Red Lightning

Remembering when Michael Owen ruled the world

By Simon Hughes

December 15, 2016

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.

Owen celebrates scoring for Liverpool in August 2001. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

When Mike Yates closes his eyes and thinks back to some of his earliest childhood memories, he is taken to a moment that marked Michael Owen out as different to the rest. They were about to play together for Liverpool Football Club's under-11s, and the heavy rain outside was battering the corrugated roof of the changing rooms at the Vernon Sangster sports facility across the street from Anfield.

"Michael had given himself a psychological edge," Yates says, recalling Owen's work on his boots. "He'd replaced the two shorter studs in the middle with the longer ones at the back. Michael's dad, Terry, was a footballer, wasn't he? Terry knew that by doing this, Michael would get extra purchase on the grass when pushing away on a sprint. It worked because nobody could beat him for pace—something he had naturally anyway. When Michael was beyond the defender, he was gone."

Goalscoring had been in Owen's blood. His father had grown up in a maisonette on the Rimrose Valley estate in Thornton, seven miles north of Liverpool's city centre, and a career at Everton beckoned until Harry Catterick, the legendary manager, decided to release him in 1970 after only two appearances. A career as a lower-league centre-forward followed.

Michael's childhood memories were filled with trailing his father around non-league football grounds in the mid-to-north Wales region: places like Oswestry Town and Caernarfon. Arenas with distinctive smells, whether it be Bovril from the food hut, Deep Heat from the changing rooms or the outdoor toilets that reeked like they'd been jet-washed with urine.

Yates says it was Owen's blistering pace—"too fast for the opposition and sometimes his team-mates"—that stood out on first inspection. Defenders could not keep up with him, so it was easy for a midfielder to "knock the ball over the top and let him chase after it." Yates also speaks about Owen's unshakable self-belief. "I don't think he had any doubts whatsoever."

Yates was tall for his age and broad-shouldered; Owen was small and lean, whippet thin. They made a classic centre-forward partnership, with service reliably coming from Steven Gerrard and Jason Koumas in the deeper positions. Koumas would later earn 34 international caps for Wales after making his name at Tranmere Rovers.

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Owen scores for Liverpool against Arsenal in May 1998. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

"Through the age groups, Steven and Michael were almost telepathic," Yates says. "Steven was consistently able to find Michael with a first-time pass, but automatically, Michael knew which type of run to make because he'd expect that type of pass. They were clever enough to work out that the relationship they had would help them to where they wanted to go to. Michael broke into Liverpool's first team two years before Steven, but I know Michael couldn't wait for Steven to do the same because he appreciated the level of service he'd receive."

Yates was released by Liverpool as an 18-year-old and spent three seasons in the Scottish Premier League with Dundee. In 2014, he self-published his memoir, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and…Me. It was shortlisted in England for the prestigious Cross Sports Book Award.

"When Michael was beyond the defender, he was gone."

Mike Yates

Yates admits Owen possessed a ruthlessness that he never had, believing it explains why one player was asked to attend Lilleshall at the age of 14 and the other was left at home.

"Selfishness is seen as a negative word, but you need it in a football team," he says. "Michael would be through on goal, and I'd be waiting for a pass in the box in a better position for a tap-in. But he'd go for goal. Only rarely did he square it."

Steve Heighway, the former Liverpool great turned academy coach, or his fellow coach Dave Shannon would ask if Owen had seen Yates standing in the box. "Michael would go, 'Er, yeah, course I did,'" Yates says. "And then Dave or Steve would say, 'Well, that's OK then.' It proved to the coaches that his awareness was there."

From its opening in 1984 until its closure in 1999, Lilleshall Hall in Shropshire was the place, like Clairefontaine in France, that assumed responsibility for guiding the country's best young footballers between the ages of 14 and 16.

Those who experienced Lilleshall relate it to a boarding-school education. Players were allowed home one weekend in every four, and for the rest of the time, days were structured: a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call followed by breakfast 45 minutes later, then lessons.

In the afternoon, Blunt—the FA's answer to Heighway—would lead the coaching sessions. On Saturdays, Blunt arranged for each squad of 16 to attend a Premier League game, usually Aston Villa or Coventry City because they were the closest leading clubs. Sundays were matchdays, and for the rest of the time, Owen and the other students were cared for by Lilleshall's housemaster, Tony Pickering, and his wife, Gilly.

