Retirement is the hardest word. Even when an athlete knows it is coming, even when he has more security than a bank and the closest of families, just saying the word can bring a man to tears.
Michael Owen, the fourth-highest scorer in England’s history, chose to blog about it.
“For some reason,” he wrote, “I thought it would be easy. After all, I had known for a few months that the end was near and had in fact shared my feelings with close family and friends. Having had plenty of time to get my head around my decision, I assumed that making the announcement would be simple. Write a statement, upload it on my websiteand post a message onto my Twitter feed at 9.30 am. Job done!”
The modern man, is Michael. He tries to articulate as he played from childhood: Brief, to the point, and with detachment.
His plan fell apart when the texts started to arrive. His sister, then his best friend, then his father used the same method to register their immediate feelings. His mother sat and wept as the announcement was relayed over and over again on Sky Sports News.
All this satellite technology, this modern way of reducing personal feelings to electronic chit-chat, is no shield to human emotions. Michael James Owen will, eight weeks from now, no longer be what he is famous for being.
In some ways, his finest moments as a sports player happened too soon. He was 18 when he scored the most spectacular goal of his career, against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup in France. He was 21 when he did what no man had done before or since, scoring a hat-trick against Germany on German soil, in Munich.
Oliver Kahn, the goalie that day, said after the match that those goals would hurt his soul for as long as he lived. The third Owen goal is the one that lives with him. “There were three separate parts to it,” he recalled in the autobiography, “Michael Owen in Person,” that was marketed that very year. “My first touch had to be spot-on because there were defenders either side of me. The run to get away from them was the easiest bit, and I felt good about the finish.”
So clinical, so calculated, so cold. And so Michael Owen.
His father, Terry, also a professional soccer player, noticed this detachment in his son when Michael was 7 years old. Even then, he was apparently fixed on scoring. He would hang around the goal mouth, wait for the ball and, with a calmness that is the hardest trait to possess, finish off what others created.
The World Cup goal against Argentina was anything but that. He moved at a pace that blew one, two, three experienced Argentines away. He saw, or perhaps sensed, that the goalkeeper was off his line, and he drove it with a force that belied his body weight into the top corner of the net.
For all the goals that Owen was to accumulate for Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle United and Manchester United – and for the eventual 40 goals in 89 England internationals – he would never strike another as magical as that. It was when he was fast, fearless and free. Speed of movement, unburdened by expectation, is a teenager’s gift. That afternoon in Saint-Etienne, it surprised the Argentines because they did not know who Owen was.
It did not surprise anyone in the Owen household because quickness was a family trait, passed from father to Michael and each of his four siblings. But such exceptional pace can bring its own problems.
Owen was wanted by every team that could lay claim to his youth. He amassed goals for his school, his county regional team, for Liverpool boys’ teams and for England youth teams – which he often represented at levels two years above his age group.
The combination of quickness and calmness – and no doubt the courage to execute both in the face of severe physical challenge – were gifts. Working on them, working with father, was, and still is, special to him.
Today Owen and his wife, Louise, own a stable that houses more than 100 race horses in training. His parents, brothers and sisters all have houses nearby, on the same street. And somewhere close to what ought to be called Owen Avenue is a helipad for the flying machine that is a necessary mode of transport for him.
The corollary to all these material things, and to the bond between the Owenses, is that life has so often been a real physical pain for him. The hamstrings, those vulnerable muscles at the back of the thigh, rebelled from his teens onward.
He would fly to Germany to be treated by the famous – and sometimes mystical – Munich physician Hans-Wilhelm Mueller-Wohlfahrt. He was rushed to Denver from the 2006 World Cup after his right anterior cruciate ligament snapped in the first minute of a game against Sweden.
There, one of the world’s most renowned sports surgeons, Dr J Richard Steadman, again gave Owen back his career. But neither the doctors nor anything Owen could do for himself could preserve that innate early boost of extreme pace. And no one could give him back that priceless combination of fearlessness, fastness and finesse in front of the goal.
We often think that 30 is the onset of decline in soccer. Owen, who turned 33 in December, would in any event have faced his retirement around now. As he contemplates a future – with horses, an interest in media work and a new project he is preparing to help guide youngsters into the sport – he will come to terms with “retirement.”
For most professional players, the relative loss of peak power is almost an imperceptible process: Owen has lived with it since he was 21.
Speed was his essence. The niggling question of how much of a team player he was became secondary to the fact that he was born exceptionally speedy and that he concentrated on doing the hardest thing in soccer: scoring goals.