Owen: It took two months to want out of Real

Former Liverpool striker Michael Owen has been reflecting on the biggest decision of his career, a decision that saw him miss out on a Champions League winners’ medal, and now sees him playing for a club who seem destined to remain mid-table underachievers. When he went to Real Madrid, before he’d played a competitive game for new boss Rafael Benítez, the impression he gave was that he had to move to Real if he wanted to win the bigger prizes in the game. Liverpool had underachieved under Houllier, leaving Owen reluctant to sign a new deal (despite claims he would be doing so soon) and when Madrid came in he couldn’t resist the temptation.

In the end he lasted just one season in Madrid, a season where he rarely played and where Real didn’t win a thing. No matter how you dress it up, it wasn’t what he expected. Then at the end of that first season he had another big decision to make. Liverpool were willing to spend around £12m to bring him back home, a deal that would see them having to pay £4m more than they’d received for him 12 months earlier. Then Newcastle came in too, with an offer much higher, seeing Owen as the key to finally getting some silverware. Owen was worried that if he didn’t leave Madrid there and then, he’d miss too much football and would lose out on an England place. The 2006 World Cup was looming. Liverpool wanted him to force Madrid’s hand – if he refused to move to Newcastle they either had to let Liverpool have him or had to continue paying him his wages for the next six months at least, not to mention being without the money from the transfer fee to help them in their pursuit of more Galacticos. He chatted to Rafa Benítez and Rick Parry, but in the end was too worried about what might happen to his England career and decided to reject Rafa for a second time.

Even at that stage there was still a glimmer of hope for his fans that he might yet get back to Anfield. He reportedly had a £12m buy-out clause in his Newcastle contract which would let him leave at a cut-price should the Geordies not succeed on the pitch in the way Alan Shearer and Freddie Shepherd promised Owen they would. Ironically, Owen missed a large part of his first season at Newcastle due to injury, and was far from fit by the time the World Cup began. He was certainly far from fit by the time it ended, and after being stretchered off within a minute of the start of England’s group game against Sweden his dreams were shattered and his World Cup was over. He’d damaged an anterior ligament in his knee and any chance there might have been of him coming back to Anfield under the buy-out clause were lost. He’s not played since, and although he’s now finally started to do some running, he’s a long way from knowing if he’ll get to play at all this season. Newcastle are upset at losing the services of their expensive signing, and have been offered a fraction of his value in compensation.

Owen tries to keep a brave face on it, but he must be devastated. In fact in his column for The Times, he admits how much he hated his time in the Spanish league. He says of Real: “The club are a law unto themselves, as I discovered in my difficult year there. They are a club like no other, for better and worse. Even in the brief time I was there, I had three managers. You lose a game and it’s a crisis. You arrive back at the airport and it is a media scrum. Then you wake up the next day and find 20 pages devoted to one defeat.”

As a Liverpool player Owen was able to train at Melwood behind closed
doors. Apart from kids and, occasionally, an overweight internet
fantasist stood on wheelie bins, there was very rarely anything
publicised about what went on in training. That wasn’t the case at Real
though: “You can’t have shooting practice without it being written that
Michael Owen shot 54 times, had so many on target, scored however many
goals.”

Owen visited Anfield on many occasions during his year in Spain, and
must have felt homesick and full of regret on the night Liverpool
knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League on the way to winning
number five. Spanish football wasn’t short on atmosphere at big games,
but it just wasn’t the same: “There was a great atmosphere at the
biggest matches, and yet it is more like a theatre on many nights. That
was one of the things that made me hanker for the Premiership.”

To be fair to Owen, he didn’t have the benefit of hindsight when he was
given the chance to move to Spain. He worried that if he’d not gone
he’d always wonder what might have been. He was worried that he would
regret staying at Anfield, especially if Rafa Benítez needed time to
bring success whilst Real were busy winning trophies. He says: “I moved
out there for all the right reasons. I knew that if I turned down the
opportunity, I might regret it all my life. Everyone I spoke to agreed.”

He’d spoken from the earliest days of his professional career of his
desire to play abroad one day, something that upset a lot of Liverpool
fans. But he was being honest in that respect at least, and when the
offer came there was never any doubt in his mind that he’d be going to
take it: “In some ways, I had to get it out of my system, a bit like
owning a boy-racer car, and yet, looking back, I knew after about two
months that I was doing one year and one year only. I knew quickly that
I wasn’t going to take to it.”

So the dream turned sour very, very quickly. He soon found that he
wasn’t being picked or dropped based on his performances or ability,
but because of decisions being made by those higher up in the hierarchy
than the manager. Raul was untouchable and didn’t like having to make
way for Owen: “I didn’t have a problem with the football. People talk
as though I was on the bench all the time, but I started more than half
the games in the league. I scored my share of goals, including five in
as many matches at one point. But then, in the sixth, I was brought off
after 55 minutes, and I wasn’t playing badly. Other players told me it
was political and, while I never thought too much about that, it took
its toll on me.”

As a striker Owen has played many games where he’s had to patience and
wait for a chance to try and score. But his patience in waiting for a
chance to be accepted for what he was eventually ran out: “My goal
ratio was better than anyone else in the league, never mind the Real
team, but then I got taken off in a big Champions League game in Kiev.
I am not defeatist, but you think: ‘What more can I do?’ You need the
trust of your manager, but I was scoring goals and still coming off. It
sickens you and you think: ‘Sod this, I want to go home’.”

Owen was brought up in the countryside of Hawarden, in North Wales just
over the border from Chester, as was his wife. Now they were living in
temporary accommodation in the city of Madrid, and they all hated it:
“The people were nice enough, but I was there with a wife and young
daughter in a hotel. We were used to the great outdoors, with sheep in
the garden, and, even at 2, my daughter was struggling to fit in. You
can say we should have made more effort, but it is difficult when kids
are involved, and also there was the language barrier. As many people
know, I am part of a tight-knit clan, but I wasn’t able to see as much
as I wanted of my family.”

He does try to find some positives out of his time there: “There are
plenty of reasons to be glad that I went there. I proved that I could
score in any league in the world and I like to think that I proved
myself in distinguished company. There were some seriously good players
and I remember being more nervous about training than matches. You
don’t want the likes of Zinédine Zidane thinking: ‘What have we signed
him for?’ You want his respect, so while other players might have been
cruising towards the end of their careers, I was desperate to prove
myself.”

He was still having doubts as he first set off for the new chapter in
his life: “Even if I did feel a wrench on my way to the airport to fly
to Madrid, I had to give it a go. The alternative was to sit at home
and wonder what might have been.”

He admits he didn’t make any lasting friends at the club and only keeps
in contact with the one person he knew before he went out there – David
Beckham: “David is probably the only person I am still in contact with
at the club. I can’t say that I look for Real’s results, but I will
keep an eye out when they play Bayern Munich in the Champions League on
Wednesday and Barcelona a week today in La Liga. I hope that they can
pick up a trophy. I am glad for the experience, even if the main thing
I learnt was that living abroad is not for me.”  

There’s no doubt at all that he’ll be watching today’s match at Anfield
between Liverpool and Manchester United, and wishing he was playing his
part in one of the biggest fixtures in the English league. Instead of
being at Anfield he’ll be sitting in the stands at St James’s Park as
Newcastle play their equivalent of Liverpool-Man U. But Newcastle
against Middlesbrough isn’t quite the same.