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Last Roll of The Dice for Cruel Hand Luke

By | 6th July 2009

michael-owen1On the 20th of June 2006 in Cologne, Germany, I was sat high behind the goal in the RheinEnergieStadion (then called simply ‘The FIFA World Cup Stadium’) when in the fourth minute, a figure crumpled to the ground. It was hard to see who it was from my unique vantage point, but the man sitting to my left immediately turned round and said ‘any money it’s Owen’.

Being the son of a seasoned gambler and enamored with a flutter now and then myself I knew instinctively not to take the bet. Almost certainly, as an avid fan of the art, Owen would have known too. It was never going to be anyone else. From the second Northern Rock took out an ill advised ad campaign depicting Owen, in full Newcastle kit, standing on a luggage belt beneath the words ‘Can we have him back in one piece please?’, it was written in the stars that Crock Monsieur Owen would be leaving Germany on crutches. And from that moment on, his career, and evidently several bones, muscles and tendons, never really recovered.

It had been stuttering for a while. In fact the cruel hand of fate has been toying with him since he won the Ballon D’or at the precious age of 21. Liverpool winning the European Cup in the season he left, precisely to pursue that very goal, was a slap in the face. The refusal of Benitez to re-hire the prodigal son (despite offering a similar sentimental gesture to his predecessor, Robbie Fowler) after a season of sitting down at the Bernabeu was a kick in the unmentionables.

The invitation to become the latest messiah of St James’ Park (a role which surely now only the ghost of Jackie Milburn can fulfill) is always a poisoned chalice and the injury that befell him in Germany after only accumulating the mighty sum of 11 games for the Magpies, was finally the straw that broke the camel’s back. From then on, a straw was all it seemingly took to break anything in Michael Owen, and a man who once looked so certain to break (in a positive way) Bobby Charlton’s long standing international goal scoring record looked set to languish 9 shy forever.

But now the hand of fate, so often a cruel obstacle to his ambition, has taken pity on poor Michael. With their medical team obviously finding that his legs weren’t, as often suspected, made of sticks and blue-tac, he signed for world and English champions Manchester United on a free transfer and with, supposedly, a pay for play deal.

Some people will view the deal with skepticism. United’s inability to outspend the Spanish government for Karim Benzema has supposedly relegated them to chasing has beens, but in truth the deal represents very little risk for United. The risk, unusually in modern football, is almost entirely on the player’s part.

Twenty-nine is a peak age for many sportsmen, but not ones who rely heavily on pace. Owen, who falls into this category, is unquestionably passed his. At this stage of his career he had two options. He could have taken the money and status at a lesser club, sure in the knowledge that his bank manager wouldn’t be worried by his gambling habits, that he’d shift a few shirts as a major signing and that whatever happened on the pitch probably wouldn’t be remembered prevalently when his career retrospective began.

Instead, however, he chose to see what lay behind door number two, going to a big club where he won’t be feted, and where he’s likely to spend long periods on the bench for substantially less money. In many ways he’ll be going back to the Bernabeu. The place that signaled the beginning of the end of his career as a world class striker.

Should his time at United not be a success, Sir Alex can simply shrug it off. Crucially, so can the Gnome King himself, Malcom Glazer. Owen comes to them on their terms, without denting Ronaldo’s parting present transfer kitty, and without any guarantee or obligation to start him. If he fails, he fails, and the only person likely to suffer as a result is Owen himself. Playing for Manchester United, in Europe, and as a famous name, the pressure will all be on him to succeed.

In many ways, he’s playing for his legacy, because unlike option A, his spell at United will be remembered. Especially in a World Cup year, and the excuses of insufficient service and lack of quality support that could feasibly come from a poor spell at a lesser club will not apply. He’ll get chances at United. A lot of chances.

Should he succeed, the benefits are plentiful for both parties. Only five times in his seemingly endless spell at United has Sir Alex Ferguson ever bought an outfield player of that age or beyond. After all, Manchester United are as synonymous with youth, and the pursuit of it, as the late Michael Jackson. Something Jackson often seemed to forget however, and something Ferguson knows all too well, is the influence a sensible, mature and experienced grown up can have on an eager and up and coming youngster.

Laurent Blanc’s short spell at the club had a great influence on the young defenders in United’s squad, notably forgetful bean pole and prankster in chief, Rio Ferdinand. United even won the league back from Arsenal. Teddy Sheringham took on the mantle left by Eric Cantona and ushered United’s famous class of ’92 through maturity and to the Treble.

Henrik Larrson’s time there had a similarly positive impact on a young and inexperienced team in re-capturing the league title from Chelsea. United have a lot of young prospects, most notably teenagers Federico Macheda and Danny Welbeck. With the loss of Ronaldo, the burden on them to step up will be eased, and with an experienced and proven goalscorer to tutor them, their progress could come on leaps and bounds.

Furthermore, the possible benefits for Owen’s England career are obvious to all. The chance to prove his worth at the highest level in Europe and an opportunity to work constantly with England’s most important player means the chance is there. If Owen lives up to his word and ‘grabs it with both hands’ his final gamble could come off a glorious winner.

He’s suddenly found himself in the best position he could possibly be in. His competitors for a place in the England squad will not have high profile Champions League games to impress in. They similarly won’t have Rooney, Berbatov, Giggs, Carrick and Scholes laying chances on a plate for them. Capello has his World Cup squad fairly set in his mind, and he’s not a man who often changes it. But if there’s one player who’s going to force his way into the England set up this season, any money it’s Owen.

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