During Tuesday night's 0-0 draw between Newcastle United and Manchester United at St James' Park, ex-Newcastle striker Michael Owen came on as a sub for Man U. As is the norm on these occasions, Owen was roundly booed. The reception was remarkable in its hostility however, so much so that Owen expressed surprise in a series of tweets after the game, and was stung enough to attempt to justify his record at past clubs.
He stated that if fans "knew the facts then they may have a different opinion", that "I tried my best in every game for Newcastle. Under KK I played well and I’ll never forget the 2 I scored against Sunderland". He also ventured "When I meet Newcastle or Liverpool fans they all respect what I've done for their clubs. In stadiums it changes, 1 boo and the rest follow". The usually unflappable Owen even commented that "From what most of you Newcastle fans are saying you should be pleased I left the club! If i had known that earlier I could have left sooner!”
Owen has a consistently excellent record in both domestic and international football. His 30 goals in 79 games for Newcastle United are a return most strikers would kill for. His performances for Newcastle over his four-year contract there could in no way be described as without merit, even ignoring his goals. Two periods in particular stick out; immediately following his arrival from Real Madrid until his injury the following New Year he was consistently Newcastle's best player, and as he rightly says his performances underwent a renaissance during Kevin Keegan's brief reign in 2008. Newcastle's relegation the following year couldn't be said to be Owen's fault alone, indeed the major contributing factor was the organisational chaos behind the scenes which led to four different managers taking charge in that single season.
So what's the problem with those Newcastle fans? Just what is it about Owen that got them so worked up? Judging from Owen's final comment quoted above, he himself appears to think that it's standard bitterness, that they resent him leaving, the level of hostility perhaps explained by his status as one of the nation's best strikers of recent years. That's not the case however, he misunderstands spectacularly. Though many will say he left when Newcastle were at rock bottom, and that he owed them something, others won't blame him for wanting out of a shambles like that. Many would have done the same. Apart from anything else, Owen leaving when he did suited Newcastle. No attempt was made to renew his newly-expired contract after relegation, for the simple reason that by then they were trying to cut their costs.
I've read the problem was that he didn't 'engage with the region'. During his time at the club he was reportedly living in Cheshire and commuting to Newcastle every day by helicopter. While that can't have helped, and many do bring this up, surely if the club had been successful no-one would have cared much. Perhaps closer to the mark is the idea that his comments as he prepared to move on and after he'd signed for Man U also didn't help. There was a definite sense that he viewed himself as not culpable for the relegation, that it was all somebody else's fault. If only the team had been good enough to create chances he'd have taken them.
The perception of Owen as being injury-prone but focused on getting fit to play for England rather than the club paying his wages, also present during his time at Liverpool, again severely dented his popularity.
But it wasn't just others, he was there too. He made 11 appearances after his last goal in January. There were chances that he missed, and in a team which eventually needed only 1 more point to stay up, every one was vital. Between his two periods of good form he was mostly injured, so the only time there was serious criticism of his performances was during the second half of the relegation season in 08/09. Towards the end his lack of both movement and demonstrativeness made it seem he didn't mind the club struggling. Is it coincidence that when it became clear he was leaving his performance levels dropped?
His comment that if we knew the facts we'd think differently is strange. His implication would seem to be that he was encouraged to play while still injured, or at least not yet properly fit, to benefit the club. The only other possibility is undisclosed shenanigans behind the scenes provoking the disillusionment evident in the play of the team generally and Owen specifically. That is unacceptable as an excuse for poor performance by a team of professional footballers, paid very well to perform to the best of their abilities. Neither does the excuse of playing through injury for the good of the team stack up. As a rule, did he really come back too early because of pressure to do so?
How about the back end of 05/06 season, when he'd been out since getting injured at Spurs the New Year's Eve before? Newcastle United were pushing for an unlikely European spot, but he neither followed the route of building fitness and coming back strong in the new season, nor coming back and playing a few games before the end of the season to aid his club's chances of qualification. There was one appearance, after which he was deemed unavailable to play in a must-win last game. If he'd been pressured into playing, he would have played that last game too. Soon after he reported for England duty.
These appearances were all about Owen going to the World Cup that summer. If he hadn't played before the end of the season, he wouldn't have gone. It was no surprise when a clearly unfit Owen got a serious injury in the early stages of the tournament, ruling him out for a large part of the next season. He can't really complain about coming back too soon because he was very willing to do it when it suited him, often to the detriment of his club. The perception of Owen as being injury-prone but focused on getting fit to play for England rather than the club paying his wages, also present during his time at Liverpool, again severely dented his popularity.
His evident wish to erase the relegation from his CV led to some strange and insensitive comments. His inability to hide his reluctance to sign in the first place and his focus on England left him open to accusation that he'd rather be anywhere else. But the PR disasters paled into insignificance in comparison to the fact that when he was needed, he wasn't there. Either in body, when he was injured, or even worse in spirit, when his goals were required but he glumly failed to deliver.
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