FILE PHOTO: Michael Owen of Liverpool takes on the West Ham defence at Anfield. Photo: Gallo Images


London - In terms of making a first impression, Michael Owen could not have done anything more. Pitched into an FA Youth Cup quarter-final against Manchester United at Anfield, he scored a hat-trick.

We had heard his name mentioned around the club as being someone to keep an eye on but it was in that game, in the spring of 1996, I thought Michael was going to be something special. His finishing was deadly, delivered in a calmness you would not expect a 16-year-old to possess.

What really sticks in my mind from that night, though, was Michael’s tackling. I was known as being someone who was not afraid to put his foot in but Michael made me wince with some of the challenges he made. He was desperate to win and had an incredible mental strength.

Within 12 months, we were both in Liverpool’s first-team squad and, as we were the youngest in the group, we became friends and room-mates. He scored a brilliant goal on his debut against Wimbledon and became one of the most talked-about footballers of his generation.

If you had said back then, just after he had been crowned European Footballer of the Year and scored that goal against Argentina, that he faced the prospect of ending his career sitting on the bench at Stoke, you would have been laughed out of town but, for a couple of a reasons, that is what has happened.

The first is injuries. Michael was not the same after he lost the pace that used to blow defenders away, the hamstring injury he sustained against Leeds in April 1999 had an enormous impact, as did the cruciate- ligament damage he suffered at the World Cup finals in 2006.

But another reason is that the role of the consummate goal poacher, the one in which Michael excelled, has effectively disappeared over the last few years. Teams now play 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and neither of those systems suit Michael’s qualities.

It still annoys me that people forget what a top player he was. Michael had this unshakable belief that he was the best and wasn’t bothered about trying to usurp Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore to get into Liverpool’s starting line-up.

The best strikers are single-minded and I saw at first hand how he was able to put disappointments to one side and bounce back when it really mattered. He used to take knocks in his career but he always came back with an answer.

When he was left on the bench for the 2001 League Cup final against Birmingham, he got his place back and ended up scoring the goals that won the FA Cup final against Arsenal and helped Liverpool qualify for the Champions League for the first time. He was, simply, a big-game player.

It’s why Real Madrid eventually came calling for him. Michael and I were rooming in America during Liverpool’s pre-season tour when he told me that Madrid had made him an offer and he was thinking seriously about it.

Liverpool had just signed Djibril Cisse and Milan Baros had returned from Euro 2004 as the winner of the Golden Boot. Michael felt the time was right to pursue a fresh challenge. I told him he was making a mistake, that Madrid were a football club rife with politics and he wouldn’t play.

They had Raul and Ronaldo, who always played, and to be a success at Madrid, you had to be more than just a goalscorer but Michael wouldn’t be moved. He thought he was the best and would become a success in Spain.

And in difficult circumstances, he did very well. Despite Real Madrid having three managers that season and him getting limited starting opportunities, he scored 16 times in 45 appearances.

He may not have won any honours but his reputation was not harmed. When he returned to England 12 months later, he could have come back to Anfield but Liverpool were outbid by Newcastle.

That story is well known but less so is the chance that arose to come back to Liverpool in 2009.

Liverpool supporters did not take too kindly to the way he left but I’m a firm believer that time is a healer and I’m sure they would have welcomed him back after his contract at Newcastle had expired.

I had heard he was thinking of joining Manchester United but he would have jumped at the opportunity to come back to Liverpool. He would have been happy to be a squad player and was excited at the opportunity to return home.

The way he left Liverpool had saddened Michael and he wanted the opportunity to redeem himself. I sent Rafa Benitez a message explaining what Liverpool could get on a free transfer but Benitez instead went out and bought David Ngog.

Joining United was a mistake. It ruined any chance of him repairing things with Liverpool fans and it’s safe to say United supporters never really took to him despite his famous winner against Manchester City.

Maybe he should have made this decision a couple of years ago or taken the chance to play in America or the Middle East. Something doesn’t seem right about him potentially bringing the curtain down on his career sitting on the bench when Stoke play Southampton.

But that won’t diminish my memories or opinion of him. He was a supreme goalscorer, capable of glorious moments, and the goal he swept past David Seaman in the Millennium Stadium in that 2001 final provided my finest Liverpool moment until Istanbul. For good reason it will be remembered as the ‘Owen Final’.