Michael Owen must be the luckiest man in the world. Playing for Manchester United, on an occasional basis, with no real pressure, earning vast sums of money… while still being able to indulge in his love of horse racing. When he writes his next autobiography, they’ll have to call it Riley – The Life Of.
It is not the script we expected Owen to follow when he was a teenager and emerging as one of the greatest goalscorers the game has seen. At that time he was always being compared with me, as we both banged in goals for England at an early age. It was regarded as only a matter of time before he bettered my 44 for England and Bobby Charlton’s record of 49.
Yet he has ended up stuck on 40 from 89 caps, which is still an outstanding record. But Fabio Capello’s arrival as England boss turned out to be the death of his international career. And his decision to play only cameo roles at United ended any hope of a comeback. I am not buying into the idea of Owen making an England return – even though he’d make an excellent option to come off the bench and grab a goal. Capello has never fancied him, and he is not the first manager with an aversion to what you’d call out-and-out goalscorers.
It’s not true that players like Owen have suddenly gone out of fashion. All my managers were sceptical of me and I seemed to spend half my life arguing with Bill Nicholson at Spurs about his obsession with me having to track back. I wouldn’t have a go at Owen about the way things have turned out for him. I’m sure I’d have been delighted to have had the same existence at the age of 31, if only the squad system had been about in my playing days.
Back then, being on the bench, or being substituted, had a real stigma attached to it, suggesting you weren’t good enough or weren’t performing up to scratch. I remember a dog invading the pitch at White Hart Lane. As the referee and players tried to catch it, Bill Nick decided to make a substitution, bringing on David Jenkins for Frank Saul. Clear as a bell, one terrace wag yelled: “Bring Saul off – but leave the dog on instead!” Yet now all players recognise that it’s a squad game and that even the idea of being ‘dropped’ has become obsolete – players are just rested, rotated and managed.
Owen, then, is very much the ultimate modern footballer. And signing him was something of a masterstroke by Sir Alex Ferguson. If you’re challenging for four trophies and trying to juggle six or seven senior strikers, it is handy to have one or two who are relatively happy to play bit parts. As Owen showed with his brace in the Carling Cup at Leeds the other night, he certainly has not lost his eye for goal.
You would imagine that when Ferguson talks to Owen, they are more likely to discuss racing form than football. And Owen’s chief remaining sporting ambition is more likely to be owning a Derby winner than collecting more medals with United or England. There is nothing wrong with footballers not being completely in love with football, as long as they remain totally professional.
Strikers, in particular, have rarely been obsessed with the sport and few top front men have gone on to become successful managers. I couldn’t have thought of anything worse than staying inside football after I’d hung up my old shooting boots. In fact, I can readily identify with Owen. We probably ended up with a lot more in common than I gave people credit for, when everybody compared him to me as a teenager.