Gerrard was highly regarded by Liverpool, but he was small for his age. The matter was of concern to England's selectors, and so, while Owen spent two years living, training and playing at Lilleshall rather than Melwood, Gerrard remained on Merseyside, having been overlooked by England.

"Just a bit of an oversight," Yates says.

Despite his later physical emergence and appointment as Liverpool's captain, the impact of rejection at such a young age affected Gerrard's mindset because self-worth issues followed him throughout his career, as Carragher testified in his autobiography, Carra. Conversations in hotel rooms the night before games reveal that Gerrard never took his apparent high status in the Liverpool team for granted.

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Owen and Gerrard pictured together on England duty in October 2000. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

There were no such problems for Owen, though, whose only knocks on the path towards professionalism involved lost games and missed goalscoring opportunities, as well as dealing with bouts of jealousy from less talented sporting pupils at Idsall School in Shifnal. There, Owen gained 10 GCSEs with C and D grades, which he says would have been better had football not dominated his thoughts.

Owen's age group included three others who made it all the way to the Premier League, confounding Blunt's message that there would only be two. There was Wes Brown, the future Manchester United defender; Michael Ball, who represented Everton at left-back; and Jon Harley, whose progression was marked in Chelsea's first team. Kenny Lunt—who was rated by England in higher esteem than Gerrard—spent the bulk of his professional career at Crewe Alexandra in the old Second Division.

Tom Culshaw, who spent his childhood playing football on the square in front of Gerrard's house on Ironside Road in Huyton's Bluebell council estate, is a year older than Owen. He was made captain of Liverpool's reserve team at 18, but having been released a year later, he says he still wasn’t able to watch a game of football on the television at the age of 22, such was the crushing disappointment. Fifteen years on, he's back at Liverpool academy, where he mentors the youth players.

Culshaw says the coaching at Lilleshall used to be more technical than it was at Liverpool, though that is not a criticism. Owen's game was evolving. Whereas before, he was used to a game of chip and chase, now—under the guidance of Blunt—he was beginning to understand how to receive the ball into feet; how to turn; how to shield possession from the defender; how to use his strength and link play.

It says much about where the power lay back then that Liverpool did not have Owen on contract because the authorities at Deeside Schools had an unwritten rule against young players having formal associations with clubs.

When Liverpool wanted Owen to play in the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup against Sheffield United in December 1995, Heighway had to request special permission from Blunt. The majority of other players scheduled to feature were two years his senior. Owen had not yet turned 16.

Owen in action for Liverpool against Arsenal in the 2001 FA Cup final. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

"We were a bunch of scallies," says David Thompson, the midfielder who, alongside Carragher, would supply the passes for Owen to score in Liverpool's FA Youth Cup-winning team of 1996.

"We had a Liverpool Sunday league mentality but a Liverpool FC level of ability," he says. "We'd impose ourselves onto the opposition. Sometimes it would take time to start dominating the game, but eventually we'd get there because of the never-say-die attitude. It was easy for Michael to integrate himself into this group because he knew each and every one of us had his back."

"We were a fiery group," he continues. "If any of us lost at anything, we'd all have a sulk on. Sessions at Melwood were at match speed. I can remember some ruthless tackles in training. I used to hate the idea of someone tackling me and taking the ball. Michael was the same. You had to be ferocious to get along.

"Think about it, you were trying to get into the first team—ahead of some of the best players in world football. That challenge is not going to be easy, is it? So the environment was feisty, and you needed the extra talent and attitude to have the edge."

Thompson is a lively character who played 56 times for Liverpool's first team but was perhaps a bit too lively for Houllier, who sold him to Coventry City after giving up on trying to harness his atomic energy within the framework of a tactical plan.

Unlike Owen, Thompson's council-estate upbringing put him in contact with some of life's harsher realities from a younger age. Thompson was brought up in Ford, Birkenhead, in the 1980s, a time when a heroin epidemic afflicted the area. Like Owen, however, Thompson came from a family of Evertonians, crossing the Mersey River from Wirral as a child to watch games at Goodison Park.

