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Owen looks to finish career filled with ifs, injuries on high at Stoke

"Beckham now, to Owen, and here's another Owen run; he's going to worry them again. It's a great run by Michael Owen! And he might finish it off! Ohhh, it's a wonderful gooooal! What an amazing moment in Michael Owen's young career."

Fourteen years later, and getting settled in Stoke, 600 miles and a world away from St Etienne, Owen will struggle to find a preview that does not mention his goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. What the ITV commentator Brian Moore described above, in the rising pitch that gilded a thousand similarly spectacular goals, was not just a moment for Owen's early career, but what would become the enduring reference point.

It is not a bad one to be stuck with, though Owen can be forgiven for wishing he had something a little more recent in contention. Instead he signs for Stoke City on a free transfer, as he did for Manchester United three years ago, once again keen to prove that his football career does not exist solely in the past tense.

"I want to perform and I want to finish my career on a real high," he said. "I'm still only 32 and I still feel as if I have a lot left in me. I've always scored goals, no matter what team I have been in, so as long as I can stay fit and healthy, then I'm sure I can do that here at Stoke."

That is a considerable caveat. Owen is miffed that "some great memories," such as that 96th-minute winner against Manchester City in September 2009, feature as background, as a subplot, in the story of his United career.

"People conveniently forget all that, and talk about all the time I was on the bench," he said. The trouble is that there has been so much of it.

Injuries have always been a part of the story with Owen, even as early as 1998-99, when he sat out the final seven games of the season because of his hamstring (and still managed to top the Premier League scoring charts, with 18 goals from 30 appearances with Liverpool).

After an unsettled year at Real Madrid, where he actually started more games on the pitch than on the bench but could not match his previous goals-to-games ratio, he said "I do" to his first marriage of convenience, to Newcastle United. It was at this point that injuries began regularly to take great chunks out of the calendar. He was in his third season before he managed more than four games in a row for Newcastle.

In 2008-09, Owen rejected a new deal at Newcastle and his management company circulated a brochure selling its client. On the contents page, a moody and sharply tailored Owen stood next to the words "The Athlete, The Ambassador, The Icon," prompting much mirth.

With hindsight there will have been smirks, too, at page four: "The most important thing is that after a couple of injury affected seasons (2006/07), Michael is now fully fit and capable of playing at Europe's highest level for several years to come."

But his first season at Manchester United was over by the end of February thanks to another hamstring injury. His second brought just two competitive starts -- both cup matches against lower league opposition, though he just about qualified for a title winner's medal that year. His last Premier League appearance came against Stoke, almost a year ago, when an 11th-minute injury to Javier Hernandez gave him the chance to stretch his legs. Five weeks later the roles were reversed as Owen pulled up against the Romanian side Oc�elul Galac�i in a Champions League group game; he was replaced by Hernandez in the 11th minute. He recovered from the thigh injury in time to watch the last game of the season from the dugout.

Owen knew within days that he was being released, though there was no glossy pamphlet this time around. Instead a series of tweets -- at the start of the summer a picture of a pile of new cleats, and just before the window closed, a fresh picture of the boxes waiting at the bottom of the stairs. "The tools of my trade are stacked and ready to go!" he wrote, having admitted in another message that he was "desperate to get back into it." Not desperate enough to consider offers from clubs outside the Premier League, however, and so to Stoke.

"I'm really pleased to sign here," Owen said. As well as a preference for remaining in the top flight of English soccer, he had said all along that he was looking for something close to home, in Cheshire.

"It ticks an awful lot of boxes," he said. "And the manager has been keen to sign me for a number of years. It's nice to feel wanted and to have that feeling of anticipation again."

It was a conversation with Sir Alex Ferguson before the start of last season that persuaded him not to look for a move last summer. "But in hindsight, that extra year, it might have been better if I had moved. Though the problem was I was injured, so it might not have mattered anyway."

Those i-words again: if; injury. Though Stoke has only committed to a basic salary with as-you-play bonuses, Owen probably realizes that another punctuated season would be his last. "I want to prove I can stand the rigors of a full season," he said. At least he does not tend to be a slow starter. "I feel as if I am fit enough to take part in a game," Owen said. "I'm just a little bit rusty. I'm not quite 100 percent confident or happy in my general touch and different bits and bobs, but that will come." It would be down to Stoke manager Tony Pulis to decide whether he would make his debut against Manchester City on Saturday, and how long it would last.

"He needs a lot more work with the ball and being in small-sided games for his sharpness, but we are pleased with the way he has come back," Pulis said. The manager suggested he would leave it until the last moment to select his team, giving Owen as much time as possible to be ready. Having kept aside the No. 10 shirt all summer in the hope of handing it to Owen, he will be keen to see him in it.

Owen will expect to be a first-choice player at Stoke when he is fit. Reminded of his first season at Manchester United, when Ferguson dropped him after he had scored a hat trick against Wolfsburg in the Champions League, Owen shrugged.

"That goes to show how good the players were," he said. "I'd be foolish to think at 30 or 31 I was going to play ahead of Wayne Rooney and the top players there. But if I score a hat trick here, you'd probably expect to play."

Especially when you remember how productive the Owen-Peter Crouch partnership was for England: 16 goals in 16 games. Of the four forwards named in Stoke's squads so far this season, the primary pairing has been Crouch with Jonathan Walters. Six feet tall but solidly enough built to leave the impression of a stocky man, Walters plays just off Crouch and often operates as much like an additional midfielder as a striker.

Though Pulis noted that Owen's time at Manchester United has developed his link-up play, the difference between a Stoke City side featuring Walters, and one featuring Owen in his place, is obvious. Last season both Manchester clubs had to be happy with a point from the Britannia Stadium -- City has not won there since before Owen had ever run at an Argentine defense. If it comes this weekend, his Stoke debut may well be a cameo once Stoke has nothing to lose. There's that word again. It is not the past tense, but where Owen's career is concerned, he will have to make do with the conditional.

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