Michael Owen retired last month and, in doing so, brought down the curtain on a career most players could only dream of.
The 33-year-old hung up his boots as his national team’s joint-record scorer in competitive matches and as one of only three Englishmen to win the Ballon d’Or. He could also boast of having represented three of the biggest clubs in world football – Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United – and of having scored well over 200 goals at the highest level of the professional game. Enough, one would think, to allow him to head into the sunset claiming to have achieved all he ever wished for.
Owen, though, is too honest for that. Gratitude might be the prevailing emotion with which he reflects on his career, but it comes accompanied by heavy dollops of regret. And while that might seem remarkable from a man who has achieved so much, Owen’s explanation is compelling.
In a candid interview with FIFA.com, the man who also represented Newcastle United and Stoke City speaks about how a debilitating injury at the age of just 19 ensured that his awesome potential was never fully realised, and how reinventing himself was the only way to ensure a prolonged career at the top. Owen also reflects on the highs and lows of his time in the game, his decision to quit, and the fresh challenges he is embracing.
FIFA.com: Michael, how are you adapting to life after football?
Michael Owen: Pretty well. I think I’ll get a little bit of emotion in August when the season kicks off again; that’s when I expect it will really hit home. But mentally I feel I’ve been preparing for this for a while now, so it’s been quite a simple and painless transition so far.
What do you think you will miss most once the new season begins?
I think the day-to-day stuff; going into the changing room with the lads and having a laugh. It will actually be strange not driving into training every day – all the mundane things you get used to over your career. And I’ll miss football of course. I still love the game. Even now I’ve retired, I’ll still be having a kick-about with my mates in five-a-sides or around the garden. I’ve just found that over the past couple of years it hasn’t been as enjoyable as it once was. When you’re not on top of your game and scoring the goals you were always used to scoring, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not as pleasurable anymore. The hard bit of having been at the top is realising that things that used to come naturally – for me, the likes of bursting away from a defender and shooting into the bottom corner – just aren’t happening anymore. That’s very frustrating; looking at a football and knowing you can’t do the things with it that you were once able to.
You clearly had to adapt your game as your physical attributes changed. Do you see your career almost divided into three different sections: the early days around the 1998 FIFA World Cup™, going past players with such pace; the 2002 era, not so quick but a great penalty-box striker; and then later years, playing off the main No9?
One hundred per cent. When people ask what my proudest achievement in football is, I always say it has been staying at the top for so long. I certainly ended my career playing a totally different game to the one I started with. That all goes back to picking up a very bad hamstring injury when I was 19 that compromised me physically for the rest of my career, and took away that explosive pace that was so important to my game. The fact is, I was never the same player after that. Everyone always says ‘no regrets’, but at the back of my mind I do wish I hadn’t been compromised so early in my career and been able to keep on playing the way I did during those first couple of years, taking players on, going at people with real speed. But once I lost that explosive pace, my game became a lot more about becoming that penalty box-type player and then, in later years, a kind of No10 – a link-up player. It was forced on me really, but I’m still proud that I was able to reinvent myself after that initial injury and still enjoy such a successful career. To adapt my game and achieve all that I did, and still be playing for Manchester United when I was 32, is something I’m very proud of.
Which period of your career gave you the most satisfaction and enjoyment?
I think enjoyment comes from a couple of things. The first is that your team is doing well and winning trophies; the second is that you’re playing as well as you can and right on top of your game. The two periods that stand out are the ones we’ve talked about: the early days around France 98, when everything was coming so naturally, and then a few years on, when I was still scoring a lot of goals – the hat-trick for England away to Germany, that kind of thing. I was really at the top of my game in those early years, but it was later that I enjoyed my best period with Liverpool, winning the trophies we did, and had some great times with England too. Those two periods would be the ones that stand out.
Any regrets? Anything you hoped to achieve but never quite managed?
The main one would be wondering what could have been if I hadn’t developed that problem at 19. If I had stayed injury-free throughout my career, I’m sure I would have a few more records than I already have. The obvious one would be the all-time England goalscoring record (held by Bobby Charlton, with 49 goals in competitive matches and friendlies to Owen’s 40). But everyone can look back on their career and have a little sob story to tell. I know I’ve been very lucky in the grand scheme of things. I’m certainly able to walk away with my head held high. It wasn’t the ideal ending, playing so few matches for Stoke in my final season. But at least I got to play in that final game of the season and say my farewells.
It was a lovely send-off you received too, with so much respect from both the Stoke fans and the home supporters at Southampton.
Fabulous. I couldn’t have asked for any more. The Stoke fans were fantastic with me, especially considering I had contributed so little to their season. For them to give me that send-off was above and beyond what I could have hoped for. And for the Southampton fans to join in was a lovely touch. It was a great day and I can only send massive thanks to everyone who was there.
You have always been a man with plenty of interests away from the pitch. Are you looking forward to devoting more time to them now?
That’s the plan, although I’ll be keeping busy. I’m going to split my time between my media work and the agency I have started up, Michael Owen Management. That’s already looking really exciting. I also have a passion for horse racing and will be spending a bit of time at the stables I’m involved with. Most importantly, I have a big family with four kids, and I’m looking forward to spending more time with them.
What made you go into the agency side of the game rather than coaching or management?
I would never say never to management and I have taken my first couple of coaching badges already. But it’s one of these things you can’t go into half-hearted. It’s a job that takes over your life and at this stage I want to do other things. With the agency work, I get a real kick out of giving young players advice, watching them develop and hopefully sharing some of my experiences and guiding them through what can be a very tough career. It’s something I always thought I could do and hopefully change the opinion some people have of agents. It’s a profession that doesn’t always have a great reputation, but I want to do things properly and do everything I can to help young players get the very most out of their careers.
So rather than mourning the end of your playing career, you’re already throwing yourself into another challenge?
Absolutely. I’ve taken a bit of criticism during my career for having too many interests outside football, but I always saw it as planning for a time when I wasn’t playing anymore. And that’s what’s happening now. Rather than think, ‘God, what am I going to do', I’m straight into the next chapter of my life and career. And that’s exactly what I’ll be advising my players to do as an agent. Playing careers don’t last forever and it’s very important to prepare for a future away from the pitch. Hopefully I’ll be living proof of that because, for all that I will miss being a footballer, I’m really looking forward to the next stage of my life.