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The story of Michael Owen and how career trajectory alters lasting perceptions

There is a widespread consensus of how the career of a footballer should pan out. Bright prospect is eased into first-team football, before establishing themselves as a key figure and enjoying their best period in their mid-to-late twenties.

Having turned 30, said player is approaching the twilight of their footballing story before winding down to an eventual retirement as their body struggles to handle the demands of elite sport.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule – enter Michael Owen.

The story of Michael Owen remains a curious one, a player who on the surface of things achieved more than many a Premier League footballer can dream of, yet a man who remains undisputedly unloved and perhaps underrated in footballing circles.

We’ve decided to revisit the career of Owen and explain how his unusual career trajectory has contributed to a tainted legacy of one of England’s great forwards:

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The arrival of a teenage sensation

Owen’s abilities had long been a source of excitement within the Liverpool academy system, the forward’s precocious talents recognised from an early age as he was sent to the FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall to continue his development, breaking a succession of goalscoring records for England’s youth sides.

The teenager had starred as Liverpool won the FA Youth Cup for the first time in their history in 1996, scoring 11 goals in just five cup matches including in the final success over a West Ham side containing future England internationals in Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard.

Owen’s achievements at youth level saw him included in the first-team set up and he made his debut as a substitute against Wimbledon in the penultimate game of the 1996/97 season, making an immediate impression by scoring in defeat.

It would be the start of a stunning breakthrough.

Thrust into the senior side ahead of the new campaign, the 17-year-old showed the incredible self-belief he became famed for by assuming responsibility from the penalty spot to score in the season opener against the same opposition.

Owen’s blend of Olympian-esque pace and nerveless finishing ability saw him instantly adapt to the demands of the Premier League, scoring prolifically and emerging as the most exciting talent in the division.

Named as the PFA Young Player of the Year and the Premier League Player of the Season, he was also recognised with a place in the divisional Team of the Year.

He finished the campaign with 18 league goals to finish as the joint-leading scorer in the Premier League, becoming the youngest player in history to win the Golden Boot and earned inclusion in the England squad for that summer’s World Cup in France.

Owen had arrived as a top-flight player, but he was soon to become a worldwide name.

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World Cup exploits

Having become the youngest player and goalscorer in England history, Owen travelled as part of Glenn Hoddle’s squad to France ’98 with few expecting him to dislodge the first-choice partnership of Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham in attack.

After scoring as a substitute in the group stage against Romania, however, he earned a starting place as the Three Lions advanced to the knock-out stages where they would meet old rivals Argentina in the last-16, the South Americans had progressed with a flawless record in the group stages and were yet to concede a single goal in the tournament.

What evolved was a World Cup classic, with Owen taking centre stage.

After Gabriel Batistuta and Shearer had exchanged penalties in the opening 10 minutes, Owen would score a goal that would change his life forever.

Picking the ball up inside the centre circle, the teenager accelerated away from José Chamot and held off the defender’s challenge, before beating a second Argentine in Roberto Ayala and firing home a sensational solo effort.

David Beckham’s red card contributed to England eventually losing on penalties – Owen scoring in the shoot-out – but the whirlwind moment had captured Owen at his very finest and saw the birth of a star, his electric pace making world-class defenders look both static and redundant.

Back-to-back Golden Boots and the start of his injury nightmare

Owen returned to Liverpool amid increased adulation following his World Cup displays – whilst his squeaky clean media persona saw him inundated with a series of promotional ventures.

The increased attention failed to distract from his football, however, Owen scoring 18 league goals once more to retain the Golden Boot – sharing the award alongside Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Dwight Yorke.

To put the achievement into context, no other teenager has ever won the Golden Boot, yet alone retained it.

That second Golden Boot-winning season, however, was marred by a hamstring injury suffered at Leeds that prematurely ended Owen’s season, an incident which the player believes he never truly recovered from.

He was just 19-years-old.

Owen’s game was built on explosive pace – evidenced in stunning style at Old Trafford below – and whilst still quick following his recovery from a severe hamstring problem, he never quite recaptured the scintillating electricity of his teenage years.

Silverware success and Ballon d’Or recognition

Owen continued to fire with incredible regularity despite the recurrence of muscle injuries that would haunt him, spearheading Liverpool into a new era as the focal point of an exciting young team under Gerard Houllier.

The pinnacle of his club career came during the 2000/01 season, scoring 24 goals in all competitions as the Merseyside club secured a treble of cup successes and five trophies in a calendar year, winning the UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup before adding the Community Shield and Super Cup to their collection.

Owen was at the forefront of their success, scoring in the thrilling UEFA Cup final victory over Alaves in Dortmund, but it is perhaps the FA Cup final that remains the abiding memory of his Anfield career.

Dominated for large periods by an impressive Arsenal on a blistering afternoon in Cardiff, Owen scored twice in the final seven minutes to turn a certain defeat into victory – sparking wild celebrations from the Liverpool contingent and writing his name into FA Cup folklore.

Owen had also resumed the role as England’s leading threat following the retirement of Shearer, and in September of 2001 produced the most iconic display by a Three Lions player this side of the millennium.

