With Michael Owen making his first appearance as an away player at Anfield on Boxing Day, Rafa Benitez knew he’d be asked what he thought of the Reds’ former number 10.
Owen signed for Newcastle in the summer for a fee of around £16million after deciding he could no longer take a chance that Real Madrid would give in and accept Liverpool maximum bid of £12million. As Liverpool themselves have seen in the past with many signings that didn’t work out, there is nothing forcing a player under contract to leave his club before that contract runs out. Real would have been forced to continue paying his wages with him sitting on the bench had Owen turned down the move to the North East and not been allowed to move to Anfield. Owen did all he felt he could to get his move to his first choice club – Liverpool – but was not prepared to risk his World Cup hopes with England. Owen had previously said he would only join Newcastle on loan, something Graeme Sounnes would not accept. In the end Freddie Shepherd negotiated a deal that made most of the involved parties happy – he took Owen to Newcastle in a deal that was a loan in all but name. At the end of this season Owen is allowed to leave Newcastle if an offer of something in the region of £12million is made for him.
What happened in the summer is that Owen joined his second-choice club. He can leave them at the end of the season if he chooses – but if he enjoys his life up there as a first-choice striker week-in week-out, even with an outside possibility of playing in the UEFA Cup, then he may well stay. He ideally wants to be playing at the highest level – and Liverpool’s stuttering form in the years prior to his departure from Anfield is one reason why he stalled so long on signing a new deal. It’s not usually possible to get everything you want in life though, and by the end of this season Owen will need to have a good look at his options once again before deciding where to go.
Rafael Benitez certainly rates him, despite attempts by sections of the press to hint that the summer move for Owen was being made without his full blessing. This was untrue – Rafa himself is responsible for deciding how to spend the transfer funds allocated to him. Whether he will make a move for Owen again at the end of the season remains to be seen – if Rafa can find a more suitable player before then he’ll forget about Owen, but as he said today, he does rate Owen: "I tried to sign him and he knows I tried to sign him, like he’s said in the past few days. It even went to the last day of the deadline. In the end it was just impossible for us as another club bid a large amount of money for him."
One of Owen’s best mates is Reds hero Jamie Carragher. They’ve always got on well together, both being real students of the fine details of football, and it will be strange for them to be facing each other for the first time after so many years together with Liverpool since Academy days. Rafa knows how dangerous Owen can be, but hopes Jamie can come out on top: "It’s a special situation for Carra to be playing against Michael and I hope to see Carra win. Owen is a very good player and he can be dangerous for us so we will try not to let him score. He is a good finisher as well as a good player, but I think Carra knows him well and what he can do but it will be strange to play against him."
Owen himself has a regular column in The Times, and he took the opportunity in his latest column to explain things from his side. Owen hopes to get a warm welcome from the fans that used to cheer him on, but he won’t be doing them any favours as he says: "It is bound to be a strange day because of my long association with Liverpool, although the Kop has welcomed back plenty of old boys. I am sure they will understand that I will be 100 per cent committed to the other team."
And he also refers to his friendship with Carra and a conversation about how they feel players should react against their former sides: "I remember a conversation with Jamie Carragher a while back when we saw a player looking downcast after scoring against his old club. I don’t think either of us could understand that and, if I score, I will celebrate as joyfully as I did at West Ham United last Saturday."
He’s one of football’s nice guys, although on the football field he’s got that selfish streak running through him that all strikers need to have to some extent. So he’d love to score and leave with three points, but he’ll not be taunting the Reds if it happens: "I won’t shy away or feel guilty or embarrassed, but nor will I be running over to the Liverpool bench and sticking two fingers up. Why should I? Rafael BenÃtez was very decent and straightforward when I left for Real Madrid and, in August, he attempted to buy me back. Why should I hold anything against him or anyone else at Anfield?"
Owen is contractually unable to discuss the release-clause he has in place for the end of the season, but he did try to explain as much as he could exactly how things worked out. He’s got to be careful not to upset the Geordie fans that have been delighted to see him wear their famous strip, but he was desperately disappointed to have to make the move to Newcastle. He insists he didn’t snub the Reds, but in the end took the best choice that was available to him at that moment in time: "I don’t have a short fuse but one thing guaranteed to make my blood boil is when Liverpool fans ask me why I snubbed them when I returned to England. There were no snubs on either side. The deal did not happen and both sides have got on with things. Looking back on those mad few weeks, the one thing that no one can say about me is that I was not up front and honest. I had narrowed it down to three options and, all the way through, I made it plain exactly where they stood. As I said at the time, Liverpool were my first choice, Newcastle my second. The third was staying at Real."
Owen spent his first six months in Spain watching Real play from the bench. Only towards the end of the season did the Real coach find room for him by dropping one player who did snub the Reds in the summer – Luis Figo. The new style of play with Owen involved saw a tremendous recovery towards the end of the season, although it came too late to overtake Barcelona. With Owen gone, Real have once again slumped and now their coach has paid the price with his job.
Owen’s been delighted with the response from the Toon Army: "They understood why Liverpool was my first choice. I had spent more than a decade there and I did think I would be going back when I met Rick Parry and BenÃtez just before the transfer deadline. We had discussed the wages and all the nitty-gritty of a contract, so I have no doubts that their interest was genuine, whatever you may have heard." So Owen was more than happy with the terms on offer to him, but in the end the Reds were not willing to pay more than they felt they could for the player.
Owen then talks about the poker game involving Liverpool, Real and himself. It was he that finally folded and he says that his experience of playing at Newcastle in the past, and his friendship with Alan Shearer that finally tipped the balance: "I could have called Madrid’s bluff and said that I would stay unless they agreed to sell me to Liverpool, but I had decided to come home. Perhaps I might have changed my mind if it had been any old English club, but I knew from my visits to St James’ Park, and from Mr Shearer, that scoring goals for Newcastle would be a fantastic way to make a living."
Owen could no longer hold his nerve: "With Liverpool seemingly still some way from agreeing a fee, it had reached the point where I had to make up my mind and I have no regrets. I love being back in the Premiership and, while we are still striving for consistency at Newcastle, the potential is enormous once we have everyone back from injury. And obviously I am on a personal high after my Upton Park hat-trick."
"I had quite a few telephone calls last week from Carra out in Japan, which probably means that he was bored out of his skull in his hotel room," says Owen, but Carra isn’t his mate at Anfield – he’s also friends with a Reds hero that once played for Newcastle: "I play golf with Didi Hamann just about every other week and speak to Stevie Gerrard often enough, so it will be strange lining up against them."
Owen agrees it will be an odd feeling lining up against the Reds number 23: "I roomed with Carra for eight years so we know everything down to the colour of each other’s underpants. I have never played against him except in training, but I can’t see us saying too much to each other during the match. We will both be too intent on winning."
The full Owen interview can be seen on The Times website at http://www.timesonline.co.uk.