He may not be the most popular former son that Anfield has produced in recent times, but after Stoke striker Michael Owen agreed with Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s assertion that Liverpool’s mismanagement of the the player when he was younger more than contributed to an injury-hit career, are we simply seeing a carbon copy happening with Fernando Torres at Chelsea all over again? And should the club’s supporters be worried about their over-reliance on youth on Merseyside again this term?
In all honesty, the 32-year-old (former?) England international’s career has been on a downwards slope ever since he left Real Madrid back in 2005 at the age of 26, with a number of questionable career moves robbing him of any chance he had of making good on his enormous potential. Timing has never been Owen’s strongest point, whether it be leaving Merseyside for Spain in pursuit of silverware only to see Liverpool hoist the Champions League trophy aloft at the end of the campaign in the most unlikely of circumstances, or his terrible knee injury suffered just moments into the 2006 World Cup. In short, he’s had an unfulfilled career.
United boss Ferguson told the Daily Mail last month that Owen’s relentless playing schedule at such a young age was the root cause of his injury problems later on in his career: “You can play too much football, particularly young players growing and developing physically. That’s exactly what happened with Michael. He would’ve been a far better player if he’d been allowed to improve technically and develop rather than playing all the time. When the England youth team played in that tournament in Malaysia we had two players in the tournament at the same time, Curtis and Wallwork. We gave them a month’s rest after they came back from the tournament but Liverpool put Owen right back in the first team. And then the following season he played in the World Cup so he never had a summer break. I don’t think he was allowed to develop technically, as he himself said to me when I discussed it with him.It’s maybe a bit churlish to say that’s the reason he wasn’t better. I think he would have been better technically but he was still a fantastic player.”
What would be churlish would be to lay the blame squarely at Liverpool’s door for a career which often threatened to scale the heights of past England legends such as Gary Lineker and Jimmy Greaves but ultimately fell short. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that playing so often may have had a detrimental effect on his development in the long run. For example, Owen played 316 games for club and country before his 24th birthday, which in comparison to Ryan Giggs (112), Paul Scholes (123) and David Beckham (184) is shocking. In only his second season as a professional, he featured in 44 games across all competitions as a raw 17-year-old – Raheem Sterling, take note.
Owen has his take on his time at Liverpool and the club’s over-reliance on him through his own official website: “As a youngster, I was considered exceptional and in many ways, that was to my detriment. While I was playing every game available to me, there was another young kid in the Liverpool academy called Steven Gerrard who was also showing huge potential.”Unlike me, who was playing 80-odd games a year, Stevie just couldn’t stay fit. I am convinced that this played to his advantage in the long run. I couldn’t get enough of it. I would play a full season with Liverpool and then once the season was over, while everyone wrapped their best youngsters up to have a summer break, I was jetting off to play for England, sometimes playing three years above my age group at the highest level. This continued for a few years. I played week in, week out without a break, for years.
“My body made me pay for pushing it to the limit too often,” he explained. “My hamstring snapped in two and it was at that point that my ability to perform unimpeded was finished. It didn’t have to be that way. My rehabilitation was compromised due to our physio leaving the club that summer and not being replaced until the following season and with no regular medical care during such a critical time, a routine injury was destined to restrict me for the rest of my career.”It is due to this factor (confirmed by many medical experts), that I have suffered multiple injuries since. People laugh when I say that I am not naturally injury prone. It is my genuine opinion that I have become injury prone due to overplaying at a young age, suffering an injury as a result and then having a dreadful rehabilitation at such a critical time.”
It’s an astonishing account of the duty of care that the club provided at the time and while the player has left himself open to mockery plenty of times since – from the Dubai helicopter advert, to the player brochure circulated to every Premier League by his agent prior to his switch to Old Trafford – you have to feel sorry for him to an extent. Hamstring injuries are part and parcel of the game and somewhat inevitable, but they only come about through poor conditioning of the muscle, which is more likely to happen in an over-worked player whose body is still developing and not being allowed the appropriate time to rest.
Chelsea forked out £50m for Fernando Torres from Liverpool back in January 2010 and after suffering numerous hamstring strains while on international duty with Spain, he was rushed back into Rafa Benitez’s side despite not being at full fitness due to the team being lost without him.
Talk of his decline, particularly a reduction of his blistering pace, has focused mainly on his time at Stamford Bridge, but there were early signs that all was not well in his final six months at Anfield. An unwillingness to make runs in behind, a lack of confidence and sloppiness in possession, the 28-year-old struck just nine times in his final 23 league games, which while comparable with his record in west London, is well down on the rest of him time at Liverpool.
He too was thrust into the spotlight at an early age at Atletico Madrid, and made 36 league appearances back in the 2001-2 season for the club in Spain’s second tier when he was 17. By the time he had moved to Liverpool at the age of 23, he had already made 288 appearances for both club and country with echoes of the sort of ‘too much, too soon’ story associated with Owen.
It’s no coincidence that both players relied on pace, broke through at a young age and suffered from similar knee and hamstring issues during their careers, while Liverpool’s over-reliance on both saw them rushed back at times before they were truly ready. While Liverpool are wholly culpable for Owen’s decline, they remain only partly responsible for Torres’, but with the club’s new manager having to rely so heavily on several youngsters to pad out his squad this campaign, due in part to the fiscal restraints placed on him from above, he should remain wary of history repeating itself once again.
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