Liverpool travel to Stoke City this weekend as the club that launched Michael Owen's career takes on the side where it all ended for him. Owen achieved some truly great things in his career, scoring goals for fun and winning plenty of trophies while playing for three of the biggest clubs in the world. Yet he is not truly embraced by the fans of any club he ever played for, particularly Liverpool.
Owen also had spells at Real Madrid, Newcastle United and Manchester United of course, but Liverpool are the club with which he is most closely associated. After exploding onto the scene as a jet-heeled teen, Owen went on to achieve a great deal in his time at Anfield, both in terms of team success and personal accolades, not least when he won the Ballon d'Or in 2001 after helping Liverpool achieve a historical cup treble. That season alone should have ensured that Owen never had to buy himself a drink on Merseyside ever again, yet if you were to ask most Liverpool fans to name their ten least favourite former players, Owen's name would make an awful lot of those lists.
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Few Kopites have any affection left for their former striker these days, and views on Owen tend to vary between mild indifference to utter contempt. Personally, I'm at the "indifference" end of the scale as I have far too many fond memories to be able to bring myself to truly dislike Owen, although I fully understand how others can. The perception of Owen is of a self-centred, career-driven individual who never seemed to care too much about any club he played for, not even Liverpool with whom he enjoyed the best days of his career.
Rightly or wrongly, many fans suspected that Owen was more concerned with his international career and his "brand" than he was with Liverpool Football Club. Despite having come up through the club's junior ranks, he wasn't seen as being as much of a "Red" as the likes of Jamie Carragher, Robbie Fowler and Steven Gerrard, and as a result, was never really held in the same esteem despite always giving his best on the field. The way his career path went in comparison to his three pals suggests that the fans were right to doubt his commitment to the cause. Acting in the best interests of "Team Owen" may have paid off in terms of his resume, medal haul and bank balance, but as the Black Eyed Peas famously asked, "where is the love?".
It's not just the Kop that don't look on him favourably. Manchester United fans couldn't care less about him, Newcastle's "Toon Army" really don't like him much at all, Real Madrid fans probably look at him in much the same way as Liverpudlians view David N'Gog (with indifference), while the Stoke faithful hardly saw him on the field and presumably have no real opinion on him one way or the other. For all his talent, all his goals and all his achievements, Owen isn't loved by the fans of any team he played for. That's a sad and dubious honour that not many players can lay claim to.
Liverpool fans' beef with Owen dates back to when he left to join Real Madrid in August 2004. He had let his contract run down and there were just 12 months left on his deal, meaning LFC were not in much of a bargaining position when Madrid made their move. Owen left to win trophies, but ironically Liverpool won the Champions League while he was struggling to get in the Madrid side, and a year later he was ready to return to Anfield, tail between legs.
The Reds were prepared to take him back but only at a sensible price. After all, he'd left Anfield for the derisory sum of eight million pounds, plus Antonio Nunez (so basically somewhere near six million pounds) and Liverpool were not looking to spend too much more than that to get him back. Madrid wanted a reported 12 million pounds, but Newcastle -- keen to make a big splash in the transfer market and attract a marquee player -- came wading in with a ludicrous 18 million pound offer. Real couldn't believe their luck, but Owen was not so thrilled.
Desperate calls were made on Owen's behalf to then Liverpool Chief Executive Rick Parry in a vain attempt to coax the Reds into upping their offer, but Liverpool wanted Owen to tell the Spanish giants that he was only interested in a return to Merseyside and Newcastle's offer was therefore irrelevant. Had he done that, Madrid would have then been faced with either keeping a player they didn't really want and who didn't want to be there, or to sell for the best price they could get.
Instead, Owen reluctantly agreed to join Newcastle and before he knew it he was being whisked off in a helicopter and paraded on live TV on a stage at St James' Park in front of thousands of over-excited Geordies. He made a fortune out of that move and gave very little back on the field in return, as much of his time in the North East was spent on the treatment table. In his final season at St James' Park, he even captained the side to relegation, but "Brand Owen" was never going to play in the Championship.
Initially, there appeared to be little interest in him. Then came the infamous "brochure", one of the most cringe-worthy things I can remember seeing associated with a top footballer. Once again, Owen was pushing for a move back to Liverpool and both Gerrard and Carragher put a word in for him with Rafa Benitez, only for the Spaniard to go in another direction. Owen, of course, ended up at Manchester United and for some Liverpool fans that meant that his final Anfield bridge had now been burned. For others -- myself included -- it was an unpalatable but understandable move. Owen hadn't turned down Liverpool to join United; he joined United because Liverpool didn't want him.
Joining United wasn't the straw that broke the camel's back for me. It was the complete lack of respect he showed Liverpool fans in comments he made after making the move to Old Trafford. In a futile attempt to ingratiate himself with the fans of his new club, Owen completely alienated the remaining Liverpool fans who still had any time for him. It was unnecessary and classless. I'd like to think he regrets it now, but who knows.
For such a smart lad, Owen has made some terrible decisions. Either that, or he has the worst advisors in football. How can a player who scored as many goals as he did be so unloved by the fans of every team he played for? I mean, it's not like he's a bad guy. Far from it. He's had no off-the-field controversies, was always a model professional, never fell out with team-mates or managers and when fit, he invariably delivered the goods. Yet players with not even a shred of his ability or professionalism get much more love from the fans of all of his former clubs.
As a rule, once you have played for LFC you're a "Red for life", you only have to look on Twitter to see evidence of that. Players such as Luis Garcia, Didi Hamann, Titi Camara, Djimi Traore, Patrik Berger, Erik Meijer, Dani Pacheco, etc all still follow the club's fortunes closely; all appreciate that they were privileged enough to have worn the famous red shirt and all enjoy a good relationship with the fans. Compare that with Owen, perhaps the most mocked footballer on social media.
Owen is in an elite group of former players who were not warmly received when they returned to Anfield with their new club: Fernando Torres, Stan Collymore, El Hadji Diouf and Paul Ince are in that group too for varying reasons, while Steve McManaman's return wasn't as welcoming as it could have been either. When Owen returned to Liverpool as a Newcastle player, he wasn't booed, but he was taunted with chants of "Where were you in Istanbul?"
I have no idea if Owen regrets any of the decisions he made during his career, or if he wishes he'd handled certain things differently. I'd like to think so, and if he does, then he should say so. I'm sure there are still plenty of supporters like myself who still want to think fondly of him and to remember him for the important goals that brought trophies to the club, but he has made it almost impossible to do that.
It could be that he doesn't care what people think and is happy with his lot in life. After all, he had a great career, he's got a loving family, more money than he'll ever need, a new career in punditry and he's got his beloved race horses. Life is pretty good for Michael Owen, but there surely must be a small part of him that sees how so many former LFC players (who achieved far less than he did) are treated like prodigal sons and held in such high esteem by the fans, and wishes he had some of that too.