Michael Owen will be back in Liverpool on Boxing Day, playing at Anfield for the first time as a visitor. Other than appearances for England at Anfield, Owen has only ever played their in a Liverpool shirt and says it will be strange to be playing there in the black-and-white stripes of Newcastle. The 26-year-old said: "When I knew I was coming back to the Premiership, I always thought it would be strange to go back to Anfield."
Owen is still considered a hero by a lot of Reds fans – certainly not all – and still has a lot of friends at a club he arrived at fifteen years ago. Like most people over the next week or so, Owen will be seeing people he’s not seen for a while. Whether his renewing of acquaintances is as unpleasant and stressful as it can be for most of the nation remains to be seen: "It will be exciting seeing a lot of old friends, and it’s something I’m looking forward to. It will be a strange one as I never thought I would leave Liverpool. I’d been there since I was 11. I’ve got a picture in my head of what it will be like going back."
It’s one of the big "secrets" of football that Owen’s Newcastle contract has a buy-out clause in it that will allow him to leave at the end of the season if he chooses to. The amount of money needed to trigger the clause is usually reported at £12million, which is how much Liverpool would have paid for Owen had Newcastle not intervened with their £17million offer. Liverpool wouldn’t budge above the £12million, Real Madrid wouldn’t accept less than £17million, Owen had to hold his nerve to leave Madrid with no option but to accept the Liverpool bid. He didn’t hold his nerve, worried that another six months on Real Madrid’s bench would scupper his hopes of starring for England in the World Cup. He spoke to Newcastle and joined a club that will give him a lot of adulation, if not a lot of success if recent season are anything to go by. Unless things change dramatically at Newcastle, it seems unlikely that the competitive Owen will want to stay there too long. It also remains to be seen whether Rafael Benitez would even consider bringing Owen back in the future though. There have been two occasions where Owen has had at least a chance of signing for Rafa’s Liverpool – last summer and also when Rafa joined the club and Owen chose to leave for Madrid. Rafa may decide that he’s not the size of table leg he’s looking for.
Owen is not going to comment on a buy-out clause at this stage anyway, and claims he’s happy with his deal: "I signed a four-year contract with Newcastle United and I’m very pleased with that decision." He’s happy, but only as long as Newcastle get better: "If we can keep improving and winning games, it will be an exciting place to play."
The team have improved since he joined the Geordies – they’re no longer in the relegation zone but Graeme Souness still seems to be under threat for his future. Owen says he’d expected a different type of experience to what he was used to: "I didn’t come to a club that was top of the table; when I joined Newcastle they were second bottom and I came prepared for a fight and, fortunately, things have improved since then."
His games for "the Barcodes" have been limited due to injury, but he’s not the only one: "We’ve been unfortunate with injuries, but when everyone’s been fit the results have been quite good. We haven’t got the biggest squad in the world, but we have got a bit of quality, and if we can keep everyone fit we can win more games than we lose." Injuries were an excuse for Souness when he "managed" Liverpool before Roy Evans.
The lad from Hawarden is even contemplating the idea of Newcastle getting into Europe: "There’s a gap between Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool and everyone else. Apart from those, I don’t think there’s anyone we should fear. Every year there’s always one or even two teams that surprisingly get into the Champions League or a UEFA Cup place, so there’s plenty to play for. We would have wanted a better start to the season but we are slowly-but-surely climbing the table and another couple of wins will propel us into the UEFA Cup places. That’s the bare minimum of where we want to be."
Souness himself achieved a lot of success as a player, including European Cups with the Reds, but wasn’t so happy as an international player with Scotland. He has often gone on record about how much he dislikes international friendlies, and is not planning to let Michael Owen have an easy ride for Newcastle just because there’s a World Cup coming up. If anyone is going to get time off, it’s Owen’s team-mate Alan Shearer, according to Souness: "I would think Michael will be better able to play in all of the games. He hasn’t had a lot of football recently and I would have no qualms about asking him to do that. The situation with Alan is a little bit different. He’s a bit older than Michael and we can’t expect him to do quite as much. We’ll have to make sure that we take care of Alan over the Christmas period. There are an awful lot of games in a very short space of time and we have to be sensible."
Shearer needs one more goal to get the club record for Newcastle of 200 goals, and so Souness says he may have trouble persuading the player most likely to replace him as manager that he needs to sit back from time to time: "He’s only one behind the record now and I’m sure he’ll want to play in every game. But, as manager, I have to stand back from things a bit and realise that might not be possible."
It’s unusual to watch a boring Liverpool v Newcastle match, and with the added spice of Owen’s return and fans getting some fresh air to help cure their hangovers from Christmas Day this one is not likely to be an exception.