Both could have indeed joined Everton but signed instead for Liverpool because of Heighway, who earned the trust of parents because "he did not make false promises," according to Thompson. "Still, he was not afraid to tell us how good we could be."

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Owen battles Sheffield Wednesday's Des Walker during a Premiership match in May 1997. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Whereas today, clubs are free to offer players and their parents binding contracts from the moment they are spotted, in the 1990s, there was a legal wait until the age of 16. Owen took his time deciding which club to sign for because of the amount of interest in him: At Manchester United, he was introduced to Sir Alex Ferguson, who rated him so highly that he dispatched his assistant Brian Kidd to watch junior games.

Arsenal called, and before a match where Owen sat with his family in Highbury's famous Clock End, he was invited into the changing rooms to meet Ian Wright, the club's all-time top goalscorer. Owen went to Chelsea, Oldham Athletic, Norwich City, Chester, Wrexham and, of course, Everton, where he hoped he might meet Joe Royle but did not.

At Liverpool, Heighway spoke about a "Golden Triangle," which meant satisfying the interests of the player, the parents and the club. With Owen, he reached a compromise because he allowed him to live at home in Hawarden and commute rather than in digs with other players.

During Liverpool's run to the FA Youth Cup final in 1996, Owen had many options. His goal for England against Brazil at Wembley the year before meant that more people knew about him, including Thompson. "He dribbled past the whole team, and I was, like, 'Who's this spiky little fella?'"

When he scored twice in the fourth-round win over Sheffield United, Owen was the youngest player on the pitch by 18 months. The achievement prompted Heighway to pick up the phone to Blunt again because Manchester United were the opponents in the quarter-finals.

"Michael got a hat-trick," Thompson remembers. "We were desperate to beat them, and they were desperate to beat us. Having Michael in our team gave us the edge."

There were another three goals across two legs against Crystal Palace in the semi-final, and though Owen missed Liverpool’s taking a 2-0 lead from the first leg of the final against West Ham United because he was called up to play for England's under-16s, he returned for the second leg at Anfield to face Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard.

There, he scored again in a 2-1 victory, ensuring that the youth level would not repeat the demoralizing FA Cup final defeat to United by Roy Evans' senior side the Saturday before, when the squad infamously known as the "Spice Boys" had been castigated for arriving at Wembley wearing white suits.

"Michael was very mature mentally, but physically he wasn't developed," Thompson says. "I think that helped him because he was so agile. He'd get where water couldn't in between defenders. It was as though he could warp from space to space.

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Owen trains with the England squad in February 1998. Paul Ince in the background. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

"We were all blown away by his pace and steely focus. You could see that mentally he was ahead of most players. He knew where he wanted to be and he was going all out to get it."

Owen was closing in on a place in Liverpool's first team. Before his selection, he was subjected to an old Liverpool Boot Room character test.

Dougie Livermore—the first-team coach under Evans—tells a story, which again reveals Owen's unshakable belief, as described by many of those who knew him.

Before Owen made his debut, he was included in Liverpool's matchday squad for a game at Newcastle United, and after he travelled with the team, Evans decided to leave him out. At Melwood the following Monday, Evans told Livermore to have a chat with Owen and explain he was included to give him some more experience and that he'd get his chance to play eventually.

"He'd get where water couldn't in between defenders. It was as though he could warp from space to space."

David Thompson

Livermore decided to approach him after training. Throughout the day, Owen hadn't spoken to any of the coaching staff or management—not even saying hello. After the session, Dougie went over.

"Michael," he said, to which Owen responded abruptly: "What?"

"About the weekend, Michael..."

"Yeah, it was out of order," Owen interrupted.

"What do you mean? It was about gaining experience. The gaffer said you'll get your chance..."

"Give me my chance now. I should have been playing."

Livermore was taken aback by the forthright reaction of someone so young. He went back to Evans, who asked him how the conversation had gone.

"He told me where to go and that he should have been playing," Livermore said.

Evans looked at Livermore.

"Right, then. He's ready."

