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Aug 8, 2012

Owen's lack of hunger means end near

A former teenage sensation named Michael took his final bow last week - a precocious, electric world-beater bowing out to a rapturous reception and still near the peak of his powers. Enough about the record-breaking swimmer Michael Phelps, however. Michael Owen has also had a busy Olympics. He has watched the rowing, the gymnastics, the dressage, the athletics and even the football.

Judging from his updates on social networking sites, Owen has become something of an authority on televised sport. The former European Footballer of the Year may be Britain's most famous couch potato. Indeed, he may now be an ex-footballer, even if the joke is that he has been one for the last three years. We don't know. And, such is Owen's descent from ubiquity to irrelevance, many don't care.

Owen has not officially retired, but it is almost three months since he announced Manchester United were not offering him a new contract, something that was so predictable that Owen had months to prepare for the eventuality. He remains unemployed. Possibly, too, he is unwanted - or, at the least, unwanted by the clubs he would deign to join.

There was interest from Stoke City, while Dubai club Al-Shabab announced erroneously they were going to sign him. But Owen is a homebird - he commuted to Newcastle from Cheshire - which rather suggests that, while he spent a season at Real Madrid, a second sojourn abroad is unlikely. If one door appears closed, another has been slammed shut. Owen has ruled out dropping into the Championship. Not for him the drudgery of the second flight, the constant grind that life outside the limelight entails.

In effect, that only leaves eight possible destinations, the Premier League clubs in the West Midlands and the North West. Three of them are Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool, so there are only five others. Factor in the reality that some prefer one-forward formations - something that has never suited Owen, who can be invisible alone in attack - and that some are focusing on youth, that some want strikers with more of an all-round game and that some may simply be satisfied with their attacking options, and it doesn't leave much. Once among the most coveted goalscorers in world football, he may be left redundant.

His public pronouncements have contained a hint of resignation along with some misguided defiance. "If a good opportunity doesn't come my way then so be it," Owen tweeted last month. "I know I can still bang them in at the top level. I proved that nearly every time I played for Manchester United."

What the conclusion his United career actually suggests is that Owen remains a fine destroyer of defences in the Carling Cup. His last Premier League start came in October 2010, when he was hauled off at half-time. Yet, if Owen is ignoring evidence of his decline, he is far from alone in that: plenty of sportsmen and women prefer to preserve memories of their prime.

Just as pertinently, he has long denied he is injury prone. Here, once again, the facts differ from Owen's interpretation. His final campaign at Old Trafford effectively ended on November 2 - he never recovered from a thigh problem to feature again in 2011-12. Three years brought a mere six league starts, something that cannot simply be explained by competition for places. In only two of the last seven years has he played anything even approaching a full season, and even they only brought 21 and 24 Premier League starts respectively (and as one culminated in Newcastle's relegation, his availability was scarcely a boon).

Yet in the 32-page glossy brochure Owen's advisors commissioned to advertise their client's availability in 2009, a doctor claimed he could play trouble-free for many years at the highest level. It is to be hoped his other patients received rather better advice. It is another deterrent to would-be suitors.

But Owen's eagerness to play can also be questioned. He rejected the less glamorous options of Stoke and Hull in 2009 to sign for United, though either move would have been a guarantee of first-team football. He signed on again at Old Trafford in 2011, even though it was evident he was a fringe player.

What he is not, though, is an old player. Ryan Giggs, more than six years his senior, plays on at Manchester United. A former colleague at Anfield, Danny Murphy, has signed a two-year deal at Blackburn - dropping a division to have a pivotal role, rather than being marginal - to take him past his 37th birthday. Another lethal Liverpool finisher, Robbie Fowler, also peaked and declined earlier than most but, though his powers had diminished, entered a globetrotting phase in his quest for goals. Fowler, the great Robbie Fowler, went on trial at Blackpool earlier this year. It is hard to imagine Owen doing likewise.

Perhaps he does not want to subject himself to such indignity. Perhaps he does not need the money (although, then again, neither should Giggs, Murphy or Fowler). Perhaps his family - he has four children - and hobbies - he is the owner of a racehorse stable - occupy too much of his time. Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that Owen no longer loves football enough to do whatever is required to extend his career.

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