SINCE bursting onto the scene as a teenager for Liverpool, Michael Owen has never been one to shy away from lofty expectations. Dubbed the best player of a generation – consisting of the likes of Paul Scholes and David Beckham – Owen was always destined for stardom.
Liverpool spotted Owen at the age of 12 playing for his school club Deeside but had to fight off interest from fellow Premier League giants Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, among others to sign him. A compelling letter from Liverpool’s youth development officer Steve Heighway reportedly proved enough to convince Owen on a career in Merseyside and the striker swiftly put pen to paper on a schoolboy contract.
After a couple of goal-laden seasons in the youth ranks, Owen’s talent quickly became apparent to everyone. His 28 goals in 20 appearances for England’s U15s were enough to earn him a spot in Liverpool’s youth team in 1995. Only a 16-year-old at the time, Owen was among the youngest players in the team, however, his lack of experience did not stop him from making an immediate impact.
In his first season with the Reds’ youth team, Owen made a name for himself in the FA Youth Cup, scoring a hat-trick in the quarter-finals against fierce rivals Manchester United. He would follow up this impressive feat with another hat-trick in the next round against Crystal Palace, delivering on his incredible hype.
Down 3-0 in the second leg of the final against West Ham United, Owen would notch a brace bringing his total on the tournament to 11 goals in five games, propelling Liverpool to their first ever FA Youth Cup win. Following his excellent tournament, there were no longer any doubts – Owen was England’s next star.
At 17, Owen signed his first professional contract with Liverpool. Heighway – the man who convinced him to join in the first place – wasted no time hyping the young striker. “He’s ready for whatever you throw at him. Nothing fazes Michael Owen. He’s ready,” said Heighway. As fate would have it, the Englishman would score on his debut against Wimbledon.
The following season, Owen would replace an injured Robbie Fowler as Liverpool’s starting striker and soon thereafter, the Kop had a new star. In his first full season, Owen won the Premier League Golden Boot scoring 18 goals in the process and would also go onto win the PFA Young Player of the Year award. Due to his good form, Liverpool handed him a renewed five-year deal worth £10k a week – the highest any teen was ever paid in English history.
In the years that followed, Owen would continue scoring goals at will at Anfield, however, soon began suffering from recurring hamstring problems that would keep him sidelined. It wasn’t until the 2000-2001 season that Owen won his first trophies as a Red propelling Liverpool to European glory, ending the club’s six-year drought.
As a result of his match-winning exploits in Liverpool’s treble winning season that year, Owen was awarded the Ballon d’Or, essentially cementing his reputation as Liverpool’s and England’s golden boy. It was the first time since Kevin Keegan won the award in 1979 that an Englishman had won the accolade.
Despite their success in cup competitions, Liverpool struggled domestically even with Owen leading the line. In 2002, the English giants finished as runners-up to Arsenal while the striker notched his 100th goal as a Liverpool player. By then, Owen was considered one of the best strikers in the world and began attracting interest from Europe’s top dogs.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez didn’t hide his fascination for the striker in an interview in 2002. “The best players must play for Real Madrid,” said Perez speaking of Owen. Liverpool, however, rebuffed the Spaniards’ interest and handed Owen an improved four-year deal worth £70k a week.
Liverpool would make yet another title bid in 2003, remaining undefeated atop the table up until November. However, a terrible run of form would see the Reds fall out of contention in January and eventually drop out of the top four. Without Champions League football to fall back on, question marks were raised about Owen’s future and soon thereafter Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona circled like vultures. Owen would not help matters and remained coy, opting to wait until after Euro 2004 to renegotiate his contract.
“I really have to be playing in the Champions League and that is something Liverpool have to remedy,” said Owen. In an effort to keep the striker at the club and offer him some much needed support in the final third, manager Gérard Houllier set out to reshape the team ahead of the 03-04 season.
While the season started like Houllier would have hoped, an ankle injury to Owen derailed their title bid. With their star striker sidelined for three months, Liverpool’s season fell apart and the Frenchman was fired. Soon after his sacking, speculation over Owen’s future began again. The rumours only intensified when Owen sat out Liverpool’s early Champions League clashes the following season to avoid being cup-tied. In the summer of 2004 – nearly 15 years after signing with his boyhood club – the rumours became reality. Owen signed for Real Madrid with eight million pounds and Antonio Núñez going the other way.
Much to the dismay of his Spanish employers, however, Owen struggled to replicate his past form after leaving Liverpool. Real Madrid – a ruthless club by nature – sent the Englishman packing to Newcastle after just one season in Spain that saw him score 13 goals in 36 appearances. Owen would spend four years there before controversially joining Manchester United. Once again, the England international wasn’t his typically lethal self for the Red Devils and eventually signed with Stoke City until he retired in 2013.
While recurring injuries and the unexpected move to Manchester United slightly tarnished his Liverpool legacy, one thing’s for certain: No matter what happened, Owen will forever remain Merseyside’s golden boy.