Owen celebrates scoring for Liverpool against Celtic in the UEFA Cup in September 1997. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Owen was given his Liverpool debut against Wimbledon in May 1997 by Evans, an occasion he marked with a goal. With Fowler plagued by injuries, Owen's scintillating form helped in his absence, and by the summer of 1998, he was spearheading England's attack at the World Cup in France alongside Alan Shearer.

Owen's wonder goal against Argentina in the second round instantly made him a global star. It was nothing new to Yates, his old mate from Liverpool's youth teams.

"I'd seen him score goals like that on many occasions," he says, "receiving a through ball almost with his heel before pushing it into space, sprinting at the opposition's defence before finishing coolly past a goalkeeper who was much taller than him. So when that happened in 1998—against some of the best players in the world—it wasn't a surprise. It was a natural thing for him to do."

For Owen, life would become very different. He hired agent Tony Stephens, who worked for the same SFX sports management firm that controlled the affairs of Michael Jordan and David Beckham. Owen already had a boot deal with Umbro. Through Stephens came deals with watchmaker Tissot, Jaguar, Walkers (who released a "Cheese and Owen" branded crisp), Lucozade Sport, Yamaha, Persil and Asda.

Football was changing, and Owen was at the forefront of making it seem a cleaner-looking sport. Evans' Spice Boys were known for selling newspapers on the basis of front-page headlines rather than those on the back, but thanks to Owen's personality, or as he now gently contests, the one manufactured for him by his PR people—who also controlled the affairs of the similarly clean-cut Shearer—that group was on its way out.

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Owen and Shearer on the golf course together during preparations for the 1998 World Cup in France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Indeed, Evans himself was out, replaced by Houllier after three dire months in which they were in charge of Liverpool together, when the players did not know who to turn to or who was making the decisions.

Alone, Houllier enforced a new discipline. There were fines for poor time-keeping, fines for wearing the wrong clothes while on official LFC duty and a fresh approach to training sessions at Melwood. While some, like Fowler and Thompson, believed Houllier's methods to be too strict, Owen and Carragher embraced the new regime, realising football was quickly moving into a more professional era, an era they wanted to be a part of.

The relationship between Owen and Fowler is intriguing because Houllier rarely selected them together, and there were rumours about the pair not getting on. Though both players deny that, maintaining to this day there was not a problem between them, the competition for places in Liverpool's attack undoubtedly contributed towards the way their relationship was perceived as well as their public personas.

Fowler was already a hero of the Kop by the time Owen came along, with supporters ordaining him "God." They never felt quite the same way about Owen. Fowler came from the inner-city borough of Toxteth, while Owen had grown up in Wales—and Owen delivered his most noteworthy achievements in an England shirt rather than a Liverpool one. Many in Liverpool consider the city as a separate place from England for a number of political and socio-economic reasons.

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Owen is joined by Fowler to celebrate his FA Cup goal against Tranmere in March 2001. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Gareth Roberts, editor of the hugely successful and informative website The Anfield Wrap, can remember Owen scoring in his professional debut and the Match of the Day commentator Tony Gubba describing him as "the next Ian Rush or Robbie Fowler."

"As a goalscorer, his record for Liverpool was amazing. Yet it never felt he was loved like either of those legends," Roberts says. Even Owen's song—"Michael Owen scores the goals hallelujah"—wasn't sung as often or with as much gusto as those dedicated to his peers, he says, adding that many Liverpool fans felt Owen valued England over Liverpool and that he was more interested in his brand and his image than with the fortunes of the club.

"Owen, though, was best friends with Jamie Carragher, one of our own," Roberts adds. "And if he was really what many of us thought he was, would a Bootle-born lad have been so close to him? Now, it's difficult to say, as any Liverpool fan's conversation about Owen is seen through the prism of perhaps his worst decision from our perspective—moving to Manchester United."

Erik Meijer, the Dutch butcher's boy who earned the nickname "Mad Erik" in his brief, frenetic time with Liverpool, agrees Owen was career-driven and that this made him appear more distant to his team-mates, the media and even supporters.

"Everywhere Michael went with the team, there was a buzz," Meijer says. "The young girls, the teenage footballers, all the cameras were focused in one direction. I remember being at an airport and a bunch of people were looking his way. 'Erik, Erik, let me hide behind you,' Michael said. That's the other side of being a very popular sports person. It's a different type of pressure, both mentally and physically.

