He was one of Liverpool’s biggest superstars, but he was never really loved by the Kop

Michael Owen attends the PPTV press conference on July 19, 2019 -Credit: Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images for Premier League

Midway through the second half, Michael Owen finally struck.

Liverpool fans had seen goals like this countless times. Steven Gerrard with a searching ball, Owen escaped the defense and finished with minimal fuss.

Owen’s goal helped Liverpool to a 1–1 draw against Newcastle. His 16th in just 29 Premier League games for the Reds that season, a feat that would ensure Gerard Houllier’s side qualified for the Champions League.

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It was Owen’s 158th goal for Liverpool. It would also be his last.

Fans didn’t know it at the time, but Owen’s departure would mean a summer of changes at Anfield in 2004.

Still only 24 at the time, Owen had only one year left on his contract and that was when he made clear his desire to join Real Madrid.

Liverpool had little choice but to sell the England forward for a fee of just under £10 million.

It was the first major blow in Owen’s relationship with the Liverpool fans, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Owen enjoyed a decent season for Real Madrid, scoring a total of 16 goals for the Spanish giants despite never becoming a regular in the side, but in his absence the Reds flourished.

Under Rafael Benitez, Liverpool won the Champions League under the most dramatic circumstances.

Owen had left the Reds in a bid to win Europe’s biggest trophy and is said to have wondered what would have happened if he had stayed at Anfield.

It’s easy to grimace at Owen’s misfortune. But if we go back to 2004, it becomes clear why Owen chose to leave.

Owen, who came into the team as a 17-year-old, had become Liverpool’s talisman under Roy Evans and then Houllier.

The Chester-born striker was a freak of nature and scored countless goals as Liverpool looked to re-establish themselves as a force domestically and in Europe.

Just look at the numbers.

In Owen’s first full season as a senior player in 1997/98 he scored 23 goals. He matched that total the following season. Plagued by injuries, 19-year-old Owen scored 12 in 1999/2000 before hitting 24, 28, 28 and then 19 in his final season.

Liverpool won a treble of trophies in 2001, with Owen rocking the FA Cup final against Arsenal with one of the most decisive contributions of any final.

He also led the Reds in the Champions League for the first time.

Personal glory followed when he won the Ballon d’Or later that year. Owen was a true superstar for club and country.

For those who were there throughout the 2000/2001 season, the FA Cup final, as well as many other moments, will live long in the memory. But for a large portion of fans, Owen’s contribution has long been forgotten.

Still only 21 years old, the world was at his feet, but one thing was missing. The Love of the Cup.

Chants for Owen were barely heard. Very few songs on the terraces, no matter how many goals he scored.

Owen never enjoyed the affection afforded, for example, Robbie Fowler by Liverpool fans, despite his performances at Anfield.

Fowler, a local boy, did not fit the same – often misjudged – squeaky clean image that Owen seemed to portray. Fowler was also overlooked by England, while his teammate was the figurehead of the national team.

There also seemed to be suspicion towards Owen. Maybe Kopites just knew they were going to get hurt. And he hurt them.

Not only with that move to Real Madrid, but also with the mess that followed.

The move to Spain was no different to many others who have left Anfield. Liverpool were once again at the start of a long rebuilding job with a new manager who was not one to beg a player to stay.

Granted, Liverpool didn’t get the money they should have for Owen, but the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez have both been criticized for doing the exact opposite in recent years.

The player’s desire to move to Spain and test himself at Real Madrid was, frankly, understandable.

Owen was desperate for a return to Liverpool a year later, only for Newcastle’s £16 million bid to end Benitez’s interest in a reunion.

Even then, Owen negotiated a release clause with the Magpies to ensure his return to Liverpool could ever happen.

“The Real president knocked on the door of my hotel room and said: ‘You stay or you go to Newcastle,’” he explained last year.

“I spoke to Liverpool and asked if they would match the amount but they said £10 million was their maximum.

“At Newcastle I had it in my contract that I could return for a certain amount. I agreed to go to Newcastle on the basis that I could still go back to Liverpool.”

Unfortunately for him, that boat had long since left.

A miserable time on Tyneside followed, before Owen made the decision that would burn his bridges with Liverpool fans forever.

With Newcastle relegated and Owen without a club, the striker’s management company produced a 32-page brochure to try to find a new team for the Ballon d’Or winner. The document spoke about Owen’s goalscoring achievements and brand value and attempted to allay any concerns about his fitness.

It smelled of desperation.

And Owen was desperate. He was desperate for a return to Anfield.

He tried to take every opportunity to move back to Merseyside and even asked Jamie Carragher to put in a good word.

But it just wasn’t going to happen. Instead, Hull, Everton and Manchester United were the only Premier League clubs to offer Owen a contract.

He was 29 and at the low point of his career when Alex Ferguson showed up at his door. The Scot touched Owen at a time when he was preparing to play for Hull or arch-rivals Everton.

It will never be an excuse for some Liverpool fans. Owen will always be a dirty word to them after he makes that decision.

But put yourself in his shoes and the final choice, made with his head instead of his heart, made sense.

And that’s probably what has plagued Owen throughout his career. Moves to Real Madrid, Newcastle and Man United, as well as a short spell at Stoke, were all the same.

Ruled by the head, not the heart.

Does he regret the decision to move to Man United? Maybe. Even though he may not admit it.

And while Reds fans may not forgive what Owen has done, it may be time to rise above the hatred and anger caused by the move to Old Trafford.

After all, this was a man who gave the followers of a certain generation some of the best days in recent history.

He certainly doesn’t deserve the abuse heaped on social media or, occasionally, during games where he works as a pundit.

Owen tried to set the record straight in a book with Reach Sport – and spoke openly about the abuse he endured.

Older, wiser and with the benefit of hindsight, he wanted to show people that there was more to Michael Owen than some fans might think.

Owen is still desperate for acceptance at Liverpool, even if he will never receive the adulation his years at Anfield deserve.

He will never be worshipped, that much is clear. He will probably never be forgiven.

But perhaps it is time to remember Michael Owen who gave Liverpool so many joyful, festive and unique moments.

In the future, more idols will come, go, excite and upset.

But Owen has already etched his name in Liverpool’s history books.

He has lifted trophies and reached heights that others at the Reds could only dream of.

So many great times. Maybe it’s time to move on and forget everything else.

Michael Owen: Reboot – My Life, My Time, published by Reach Sport https://reachsportshop.com/book/michael-owen-reboot/

*A version of this article was first published in 2019.

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