Michael Owen was the last to leave the changing rooms, to feel his boot studs on the steps of the tunnel, to touch the famous "This is Anfield" sign. Waiting for him on a plinth outside was a golden trophy in the shape of a football. Waiting too was Gerard Houllier, Liverpool's manager.
The Frenchman had been in Corsica, convalescing from a heart attack, when Owen was revealed as the European Player of the Year for 2001. The presentation of the award was delayed especially for Houllier, who wanted to be involved. The Ballon d'Or was a creation of France, and Houllier, a professor of the game and a keen historian, was proud of his country's football heritage.
There was plenty for him to smile about as he placed palm onto shoulder and passed the trophy to his centre-forward, whispering the words: "Michael, you deserve this."
Perhaps the 22-year-old saw this moment coming.
The late Keith Blunt, a director for the Football Association's National School at Lilleshall, used to tell a story about the teenage Michael Owen. In the autumn of 1993, Blunt had spoken to 32 new inductees, including Owen, reminding the aspiring footballers of the game's pitfalls.
"The fact is," Blunt had said, "only two of you here will probably go on to make it as a top-level professional footballer."
Owen went to Blunt and told him how he'd looked across the classroom when the bleak message was delivered, thinking, "I wonder who the other one is."
Now Owen had seen off great competition—including Raul and previous Ballon d'Or winners Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid, as well as Oliver Kahn of Germany and Bayern Munich—to make history. He was the first Englishman since 1979 to take the individual European crown and the first to do so as a Liverpool player, since each of Kevin Keegan's triumphs came during his time in Germany with Hamburg.
Fifteen years later, Michael Owen has a new life in football as a commentator and match analyser. In March, the Daily Mirror asked readers to rank "every football pundit on TV." Owen finished in 35th place—out of 35.
The next month, many Liverpool supporters howled when the club named him its first international ambassador—still angry about his move to Manchester United in 2009, five years after he'd left Anfield for Real Madrid in what was considered then a cut-price deal. "A snake becomes our international ambassador," one tweet read.
Even when he was the best player in Europe, Owen was never showered with adoration the way Robbie Fowler was before or Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard were later. He admits, however, to not fully appreciating the Ballon d’Or at the time.
He'd already won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and PFA Young Player of the Year awards in 1998, receiving enormous attention. He was named as the Ballon d'Or winner on December 16 and, because of Houllier, was not presented with the trophy at Anfield until April 20. During the intervening four months, he'd scored his 100th Liverpool goal, been named as the Player of the Year in World Soccer Magazine and become the youngest England captain ever. The success was relentless.
"So much was happening in that period of my life," Owen remembers. "When Gerard first told me about becoming European Player of the Year, I think he expected me to fall over and faint with amazement. He actually said to me, 'Do you know how important this is?'
"I tried to convince him: 'Yeah, boss…yeah boss! I'm really happy!'
"I wasn't quite as happy as Gerard, though. I reflect upon the achievement differently 15 years later, but back then it was more of a thing for him than me. He was so proud."
The Ballon d'Or hasn't been won by an English footballer since.