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Michael Owen, remember him? The once great next hope of English football, from scoring an equaliser for Liverpool away at Wimbledon on the opening day of the 1997 season as a fresh-faced 17 year old, to doing away with footballing reputations and the logic of age as his 18 year old vibrancy tore an impressive Argentina defence apart on that infamous night in St Etienne.
Though, from his electrifying breakthrough, it has just turned out to be the footballing equivalent of embarking on the carpet before riding a helter-skelter on its one-way route down to the end, fourteen years after his arrival to the world in France ’98, Owen is now 32 and spent this summer as an unwanted man, before Stoke have rushed to his aid four days after the door slammed shut on the transfer window.
Since Manchester United showed him the door in May in order to make room for their new generation of strike-force, Owen has seen no such interest in his services materialise as he remained on the scrap-heap, his record with injuries a gamble too big for any Premier League manager, for that is the only margin available to Owen after he ruled a move down to the Championship off the agenda.
It is a shocking statistic that Owen’s non-participation on any opening league weekend since moving from Liverpool to Real Madrid is a fate that has repeated itself eight years on the spin. Again he has missed the curtain-raiser to this campaign, sitting, waiting, hoping that a Premier League club would be swayed by nostalgia and remember the Michael Owen of old, enough to send out the S.O.S to the ex-England striker.
Everton were rumoured to be interested, even a spectacular return to Liverpool may have been on the cards to solve their striking crisis before Brendan Rodgers firmly dismissed the idea. So it was left to Stoke and Tony Pulis to offer Owen a route back to the sport in which he made his name.
Unfortunately however, it is a sport that those closest to Owen classify as the one secondary to the player behind his beloved horse-racing, that football is perceived as just being the means to fund his state of the art stables in Cheshire.
Contrasting signs emanate from Owen himself; from the pains to which he stretched to fight an accusation from the Daily Express back in 2009 which suggested he was preparing to quit the game, to the ease in which he subjected himself to being the fifth choice striker at Manchester United, it was like he still wanted to be a top level professional footballer, but was aware the dream had long picked up a threatening cancer and he was desperately clinging on for dear life.
It is sad to see a striker of Owen’s pedigree being subjected to such stagnation, after all he does boast a record of 221 goals from a total of 473 appearances at club level, and with 40 from 89 for England, he was well on his way to Bobby Charlton’s goal-scoring record before the ruthless axe of Fabio Capello jettisoned him from all involvement with the national team.
With a history like that, it can even be argued Tony Pulis has pulled off a wonderful piece of business in landing a striker so potent, but a very basic deal centred around pay-as-you-play suggests the Britannia hierarchy are fully aware of the problems that lie under the surface of a player that has perhaps incurable issues with fitness and maybe even desire.
With Cameron Jerome, Kenwynne Jones, John Walters and Peter Crouch all ahead of Owen in Pulis’ attacking pecking order, the striker will have to settle for a very limited role once more, but there will be no Stoke City fan too upset by the prospect of a player with the experience and finishing prowess of Owen emerging from the bench to impact a squad that has so far racked up three draws in the Premier League; if he can produce the type of snapshot quality he showed in gaining Manchester United victory in that unforgettable derby of his first September at Old Trafford, or even the hat-trick against Wolfsburg in the Champions League, or even the spots of quality finishing he produced in numerous Carling Cup ties, then he will be vital to Stoke City’s cause.
Everybody associated with football knows what Owen is capable of, it’s what landed him three years with the biggest club in England when he was seemingly finished following relegation with Newcastle, all Pulis has to do is coax the fitness and willingness in order to produce it from him at Stoke.
Of course, that remains a huge task for the Welshman when it is considered Owen has not started a league match since October 2010 and even then he only lasted 45 minutes. It is no coincidence that negotiations for Owen’s signature at Stoke on the day pencilled in for the submission of the 25-man squad deadline were reported to have lasted most of the day, for the club were sensible in trying to structure Owen’s volatile injury concerns to a similar deal they had with Jonathon Woodgate.
One glance at Owen’s tally of league starts from the 06-07 campaign reads 3, 24, 21, five, one and zero, so it is easy to see the logic in giving the player a payment based on his productivity.
Despite his many set-backs and injuries, Owen has managed to remain a quiet, likeable character to the neutral, so it would be difficult to search for a supporter who would begrudge him his latest fresh-crack at the top.
For now, all of his problems are in the past and he has a Premier League future to focus on that to a degree, one that he is fortunate to have.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow him on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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