Travelling to face arch-rivals Germany in World Cup qualification, Owen scored a stunning hat-trick in a 5-1 victory for Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side in Munich – his performances for club and country seeing him named as the European Footballer of the Year.

He became just the fourth English recipient of the Ballon d’Or – in addition to being the first Liverpool player to claim the honour – and the second youngest winner in history.

Liverpool exit and declining fortunes

Owen had continued to score prolifically for Liverpool but by the summer of 2004 things had changed, the forward had just a year remaining on his contract and the club were preparing to embark on new chapter under Rafael Benitez.

Real Madrid – a side who had secured Galactico signings in Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham over the past few years – had come calling, and Owen could not resist the lure of arguably world football’s most glamorous club.

Whilst Liverpool fans may have been disappointed by the exit of their star forward, few would have begrudged the opportunity to head to the Bernabeu, but after just a single season – in which he scored 13 goals in all competitions  – Owen sought a return to English football.

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Speaking candidly on his Liverpool exit in a recent interview with former teammate Jamie Carragher on The Greatest Game podcast, Owen opened up on his Anfield departure and how he always intended to return to the Reds – a move which almost came to fruition just a year later.

“You know the pain I was going through when I was deciding whether to go or stay but I was just thinking, do what Rushy (Ian Rush) did, go for a year, come back.”

The romantic idea of an Anfield return may have been at the forefront of Owen’s ambitions, but the politics of football’s finances made the prospect naive at best and when Newcastle tabled a club-record offer for his services it was St James’ Park or the Bernabeu bench.

Owen headed to Newcastle as the club’s marquee signing, but it proved an unhappy return to the Premier League.

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Tyneside toils and the crossing of a bitter divide

Owen’s arrival as Newcastle was intended to usher in an exciting era at the club as the Magpies sought elusive silverware, but after an initial bright start, the fortunes of the highest-paid player in English football soon dipped drastically.

A succession of injury problems, including a broken metatarsal, hampered his progress before an ACL injury suffered at the World Cup with England saw him miss almost the entirety of his second campaign.

Owen’s struggles for form and fitness in four seasons in the North East, in addition to a strained relationship with owner Freddy Shepherd, contributed towards a decline in fortunes for both club and player, Newcastle relegated from the Premier League in 2009.

Having left the club on a free transfer amid their drop into the second tier, Owen’s career was at a crossroads and it was his next move that severed his ties with Liverpool forevermore.

The England international signed for arch-rivals Manchester United on a Bosman, where he spent three seasons largely amongst the substitutes, a stoppage-time derby day winner against Manchester City and the collecting of a Premier League winners medal rare highlights during a largely bit-part Old Trafford career.

He finished his career with a single season spell at Stoke that delivered just one goal and eight substitute appearances, coming off the bench in his final fixture before retirement against Southampton in 2013.

In an era that has often seen notable public tributes to Premier League greats, it was a sad end to a career that suffered a sorry decline in its latter years.

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Lasting legacy and recency bias

Owen’s career as detailed has been one very much of two halves, bursting onto the scene as the most exciting young talent in world football before the fragility of his body saw a drastic decline in fortunes.

The forward is not the only player to suffer a similar fate, indeed his former Real Madrid teammate Ronaldo – to a lesser extent – is also a victim of failing to follow the expected career trajectory.

The great Brazilian was simply sensational in his younger years, becoming the youngest ever winner of the Ballon d’Or and twice breaking the world transfer record before his 21st birthday.

His sole season at Barcelona is one of the greatest individual campaigns in memory, inspiring the Catalan side to a treble of trophy successes and establishing himself as the finest forward in the game.

Without peers at the peak of his powers, Ronaldo was an explosive bull of a forward for which Spanish defences had no matadors capable of taming.

The fact that Ó Fenómeno is often referred to as ‘Fat Ronaldo’ to differentiate from namesake Cristiano is a tragedy to those who witnessed his brilliant best, but whilst the forward had a redemption story in coming back from career-threatening injury to inspire Brazil to World Cup glory – there was no such upward curve for Owen.

“I’m never going to change it with my words, I could sit here and be boastful.

“I won a Golden Boot at 17, a Golden Boot at 18, I won a Ballon d’Or.

“I won virtually every trophy there is, but my problem is that it’s natural for your memory to gravitate to what’s nearest to you. When I was 32, 33, I was crap.

“In my eyes, from the age of seven to the age of 19, I don’t know anyone that was better.”

Owen acknowledges as much, whilst his decision to test football’s tribalist nature by moving to Old Trafford means he is not remembered fondly at any of his clubs – despite his achievements in Liverpool red.

The move to United soured his relationship on Merseyside to such an extent, that he is widely discredited whilst players such as Luis Suarez retain heroic adulation – a player who on more than one occasion damaged the club’s reputation and tried to forcibly engineer a move away to Arsenal of all clubs.

Owen’s drab media personality since moving to punditry has failed to aid his cause and he may never regain the affection of any of his former clubs – even with time – but his career should garner huge respect when revisited and analysed. Perhaps it is time to shift the goalposts when analysing a career as a whole, and remember players at their very best.

Not every player fits the traditional mould.

Read – Five of the Premier League’s best teenage sensations

Read Also – Remembering every 90’s BBC Goal of the Season winner

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