Michael Owen should be remembered for his goals, not injuries, says Derby County manager Nigel Clough
NIGEL Clough played in the same Liverpool team as a young Robbie Fowler, who quickly introduced himself to English football as a striker with an instinctive goal-poaching ability.
As Fowler was catching the eye in his early days, news filtered through to the senior players at Anfield of another prodigious talent emerging through the club's schoolboy ranks and youth set-up.
He was also a striker. His name: Michael Owen.
Owen, like Fowler, went on to score bags of goals for Liverpool.
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He also played for Real Madrid, Newcastle United, Manchester United and Stoke City, his current club.
He hit 40 goals in 89 games for England, including that memorable solo strike against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup finals, when he was only 18.
Owen, now 33, has announced that he is to retire at the end of the season.
Clough left Liverpool to join Manchester City in January 1996, some 16 months before Owen burst on to the scene with a goal on his first-team debut against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park in May 1997.
Clough recalls the talk in the Anfield corridors and at the training ground of another "special" striker making an impact.
"As a first-team player, you are always aware of youngsters coming through and Robbie Fowler was the one who had just come through," said the Derby County manager.
"But there was talk around the club of there being another special talent coming through, a player a little bit younger.
"I didn't get the chance to see Michael Owen first-hand. He was probably still at school then but word gets round the club if there is somebody special coming through the system at 15 or 16 and that was the case with him.
"To produce two strikers of the quality of Fowler and Owen in only three or four years is incredible.
"I'm not sure Liverpool have had another young striker come through since, but they have had the likes of Steve McManaman, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher."
Clough says scoring goals at the highest level and on the biggest of stages is what made Owen's career.
"To score in World Cup finals, to score for Real Madrid against Barcelona and to score all those goals for Liverpool is what people remember about him," said Clough.
"The goal against Argentina stands out but also his little cameos in the last few years.
"The late winner he got for Manchester United against Manchester City was a brilliant finish.
"I am sure Sir Alex (Ferguson) would say it was worth signing Michael just for that goal.
"It is also a measure of what he had done in his career that somebody like Manchester United took him at the stage of his career knowing he would not be available for 40-odd games but still thinking he would be worth having around for the odd game.
"People should remember the first part of his career, when he was flying and scoring goals for fun before his injuries.
"As a manager – and certainly as a defender – you would be petrified of his pace.
"He is one those strikers you don't notice for periods during a game and, when at his best, he would suddenly go past a couple of defenders.
"He was always alive, always on the move. You could never lose concentration with him about."
Injuries, particularly hamstring problems, caught up with Owen in the latter part of his career and inevitably inhibited his pace.
Did he suffer from playing too much football too early?
"That's possible," said Clough, "but then you look at Ryan Giggs, who burst on to the scene six years earlier and is still playing in the Premier League at 39.
"It will be interesting to look at somebody like Theo Walcott and see how he is in 10 years' time and if he keeps playing.
"Injuries affect players in different ways. Sometimes, it's just down to bad luck."
Clough says players with the explosive pace Owen had are always susceptible to hamstring problems.
"We know from Jamie Ward that players with quick movement like that do seem to pick up those types of strains," added Clough, before joking: "It's not something me and (Rams coach) Andy Garner would know about. We both had only one hamstring injury each in 15 years!"
Clough won 14 England caps. How much admiration does he have for what Owen achieved on the international stage at such a young age?
"That is the highlight of his career," said Clough.
"International football is the hardest by far to settle into and so to take to it as he did, I think he will be remembered most for that.
"He had a spell at Liverpool when he was brilliant. Liverpool fans will remember him for what he did there but the rest of football will say his goals at World Cups and his hat-trick in a 5-1 win against Germany in Munich sets him apart."