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There has been an advert for Northern Rock running through this World Cup showing Michael Owen standing on a luggage carousel with the cross of St George draped around his shoulders. “Can we have him back in one piece, please?” reads the caption, an understandable plea from the sponsors of Newcastle United, who have seen their forward start only 10 matches since his £16m move from Real Madrid last summer.
They can’t, and that is devastating news not only for Owen, but also for England’s chances at this World Cup. The poverty of their performances in the group stages was mitigated by the thought that momentum was gathering, that everything would be all right as Wayne Rooney and Owen came into fitness. That hope has now gone.
A scan yesterday simply added detail to what was obvious on Tuesday night: Owen has damaged medial and cruciate ligaments, and will be out for at least five months. There must now be doubts about whether he will ever recapture the form that has brought him 36 goals in 80 internationals.
Worryingly, Rooney has not made the miraculous recovery coach Sven-Göran Eriksson clearly hoped he had, fading before being substituted after 69 minutes of the draw with Sweden, his frustration obvious as he smashed his fist against the dug-out and hurled his boots to the ground. Rio Ferdinand, himself struggling with a tweaked groin, insisted: “We’ll win it for Michael”. But if they do so, it will be with the flimsiest of strike-forces.
It was always a risk to go into a tournament with only four forwards, particularly when two of them were unfit and one of them, the 17-year-old Theo Walcott, has played fewer minutes up front in the Premiership than the reserve goalkeeper David James. “It would have been very good to put him on,” Eriksson said of the Sweden game, before adding a twist that exposed more than he may have intended, “but I wanted us to win the group.” He has described Walcott’s finishing in training as “incredible”, but his non-appearance suggests he is not as mature as Eriksson had believed. Even so, his inclusion might have been excusable had Jermain Defoe also been selected. The point of Jermaine Jenas has yet to be established.
“If you talk about strikers and players who can play as strikers I think we are very well covered even without Michael Owen,” Eriksson claimed, but a return to 4-5-1 with a midfielder operating as a support forward seems probable. “We don’t want any more injuries to strikers, but who scored the goals? Joe Cole and Steven Gerrard. They can do that job easily, both of them.”
Those are the immediate practicalities, but for Owen the ramifications of the injury stretch further. By the time the next tournament comes around, he will be 30, and the pace on which he based his game will have been sapped yet further. It is not just his love of racing and golf that marks Owen out as the oldest 26-year-old in the world. As a player, he is a relic of a time when forwards had to do nothing but score goals. The great Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi always spoke of the move towards a “universal player”, which is precisely what Owen is not.
Great modern forwards such as Thierry Henry and Andriy Shevchenko are linkmen as well as goalscorers, capable of holding the ball up or laying it on, but Owen, by his own admission, simply sits on the shoulder of the last defender and waits to be fed. When Rooney became England’s youngest goalscorer, he was presented with a signed photo of the strike. Owen’s message read, “That’s another one of my records you’ve taken, ugly arse.” Behind the joke lies an uncomfortable truth, which is that it is not just Rooney but the game that is leaving Owen behind.
All the promise of that night in St Etienne, when he zipped by José Chamot and Roberto Ayala to score arguably the greatest England goal at a World Cup, seems impossibly long ago. It may be that as he dragged himself over the touchline to receive treatment on Tuesday, he was lurching out of World Cup football for good.