While Michael Owen may spend more time developing his beloved racehorses than playing first-team football, he is not quite ready to be put out to pasture.
By Oliver Brown
31 Jan 2011.- At 31, he is seldom entrusted by Sir Alex Ferguson with a starting position, but seized upon a rare chance at Southampton with a goal to remind his manager why Manchester United snaffled him in the first place.
At a time when Dimitar Berbatov is making hat-tricks appear little more than lazy party pieces, and when Wayne Rooney resembles a husk of the striker who could score 34 goals in a season, Owen provides the perfect fallback option.
The former England forward harnessed all his predatory skills in the teeth of Southampton’s resistance, supplying a fine headed equaliser and redoubling United’s efforts to force the winner.
Owen has had four months in which to dwell upon his peripheral status in United’s squad, conscious that the last game he started was against Scunthorpe United in the Carling Cup in September.
On that occasion, he proved inspirational, too, scoring twice. The temptation is to conclude that this tireless workhorse is at his best in lesser cup ties, his gifts thrown into sharp relief against fragile opposition, but he suspects he could still prove his detractors wrong.
“I am old enough and wise enough to know the manager’s problems and the number of players he has to keep happy,” Owen said.
“You could say the same for a dozen players in the squad. The hard bit is when you are asked, and your opportunities have been few and far between, because you really have to play well. But I performed. It takes the pressure off a little bit.”
Ferguson’s priority is not so much to sustain an ageing star like Owen as to blood Javier Hernández in the side, especially after the Mexican contributed another polished finish here, somehow finding the net while in the motion of falling over.
But one wonders if Owen, having shaken off the injury afflictions that have disfigured his record at United, could yet establish himself among the Ferguson favourites.
Berbatov looks unassailable but Rooney, struggling for confidence with a wretchedness seldom fully acknowledged, is suddenly vulnerable. One would hardly dare whisper it in Ferguson’s presence but “the boy”, the talent he helped keep at Old Trafford to the tune of £200,000 a week, has contributed just two goals since those unseemly transfer machinations two months ago.
Over to Ferguson, then, who must rearrange his forward line once more for the Premier League visit of Aston Villa on Tuesday night. There was no hint that Owen could enjoy a late-season run of games, but the Scot lavished praise upon his influential south-coast performance.
“Owen did a great job just dropping back in the hole behind the strikers to give us support in there,” said Ferguson, who seemed more interested in the flourishes from Hernández. “He had one chance and scored one goal: a tremendous ratio.
“He is always on the move. He has great feet in and around the box and gets his shots away quickly. We know he is going to improve.”
By his speed and silky first-touch play, Hernández, at 22, contrived to eclipse even so celebrated a youngster as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The 17 year-old, whose signature United continue to crave, chose bright orange boots for this encounter with his would-be suitors — even if his display with the ball was not quite so luminous.
Nigel Adkins, the Southampton manager, was sanguine in defeat reinforced by his club’s determination to keep their most coveted asset. “He’s 17 and you have to allow that flair to flourish,” he said.
“He’s a quiet lad but he feels comfortable in the group. I’ve sat down and we’ve had a walk around the training ground and talked about different scenarios.”
Whether one such scenario involved the teenager forsaking his roots for the United red, he would not say.