Were Liverpool right or wrong to let Michael Owen leave in 2004?

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In the space of a week, we’ve all been discussing the man who will take over Michael Edwards as sporting director, and whether we’d take back Georginio Wijnaldum from PSG as our midfield options begin to dwindle.

Again.

With that in mind, it may be beneficial for future conversations if we look at the decisions made by both players and club in the past, to pull apart the narratives and see whether the decision to move clubs was the right one for all parties.

In this series of article, we will dive into the facts and look at how the move itself impacted the player’s form and career progression, and how the team they left fared without them.

First up in the series, we look at the departure of Michael Owen…


Liverpool 297 (158)

Real Madrid 45 (16)

Trophies won after leaving – 3


Gliding through the academy and onto the Anfield green, Michael Owen was a Ballon d’Or-winning, defence-destroying centre forward whose instinct for goals put him among the world’s best.

Playing a total of 297 times over an 8-year career for the Reds, while breaking many young footballer records and solidifying himself as an all-time Liverpool great, Owen wanted something new when Rafael Benitez joined as the club’s manager in 2004. 

Its easy to say that once Owen left Liverpool, he left his prime goalscoring abilities behind too. However, after being hampered with injuries, a 16-goal record over 45 games for Real Madrid wasn’t the green grass Owen originally thought he was leaving for.

This is the common thread when retelling Michael’s story. However it is important to reiterate just how many games the lad played at from the tender age of 17.  Over seven seasons for Liverpool, Owen played a staggering 297 times. 

There’s maybe juice in the claim that playing so much and reaching his goal-scoring peak whilst in his teens led to him being more susceptible to injuries, however in interviews since, Owen has revealed that several members of his family who are also athletes, suffer similar woes.

Either way, he still remains the second youngest ever man to win a Ballon d’Or, the only teenager to win a golden boot (he did again the next season for a laugh), and despite his short stint for Man United, he is responsible for many celebrations that we as Liverpool fans had in the early 2000s. 

Here we look at the lad from Cheshire’s rise to legend status on Merseyside, and whether or not his move to Spain was the right decision for a player who was deemed a ‘once in a generation’ talent, and a club that was going through a transition phase of its own. 

The early years

Michael Owen joined the Liverpool academy at just 12 years old. Proving his ability to bag from all sorts of angles and marching his way into the first team at 17 years old, the striker could not stop impressing those around him and those he played against, and eventually, he ended up taking Robbie Fowler’s place as the Kop hero. . 

“There is the same pace, the same explosive acceleration, the same killer instinct in front of the goal. No wonder, then, that Michael Owen of England is already being compared to Ronaldo.” – NY Times

After winning two golden boots, a Ballon d’Or and being an integral part of Houllier’s treble winning side in 2001, Michael Owen had solidified his name into Liverpool folklore. 

He enjoyed three more years, twisting and turning defenders inside out in England, before being tempted to a Los Galacticos side harbouring some of the best talent the world has ever seen. Zidane, Ronaldo, Raul, Figo, Casillas, Roberto Carlos and.. err…Jonathan Woodgate was enough to lure our no.10 away from Anfield, and let’s be honest, who’s knees wouldn’t tremble at that offer?

As his mentor, Houllier, bowed out of Liverpool, it set up Owen’s opportunity to do the same. Benitez came in with a whole regime change, dicing up the roles and playing in a different way than the squad were used to. Benitez brought in the likes of Xabi Alonso and  Luis Garcia to inject to some continental quality, and Owen often opted to remain on the bench in the qualifying matches for the Champions League to refrain from being cup tied once his move was set. The deal was done and both parties looked to the future. 

Madrid onwards

There was a clear shift happening at Liverpool in 2004, and by Christmas that year, it had become real life success. Do I need to mention Olympiacos? Love you Neil. However, for Owen, it would be hard to argue the same. In his first season, Owen played 45 games and netted a reasonable 16 times in all competitions. Given he only bagged 19 times for the reds in his final season (given his track record),, the reduction of his overall return by just three goals can be excused with settling in and trying to break into an already solid team and adapting to life in another country. Oh and of course, injuries. 

The Liverpool academy graduate could only manage one season with Los Blancos, before making his need for playing time front and centre, eyeing a move back to England. 

The summer following his solitary season in Madrid, saw the twice teenage golden boot winner swapping sunny Spain for the ‘Toon’. Owen spent four years in Newcastle trying desperately to get back into the England XI with regular game time, but only managed to play around two seasons worth of games due to, again, a series of unfortunate but serious injuries. 

Even though a move back to Liverpool is what Owen had his heart ‘set on’, a freak approach by Sir Alex Ferguson swindled the then 30 year old into a move that took him down to Old Trafford. He spent three years in Salford that was also spotted with more injury problems. Returning 17 goals in 52 games for United, he then moved on to Stoke for the last year of his career and retired in his lowest scoring professional season with just one goal. 

Even in his own words, Michael says “what do you expect when you’ve been running on a snapped hamstring since you were 19 years old?”

It’s safe to say that once Michael Owen parted from Anfield, he didn’t come close to reaching previous heights. If it wasn’t for the three years as a sporadic player for United, he probably wouldn’t have picked up any more silverware.. He still retires with a Premier League winner’s medal, an FA cup, 3 League cups, a UEFA cup and Super cup and is still considered to have been good enough to remain in the FIFA Top 100 players of all time.

Yes, he had his individual honours, and some may ask you to ‘imagine if he stayed?’

But if he did, then we probably wouldn’t have witnessed the best football match in the history of humankind then, would we? We must also remember the desire and ambition of a footballer, acclaimed so much in his younger years that he can be forgiven for wanting to play for arguably the best club team on the planet at the time.

Decision to Leave – Right


 

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