"Michael's game was based on speed, being able to use his hamstrings. He suffered a lot from muscle problems. Maybe that was a result of pressure: always being at the press conference, always 'Michael, Michael, Michael.' He was England's footballer—the world's footballer."

Carragher was Owen's roommate at Liverpool until the latter's departure from Anfield in the summer of 2004. Only then did Gerrard take over from Owen, and thus, a friendship between Carragher and Gerrard blossomed.

While Gerrard is now viewed in league with Liverpool's greatest players and Carragher is seen as one of its most loyal, having spent his entire career at the club in an era so few do, it is easy to forget that at the beginning of their careers, Owen's standing in the game was much higher.

"If you were to ask me who had the strongest belief in their own ability between me, Stevie and Michael, I would say Michael," insists Carragher, who counts himself as having the least ability of the three but a relentless work ethic in training. Gerrard was the worrier, introspective but still mentally strong.

With Owen, though, Carragher says: "It was to the point where he'd find it very difficult to praise another striker. He'd hate the fact that someone might be better than him. Michael wasn't the type of person to say, 'Oh my god, did you see what Thierry Henry did for Arsenal last night?' He didn't think that anyone else was better than him. Instead, he'd find fault. There aren't many players like that.

"When he decided to sign for Real Madrid, I said to him, 'Yeah, but what about Raul and Ronaldo?' His response was, ‘Well, people said that about Fowler, Rush and Collymore at Liverpool—and I played ahead of them in the end.' It's certainly not a very British trait to be so self-assured. Maybe that's why some found it difficult to warm to him, even though behind the public persona, he was a really good lad."

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Owen and Ronaldo pictured together in August 2005. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Roy Evans, the manager who gave Carragher and Owen their Liverpool debuts, described the pair as "thick as thieves," despite their differences: Carragher was one academic year older than Owen and came from the gritty dock area of Bootle, just north of Liverpool, as opposed to a rural village in Wales.

Carragher, indeed, is not the type of person to offer platitudes just because someone is a friend of his. His straight talking and ability to analyse and interpret make him the pundit he is now.

"If European Footballer of the Year was for a season rather than a year, Michael wouldn't have won—it probably would have been Raul," Carragher says. "But because it is judged on the calendar year, Michael moved into contention."

Raul, the Real Madrid striker, had finished the 2000/01 campaign as a Liga winner, having scored 32 goals across all games for his club—the best total in his career and eight more than Owen, who had struggled for form until February.

"If you were to ask me who had the strongest belief in their own ability between me, Stevie and Michael, I would say Michael."

Jamie Carragher

"You can split the 2000/01 season in half in terms of Michael's performances," Carragher says. "There was huge competition for Liverpool's striker positions. Liverpool won a cup treble, and in the League Cup against Birmingham City, which finished with us winning on penalties, he was named as a substitute and never got on the pitch."

Carragher, rooming with Owen, could see that he was frustrated with Houllier changing the team each week to keep players happy and fresh.

"He went to see the manager a couple times about it," he says. "The problem for him in those discussions was that he wasn't playing particularly well. If you're playing well and the manager's still not picking you, it's then you should really start to worry."

Fowler, in better form than Owen, got the nod in the League Cup alongside Emile Heskey, whose talents were complementary to both.

"It was a disappointing moment for Michael because everybody wants to play in the cup final," Carragher says. "A manager can rotate and make excuses, saying, 'Well, I'm saving you for another game.' But when you don't play in a final, nothing can sugarcoat the decision. It wasn't as though the manager thought, 'I'll try and keep him happy by bringing him on.' Michael's a bright lad. It couldn't have been easy for him to accept it."

For Carragher, it was Owen's two-goal contribution in the FA Cup final victory over Arsenal in May that shifted perceptions: both on the endurance of Houllier's team as well as the ability of Owen to deliver on the biggest occasion.

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Owen holds aloft the FA Cup after his match-winning performance in May 2001. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

"We'd reached the stage of the season where we were running on empty," he says. "Arsenal were a top-quality side with no real weaknesses. We were hanging on at 0-0 and then we were 1-0 down. I wouldn't say that we'd given up, but we were getting battered, and you need energy to regain the initiative when that happens. We didn't have much left. Many of the players' legs had gone.

