Friday, May 24, 2013

Michael Owen vs Robbie Fowler

The end of the football season has brought more retirements than usual. Fergie, Paul Scholes (again), David Beckham and Jamie Carragher have all called time on their careers. It almost makes you forget that it was only six weeks ago that Michael Owen got his news in first. For a few days in the middle of March the back pages stopped to pay homage to the ex-Liverpool and England striker who saw out the season with Stoke City, retiring at the tender age of 33. Strangely for a man who went from Merseyside to the Potteries via Real Madrid, Newcastle and Manchester United, much of the media chatter portrayed Owen as potential unfulfilled, a succession of injuries surely preventing him from achieving the glories his talent would otherwise have ensured. Thus we have Owen falling from the heights of the wonder goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, beginning “the slow journey downhill” that would finish inevitably with a sense of regret”.  His story was our story: “Owen, like us, ended up grasping desperately at a past that would forever remain out of reach”. Glenn Hoddle, who managed Owen at international level, accentuated the positive as he waxed lyrical about the striker: “He is in the top four of our greatest ever finishers, along with Jimmy Greaves, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer. Some might say he is at the top of that list.” And on it continued, “Owen this”, “Owen that”, “Michael shoulda, woulda, coulda…” So, by my reckoning, now is as good a time as any to talk about Robbie Fowler.

Or rather I want to talk about what both Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler represent, in particular to Liverpool fans.  Let me be clear from the outset - at his best Michael Owen was one of the finest strikers in the world. He was a predatory finisher, whose marksmanship was underpinned by the most blistering pace. From some, such as Jonathan Liew, there is just the faintest suggestion that Owen was a one-trick pony, a speedster with no downshift. It is certainly true that he didn’t possess the skill set of Ronaldo, the vision of Raul or the panache of Thierry Henry, but his career statistics tell their own story. Owen tallied 40 goals in 89 internationals, and 163 goals in 360 games at club level. Here is a man who scored everywhere he played, whether for club or country. Yes, you knew what you would get with Owen, but It was one thing for the opposition to identify what made him so special, but quite another to stop him.

And yet. While Michael will always be recognised, quite rightly, as a Liverpool great, for most Reds fans (me included) he will never be accorded the same legendary status as Robbie Fowler. In his autobiography, Jamie Carragher suggests that Liverpool fans always saw Owen as an England player who turned out for the club; in comparison Fowler, so often overlooked by the national team, was a Liverpool player through and through. Alternatively people point to the fact that Owen’s move to Manchester United was an act of unthinkable betrayal on the red half of Merseyside. But it is worth remembering that Fowler was “God” long before Owen assumed the role of Judas. 

Strangely the career paths of Fowler and Owen shared some striking similarities. Both would make their debuts at 17, both would win the PFA Young Player of the Year award, both would win England caps whilst still teenagers, and the pair would, of course, become prolific goalscorers. Both would see injuries impact upon their careers as professional footballers.

In his first four full seasons playing for Liverpool Fowler appeared in 188 games. Over the same timespan Owen notched up 160 appearances. It was an incredible stress to place on the bodies of professional athletes who were little more than boys. The prodigious talents of both players dawned in an era of fading fortune for Liverpool FC. When Kenny Dalglish resigned from his position of manager after Hillsborough he left behind an aging squad, short on fire power. To exhibit such extraordinary ability at such a tender age was the curse of both men. As Liverpool found themselves unable to compete with the finances available to the clubs newly formed into PLC’s, they looked towards their youth team players to arrest their footballing decline. The intensity of those early years – the result of a club desperate for glory, honours and revenue - almost certainly accounts for the fact that neither man reached his full potential.
But how do we account for the fact that Fowler will always be held in higher esteem than Owen? Well, the first reason is about football, pure and simple. Far be it from me to contradict Glenn Hoddle, but Owen, for all his talents, was simply not as good a striker as Fowler. Owen’s modus operandi – spin, sprint, shoot, score – was devastatingly simple. Robbie Fowler, in comparison, never possessed the same speed but could do things Owen could only dream about. He was genuinely two-footed, as deadly from outside the area as he was inside the six yard box, had an eye for the improbable and could strike a mean dead ball. And, for a player who was only 5ft 9in I remember him scoring a number of (very good) headed goals. If Owen’s game was premised on his pace, then Fowler just about had everything else. He could run the channels, hold the ball up, link play and produce the most imperious skill in the most unlikely situation. It would be an over-simplification (though only a small one) to say that Owen was an athlete who played football, while Fowler was a footballer who occasionally found himself having to do a bit of running.
But it was as much the man as the player. Unfortunately, unintentionally Owen always seemed stand-offish and aloof. During press conferences and in post-match interviews he had a tendency to come across like a slightly less interesting Alan Shearer. What a contrast this was to Fowler who exuded cheeky playfulness at every opportunity, a player who fans remember for far more than the goals he scored. There was the t-shirt in support of the Liverpool dockers, the attempt to talk a referee out of awarding him a penalty, the comedy spats with Neil Ruddock, ‘snorting’ the white chalk lines of the pitch in response to taunts from Everton fans. And it carried on long after he left the club. When he scored the winner for City in the Manchester derby he ran to the United fans, counting his fingers – a reference to Liverpool’s fifth triumph in Europe’s premier cup competition. If Owen was somehow destined to find himself at Old Trafford, Fowler was always going to play the role of prodigal son.
Occasionally Fowler let the halo slip - his disgraceful homophobic behaviour towards Graeme Le Saux was widely and rightly condemned. Yet for all his faults and failures, his goals and greatness, he was familiar to us. He seemed like the kind of guy you might bump into down the pub on a Friday night. Even as his property portfolio grew ever larger, Fowler was somehow different from the other, increasingly distant, footballing millionaires. He was the scally who grew up in the heart of Toxteth, who’d seen the riots first hand, who was still best mates with the people he had first met at school. He still felt like one of us.
Which leads us to the third reason – context. Just four years separated the debuts of the two players, but that time was of enormous significance. When Fowler made his debut in 1993 the era of the Premier League was just getting under way. Vast sums of television money, coupled with the changes brought about by the Taylor Report, was transforming English football. Slowly the drinking and gambling culture of the 1980s was being undermined; a new professionalism was being demanded, and footballers were becoming superstars, with more riches than they could ever have possibly imagined.
Michael Owen made his debut for Liverpool on 6th May 1997, just five days after the general election. As he burst on to the scene with a debut goal, Owen epitomized the new breed of footballer: clean-cut, clean-living, with a fresh-face that exuded promise. He was coached to be media savvy, saying all the right things and saying nothing at all, as though every word was scripted by a media relations expert and committed to memory. In the age of New Labour, he was New Football. All money and suits and smiles for the camera.
The 1990s saw football in transition, two eras colliding and for a brief period sharing the same time and space. The personalities and playing styles of Fowler and Owen seemed to reference this sense of the old and the new. Michael Owen was of the new breed, emerging at the point when clubs became corporations, the beautiful game a most lucrative business, and the players unreachable, untouchable idols. Robbie Fowler was an echo, a reminder of a time when heroes played and were just a little closer to the fans who paid good money to come through the turnstiles and cheer them on. We all knew that the club was owned by millionaires, we always knew that Owen would leave if they waved enough money in front of his eyes. But for the penniless football fan, with no power or control, Robbie Fowler always belonged to us.