Former Liverpool goal-machine was an Anfield hero-in-the-making that never was – opinion

It would be ludicrous to claim that Liverpool supporters love their own more than any other fan-base. It would be entirely reasonable however to state that no other fan-base loves their own more than Liverpool supporters.

Their adoration of Mo Salah is a case in point with the Egyptian and his footballing prowess maternally embraced by the Kop. To the rest of the game he is Salah. To Reds he is ‘Mo’. Virgil van Dijk is another enthusiastically cherished and who need never buy a pint in the Merseyside area again for the rest of his days. Woe betide FIFA if they do not award the towering centre-back with a Ballon d’Or award this December for the flood of protests that will inevitably follow and this is because Liverpool fans are extremely protective of their favoured sons, revered as they are.

Looking to the recent past Luis Suarez and Fernando Torres were similarly lavished with love prior to their respective moves to Barcelona and Chelsea and if you happen to be a Scouser then such worshipping can be ramped up by the power of ten. There was Stevie G of course, and Robbie Fowler, otherwise known as ‘God’.

In May 1997 a 17-year-old striker scored on his professional debut and didn’t stop scoring for the rest of his career. In his seven years with the club he would go on to slot home 158 in 297 appearances, an astonishing haul that included a late double to secure FA Cup glory in 2001. During his time in L4, Michael Owen won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and the Ballon d’Or, the latter illustrating on a global level he was regarded as a superior talent to Gerrard or Fowler.

Time and time and time again when Liverpool needed him he was there, popping up with yet another priceless goal; creating another priceless memory and each time, cherub-of-face he would raise both arms aloft and run to a celebrating mass. Owen may not have been a Scouser but born in Chester he was local to the area and what’s more he had come through the Liverpool ranks, smashing goal-scoring records for fun along the way.

He was one of their own.

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Yet mention Owen’s name to any Liverpool fan now and note the soured expression. Three years ago the recently-retired forward was made the club’s first international ambassador and their collective appalled response to the appointment said a great deal. Twelve months later a petition began to have him removed from the post. After fulfilling every metric to be a beloved hero he is not even liked these days.

For most though it’s as if they’d just rather forget that Michael Owen wore their shirt at all.

The easy answer to explain why this is lies in the manner of his departure from Anfield in 2004 that saw repeated declarations that he planned to stay amidst protracted contract negotiations only for Real Madrid to swoop for a knock-down fee. No fan, regardless of affiliation takes kindly to that. To then make matters significantly worse Owen went on to play for Manchester United, a cardinal sin for any player with Liverpool on their C.V.

But if these actions went a long way in dismantling Owen’s pedestal there is a deeper truth that cannot be elucidated by circumstances; a truth that is much more anecdotal and reliant on personal memories. It is that comparative to other high-achieving Liverpool stars past or present Michael Owen was never really loved in the first place.

As journalist Joe Rimmer recalled in the Echo last month: “Still just 21, the world was at his feet, but one thing was missing. The love of the Kop. Chants for Owen were barely heard. Very little songs on the terraces, no matter how many goals he scored.”

“Owen never enjoyed the affection that, say, Robbie Fowler was afforded by Liverpool fans, despite his achievements at Anfield.”

Liverpool supporter and writer Henry Jackson meanwhile tells Football Fancast:

“He was certainly never idolised by the masses. In Robbie Fowler, you had a true working class hero with a great personality, who you could imagine invading the pitch as a fan in the Kop. Owen, on the other hand, felt more middle class, lacking in character and, ultimately, never a true football lover.”

“I actually think he was harshly treated at times because of these things, but he didn’t always help himself, often treating England as a bigger deal and talking more about horse racing than football.”

As someone who grew up nearby during that time I concur with all of the above and considered it odd the relative detachment and lack of connection given that the player ticked every box to have him adopted and adored.

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Precisely why this was leads us only to conjecture. Was it – as Henry alludes to – Owen’s personality, or lack of, that prompted an absence of adoration? Did people just get a particular vibe from him? If so that is a fascinating and rare phenomenon where achievement is not enough, particularly as Owen never bad-mouthed the club during his tenure or did anything to sour a relationship that was distanced to begin with.

Certainly Owen came across as something of a closed book, someone who seemed as clinical off the pitch as he was in the six yard box. He was after all a player who Liam Gallagher once famously described as ‘trainee CID’. And yes, there was his apparent apathy towards a sport that makes grown men cry. All of this made his team-mates relatable but Owen resemble a star employee.

And this unerring remoteness also explains why Manchester United fans never really took to him despite scoring a 96th minute winner in a derby, while among Newcastle fans his name is mud following a troubled time in the North East.

“How can a player who scored as many goals as he did be so unloved by the fans of every team he played for?” Liverpool blogger David Usher enquired in 2014 as per ESPN.

We can factor in the departure to Madrid. We can highlight Owen’s ill-judged recent comments about Newcastle being a ‘downward step’ and incorporate too the suspicion that was always going to accompany a former Liverpool player going to Old Trafford. But ultimately, harshly, it really does come down to the man.

This weekend Liverpool head up the M62 to take on their bitter rivals United.

Neither fan-base will sing Owen’s name. Both may rather forget that he wore their shorts at all.

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