"When Michael equalised, it injected us with energy and belief. Before that, we hadn't put Arsenal under pressure. It came from a set piece, Markus Babbel holding Tony Adams off and Michael reacting the quickest when it dropped down. We were attacking the end where our supporters were, and the goal gave us a massive lift with six or seven minutes to go. You get that first goal and it gives you a bit of something—like in Istanbul four years later [in the UEFA Champions League final win over Milan].

"Our crowd were lifted, Arsenal's went quiet, and suddenly, we looked like the team that might win. The feeling of the entire stadium changed."

Carragher believes the decision to award Owen the Ballon d'Or was helped by the fact there was no major international tournament in the summer of 2001. "Because the best player in that tournament usually has a great chance of winning the award," he reasons.

Two other important moments stand out. A remarkable 5-4 UEFA Cup final victory four days after Arsenal earned Liverpool an appearance in the UEFA Super Cup in Monaco. In the 3-2 win there, Owen scored past Bayern Munich’s Oliver Kahn, the goalkeeper who would finish third in Ballon d'Or voting.

Then there was England's 5-1 humiliation of Germany the following month in Munich. Kahn was the goalkeeper that night too, as Owen's name was etched into folklore as the striker whose hat-trick defeated the old enemy. "Michael had started the season on fire," Carragher says. "So he found momentum at the right time in the months before the decision was made."

Carragher can remember the day at Melwood when Houllier told him that Owen had become the European Footballer of the Year.

"Gerard was really excited. He was more excited than Michael," he says.

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Owen believes that by the time he won the Ballon d'Or, his peak was behind him. "I suppose at 22, the long decline had already started," he says, "but when you are 22, you are naive enough to believe that the good times last forever."

That might explain why winning the award seemed so natural to him. But a catastrophic hamstring injury at 19 meant that for the rest of his career, the muscles in one of his legs had considerably less support than those in the other. This placed pressure on other parts of the body. By his mid-20s, the injuries were stacking up: groins strains, a torn knee ligament, calf and ankle issues.

It's also hard to appreciate the honors as they come when so much else is going on.

"When you're in the thick of it, you don't get time to marvel on what is happening," Owen insists, "especially when you play for a club the size of Liverpool where the challenge is always the next season and summers are short."

Other sports stars have told Owen they've had similar feelings, he says. "Even though you love what you are doing, there is very little joy in the moment. You are so concerned that you are not going to be at the very top the next week, the quest to maintain your level eclipses any real happiness or contentment. I always feared that I wouldn't be the best. The fear drives you on."

It's odd hearing Owen talking about fear considering what so many have said about his "unshakable confidence." He doesn't see it, though, as a vulnerability.

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Owen celebrates scoring for England in their famous 5-1 win against Germany in September 2001. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

"Ninety-nine point nine per cent, I was confident in my own ability," he says. "The remaining nought point nought per cent of doubt probably ensured that I achieved what I did in the game because I didn't rest on my laurels."

Owen started the 2001/02 season in blistering form, scoring twice on the opening day at a soaking Anfield against West Ham United. It had been a strange afternoon, with Fowler dropped from the matchday squad by Houllier for kicking a ball at Phil Thompson, Houllier's abrasive assistant, in training. Despite Owen's goals, Fowler's name was sung the most—a show of support for the Kop's favourite son.

When Owen celebrated Liverpool's winner, his release was more emotional than usual, as if to remind everyone, "I'm still here, you know."

He denies, though, it had anything to do with the chants for Fowler. "When I was 15 years old, I worshipped Robbie like a lot of the fans as well. I grew up as an Evertonian, but Steve Heighway always used to tell us that to be successful at Liverpool, you had to support the club. I appreciated that Robbie was the fans' favourite because he was my favourite too."

The hat-trick against Germany came a month after West Ham. Kahn, beaten five times that day, is nonetheless someone Owen describes as "one of the goalkeeping greats—very aggressive, very demanding. He'd charge off his line and take all before him."

Then he delivers a final measure of his belief.

"Goalkeepers, I never worried about them," he says. "What can they really do when a striker is bang on it?"