years but where that will be is a question that the manager would be better placed to answer. I am exactly the same situation I was last year. Regardless what happens, you will never hear me grumbling about the privilege of playing at a top club like Manchester United.
“I have had some cracking moments. I have scored in cup finals, got the winner against Manchester City, scored a hat-trick in the Champions League and won the league. I am not concerned about what is around the corner.”
One scenario has Ferguson using the veteran as a fourth-choice next season, with the Glazer family restricting Ferguson’s ability to enter the transfer market. Indeed, it is unlikely the Scot has more than £30 million to spend, with United’s long-mooted IPO now on hold until at least the autumn, and possibly moving venue away from the under-performing Singapore Stock Exchange.
Owen believes he is still fit to perform at the highest level, whether at Old Trafford or elsewhere. Just as the player once, quite laughably, denied he has ever been injury-prone, Owen is still seemingly blind to his own decline.
“I must admit, I don’t think I am going to be one of the players who is still playing when they are 37 or 38 like Ryan, but I certainly think I still have another two or three years left in me,” added the Chester-born striker.
“I listen to players in the dressing room; some players are struggling to get out of bed and complain about their knees or Achilles. I honestly can’t resonate with them. I never get any pains like that. I feel as though I can play, it’s just when I get injuries, they always seem to be bad ones. My body feels as though it can play and my mind wants to and the aim is to keep going for at least another couple of years.”
Owen’s continued presence in football will certainly be a loss to the horse-racing fraternity, which if the player’s Twitter account is any barometer, is his true passion.
In any case, fitness concerns and (lack of) goalscoring performances aside, Owen’s place at Old Trafford has rarely been a natural fit. Despite that derby-day strike, a former-Liverpool man, whose passionate response to scoring against United so enthralled the Kop faithful, was never likely to become an Old Trafford hero.
Few will shed a tear should Ferguson finally discard the striker this summer; many will drop if Owen keeps the coveted number seven shirt for a fourth campaign.