“Whichever team scores more goals usually wins.” Listening to Michael Owen’s muddled football musings make it easy to forget that there stands a Ballon d’Or winner. Unlike his commentating, Owen’s footballing career - in its earlier days, perhaps - left us all in adoration.
Adulation for Owen first arose from my fellow Liverpool fans during the 1997/98 season - my two-year-old self was regrettably still to develop a concept of football. Yet, while I spent my days crawling and dragging my football-sized (and shaped) head around the living room, Liverpool fans spent the 1997/98 Premier League season engrossed.
Here was a kid named Michael Owen, an 18-year-old at the time, leaving in his tracks a pile of panting defenders as he raced on to finish the season as joint-top scorer (tied with Dion Dublin and Chris Sutton on 18 goals).
The 1997/98 English Premier League season finished in May 1998. Kids Michael’s age would have then been prepping for a summer holiday. Michael was still waiting to hear if he could join in on a lads’ tour of France that summer.
The tour was, of course, the France 1998 World Cup. And the lads included Paul ‘Scholes-y’ Scholes, David ‘Becks’ Beckham, and Gary Neville.
Michael Owen did eventually make the final England squad for France ‘98. His reward for a remarkable first full season as a professional footballer. But it was to be no holiday. Glenn Hoddle, the then England manager, had set up ground rules for the tournament. The players were confined to the team’s hotel. And were to have no contact with friends and family. Tea was allowed, I hope.
Owen was also given no guarantees of starting for England at France ‘98. He explains in an interview for 'The Stan Collymore Show' that Hoddle was bringing him to the World Cup as an ‘impact player’.
Heading into France ‘98, England fans, and especially followers of Liverpool, would have been aware of Owen’s ability to make an impact. But it was the rest of the footballing world - World Cup defenders particularly - who were about to be introduced to the world’s best young footballer at the time.
For most of England’s first match of the tournament, against Tunisia, Owen was restrained to the substitute bench. Hoddle opted for Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham to start as strikers. And I’m sure Owen celebrated when Shearer jumped highest to head in England’s opening goal just before half-time. But that air of confidence all great strikers have must have been whispering in Owen’s ear. “I could have scored that”.
Owen’s five minute cameo at the end of the match came and went as England claimed a 2-0 win. England had had its first say on the tournament. And soon enough, so would Owen.
England faced Romania next at the Stadium Municipal in Toulouse. Again, Shearer and Sheringham started for England.
Again, Owen took his seat on the sidelines. Two minutes into the second half, the ragtag Romanians took the lead. But with defenders tiring as time ticked on - what Owen describes as feeling like “an eternity” from the bench - the stage was being set. Seventy-two minutes in and it was time. Glenn Hoddle unleashed a feverish Michael Owen and ten minutes later the teenager scored England’s equaliser.
England did go on to lose the game 2-1. Yes, against Romania. Yet, Owen had left an impression on Hoddle, one he couldn't ignore. England’s next match against Columbia - their final group match - was one they could ill afford to lose. And Owen, having just scored his first World Cup goal, was named by Hoddle as a starter alongside Shearer.
Darren Anderton scored England’s first and Becks served one of his free-kick specialties. The match ended 2-0 to England. They were through to the round of 16 where they faced Argentina.
If you held an office sweepstake back in ‘98 for ‘The World Cup match England will be knocked out in’, congratulations to your colleague Steve who chose the round of 16. Certainly, England could have done with Steve’s luck in their penalty shootout which Argentina went on to win.
Luck had nothing to do though with the resoluteness Michael Owen showed in the match, or the tournament as a whole. He was no longer just an ‘impact player’. He had staked a starting position for England. And even as England’s youngest squad member at France ‘98, he single-handedly almost pulled his country through to the quarter finals.
France ‘98 was the lads’ summer holiday Owen - as a pro footballer - never had the chance to go on. It showed in the carefree way he played his football at the tournament. And at no moment was it more obvious than that goal against Argentina.
The deft touch with the outside of his boot. The sprint towards goal. His drop of the shoulder, showing no concern in taking the ball past the final defender. The finish into the top corner. Here was a future Ballon d’Or winner.
Owen looks back at France ‘98 with pride. Especially his goal against Argentina. “That was my biggest life-changing moment”, he muses.