The thing I’ve enjoyed most about Jamie Carragher’s podcast is the incredible forthrightness of the interviews. The shared context, friendship and experiences with his guests provides an incredible platform for honest conversations – far exceeding the cookie cutter Q&As we hear in the vast majority of interviews conducted by actual journalists.
Carra’s standing, and aversion to sugar-coating anything, enables him to frame questions in a way that would be downright insulting coming from a reporter. It’s what made the recent episode with Michael Owen such a startlingly brutal and uncomfortable listen.
If you came out of that interview still unwilling to bury the hatchet with Michael Owen and finally welcome him home, then I’d advise you to contact someone with a stethoscope.
Michael’s story, as told on The Greatest Game, sounded like the clichéd sports movie, charting the incredible highs, then the depths of despair. It was set-up for the final act – the inevitable, uplifting redemption, but in Owen’s case, there is no feel-good ending. If the Robbie Fowler story could draw comparisons to Rocky, Owen’s could be likened to the end of Raging Bull.
Put it this way: Michael Owen, who scored 158 goals for his club and thrice tried to get back home after his initial departure, now feels intimidated when he walks into Anfield. “Any Liverpool fan has the power to break my heart,” he said. Jesus, I don’t know about any of you, but hearing that just about broke mine.
It’s not right. Owen brought as much joy to the old stadium as any individual in the last quarter century; that much is indisputable. Yet, as Carragher brutally pointed out, Owen gets no love, his career and contributions are glossed over. Or, to use Carragher’s word “dismissed”.
I’ll be honest with you. Michael was my guy. At the time I’d have argued “Michael over Robbie” with anyone. My best mate and I still joke about it to this day (how lucky were we to have those two to playfully argue over by the way?).
I’d never really resented him for leaving, but it did break my heart. I never hated him for signing for Newcastle because I was privy to information he desperately wanted to come home and was distraught to be going there. I wasn’t among those screaming “where were you in Istanbul?” in his face, because what was the point?
It wasn’t even as if I felt signing for United was unforgivable given his predicament. For me, a fissure tore into a gaping crevasse the day he scored the winner in that Manchester derby (as unreal a finish as it was). I hadn’t seen him celebrate quite so exuberantly in a decade. I hadn’t seen that joy since he was a teenager and, as he raced behind the Stretford End goal, hadn’t seen him run that fast either. How could he be that happy doing that, there, for them? At the time when we were in the utter depths of the Gillet and Hicks era, with Rafa’s tenure coming to an end, it was an absolute sickener.
For many, it confirmed what they had felt all along. It was the first time I believed it too – that Michael Owen cared only about Michael Owen. It didn’t matter which shirt he was wearing. On that day he was happy for himself, not for Man United. And now, in the context of his interview with Carragher, it’s a little bit easier to see why.
Many will still feel like Owen got what was coming, that he made his own bed and thus doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as other Liverpool greats. That’s fine. But there’s also a staggering hypocrisy here that’s bothered me for decades. It seems you can be terrible, as a man and a footballer, but as long as you’re pushed out of the door, rather than leave on your own terms, you’re welcomed back to Liverpool with open arms.
The ovations afforded to a returning David James down the years, for example. Here’s someone that made an absolute mockery of us, his manager and the entire club, quantifiably costing us a title during his time on his PlayStation, or modelling, or whatever else he was doing while flailing around between the sticks. James and Owen both broke my heart. Michael for leaving us when he did, James for being abjectly terrible at his job and causing us to lose football matches.
One of the two feels intimidated walking into Anfield for fear of abuse, the other would probably get a standing ovation if he turned out for one of those Liverpool Legends games.
More recently, the reverse is somehow true. It seems a player can force his way out in the most egregious manner and still be remembered fondly. His recent roasting at Anfield aside, the esteem in which Luis Suarez is held absolutely staggers me. Carra mentioned this too. Some of my best mates have him in all-time Liverpool five-a-side teams. I can’t scream this loud enough, but to Hell with Luis Suarez.
This bloke went on strike to force a move to Arsenal (to Arsenal), bit opponents and racially abused others. Our reputation is yet to fully recover from our association with that ‘loveable little scamp,’ as evidenced by the recent, long overdue apology to Evra and the coverage it received. I feel ashamed for supporting him at the time.
Between Owen and Suarez, which is the club annually falling over itself to wish a happy birthday? Here’s a clue: It’s not the one who ran himself into utter physical degradation before his mid-20s, while wearing the red shirt. Nor is it the one who won a Ballon D’Or in the same year he helped us to a cup treble.
Owen’s contribution to the modern history of Liverpool far eclipses Suarez’s season or so of giving a damn. Even Stan Collymore enjoys a higher standing than Michael Owen among some Liverpool fans on social media. Seriously.
Even the aversion to Fernando Torres has faded these days. Everyone seems alright with him again with the club often commemorating his contribution more and more often. I promised myself I’d never love another footballer again after he went to Chelsea; then Klopp’s lads came along and now I’m besotted with the lot of them, but that’s beside the point.
Speaking of Chelsea, remember when Steven Gerrard tried to force a move there? If Gerrard’s explanation for how that situation came to pass (Papa Rafa didn’t show him enough love, etc.) is understood then why can’t Michael’s reasons for heading to Real Madrid, when all along his plan was to just “do a Rushie” and come back after a year? The answer’s rhetorical, if we’re honest with ourselves.
After developing an Alan Shearer-like reputation for bland, guarded interviews during his playing career, Michael has been an open book since his retirement. Especially regarding his injuries and his self-professed rapid decline. We’ve had a window into Owen the person. Maybe that’s what has me warming to him again? The fact that, away from his horses, his millions and his media career, he’s a guy with insecurities, with regrets, with fears and apprehension. It’s a great leveller.
I don’t know how the current impasse changes. Maybe it starts with the club affording him the same respect it does to other, less deserving folks, through its constant content output? If they can get off Suarez’s lap for five minutes that is. For all their talk about the “LFC family” they aren’t half choosy about who is treated as such.
People shouldn’t need reminding just how good Michael Owen was, but if that’s what needs to happen, it should. There’s no reason for this continued antipathy or, perhaps even worse, utter apathy.
That might be the hardest thing about this for Owen. Right now, he doesn’t matter. He’s not loved, nor particularly hated. Just irrelevant. Some will say that’s his punishment. After listening to his side of the story, I’d counter by saying, “for what exactly?”
Carragher brutally pointed out that, while he finished his career with a guard of honour and a Kop mosaic, Michael went out coming off the bench for Tony Pulis’ Stoke. Wasn’t that punishment enough?
Enough is enough. It’s time to recognise Michael Owen’s contribution for what it was. On the stat sheets, to the numbers on that increasingly-active “Wall of Champions” and in our mind’s eye.
“One-nil down, two-one up, Michael Owen won the cup.” Remember that?
Like many others, the story isn’t straight forward. There are complications. But Michael Owen is unquestionably a Liverpool great and deserves to be spoken of as such. It’s time to end the story in the right way.