It seems like an odd thing to say now given his punditry, but there was a point in time when Michael Owen was probably the most exciting footballer on the planet.
Unlike most players, Owen exploded onto the scene fully formed at Liverpool, winning the Premier League’s Golden Boot in his first full season with 18 goals in 36 games. As a result, he went to World Cup 1998 in France as something of an ace up the sleeve of manager Glenn Hoddle, initially as an option off the bench.
After coming on during the opening win against Tunisia, Owen became the youngest player to represent England at a World Cup. By the end of the group stage, he had scored a fine equalising goal and hit the post in stoppage time in the 2-1 defeat to Romania and firmly supplanted Teddy Sheringham in Hoddle’s starting line-up. He was the youngest English scorer at a World Cup now, too.
Then came the old enemy Argentina in the round of 16 and Owen’s finest hour as a player.
Harry Symeou hosts Scott Saunders, Grizz Khan & Jack Gallagher to look back on France ’98 as part of the ‘Our World Cup’ series. We take a trip down memory lane – join us!
Gabriel Batistuta and Alan Shearer both converted penalties inside a chaotic first 10 minutes and Javier Zanetti scored on the stroke of half-time but it’s Michael Owen’s electric solo run and finish that continues to live long in the memory for England fans.
You might also recall David Beckham doing something a bit silly in the second half but we don’t need to talk about that.
Owen’s is a perfect counter-attacking goal. Paul Ince does well to win the ball back for England, shrugging Maxi Lopez aside after Sol Campbell’s initial sliding tackle. Watching it back now, England are probably a little fortunate a foul wasn’t given after Tony Adams literally just charges straight into Juan Sebastian Veron off the ball.
You certainly wouldn’t get away with that kind of move on Strictly.
Ince finds Beckham, taking the entire Argentina midfield out of the game with a single pass, who in turn dinks the ball forward for Owen before his future Manchester United teammate Veron can recover to stick a foot in.
The pass itself isn’t great and seems more hopeful than anything, arriving at waist height and without much pace. Regardless, Owen snatches the opportunity, bringing the ball down with the outside of his boot and without breaking stride.
Jose Chamot offers little resistance as Owen surges past but he does at least manage to throw the England striker slightly off-balance. A cynical Fernandinho-style hack was needed, however.
And because this was the late 90s, he still has the sweeper Roberto Ayala to beat, a typically formidable one-on-one defender but not when’s he backing up with his shoulders square towards the edge of his own area. Owen is leaning slightly because of Chamot’s push so – and this is the most beautiful part – drops a devastating shoulder and shimmies around Ayala like the defender has a blindfold on and his shoelaces tied together.
You can picture Jamie Carragher tearing the Argentine to shreds on Monday Night Football if this goal had been scored now. “If we just pause it…THERE, you can actually see Roberto Ayala is drowning in quicksand.” Honestly, the shimmy alone should have retired him on the spot.
The onrushing Paul Scholes is screaming for the shot at this point but Owen doesn’t need him. His confidence was such that he’d been planning to shoot all along, since picking up the ball just past the halfway line.
The finish is emphatic, high and hard into the top left corner past Carlos Roa. The celebration even more so, as Owen opens his arms, looks to the sky and shakes with all the kinetic energy leftover, as though it were coursing through him like electricity.
The England substitutes – Paul Merson in particular – completely lose it. They can’t believe what they’ve seen. Teddy Sheringham, secretly furious, claps semi-politely. Steve McManaman has a jumper around his shoulders for some reason. Darren Anderton is there. The whole thing is fantastic.
It was a grainy blur at the time but somehow the memory of Owen scoring against Argentina has turned crystal rather than faded as the years have passed. Like Beckham’s free-kick against Greece you only needed to see it once. Then all the replays just took place in your own head.
We know how it all ended, the shootout defeat every bit as agonising as it was inevitable, but with those five magic touches of the ball in as many seconds Michael Owen had us all in the palm of his hand.
“He is 18 years and 198 days old,” Jon Champion gushed on commentary. “Just think what he’ll be like when he grows up.”
Sadly, I think, that was the problem. He grew up – we all did – and neither Owen, nor football, was ever quite as good as this again.