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Football's obituary writers were out in force yesterday, laying to rest Michael Owen's career - a career which had been in decline for ten years or more.
However, something many commentators missed or did not address is Owen's remarkable history with the media.
In short, there isn't really any. There were no adverse newspaper reports about his private life, no excoriating editorials bemoaning his behaviour. We seem to remember watching him show some TV cameras around his snooker room on one occasion. We're pretty sure he was on the BBC's coverage of the Grand National once. Other than that, it's hard to say.
If you look at this gallery of his Panini stickers from 1997 onwards in the Telegraph he has barely aged. It as if Michael arrived in front of us, middle-aged from the start and sensible in the extreme. Partly because of his resolute blandness as a public personality, and partly because his mightiest footballing deeds were before or just after the turn of the millennium, he feels part of a different era. Younger than Rio Ferdinand or Frank Lampard - and despite his huge wealth, recognisability and status within the game - Owen seems to belong to a bygone age: an age where footballers didn't own record labels, they owned a games room in their Cheshire mansion. The only sort of roast one can imagine Michael participating in is one at the local Berni Inn on Sunday, mum and dad and the whole family there, perhaps after a game of golf, played with plenty of banter and iron competitiveness.
In the stickers, he looks out with exactly the same fixed stare in each one. There is no variation of expression, no progression, no more or less joy in his eyes at the start than at the end. He has not learned how to pose for photos in a different way or is uninterested in doing so. He stands and looks like he has always stood and looked. It is as if he is a robot - the MickBot, perhaps. During his 17-year career, football became a part of the entertainment industry, a rabid soap opera, as never before. The MickBot has met it all with the same level, pleasant, nondescript gaze.
Over that time, many fans fell out of love with him and then just largely forgot him, but in the media he was still a top dog. He was still one they talked about around the journalists' discussion tables. Even 18 months ago, after a goal or two for Manchester United, we heard Henry Winter advocating Owen's inclusion in the England squad. They wouldn't let him go. He was forever on the verge of a comeback, or proving his worth, or being given the chance he deserved, or still doing it at the top level. Most observers knew this was bogus silliness. We knew his time was gone, partly because of injury, and partly because football had moved on and left his talent exposed as one-dimensional. No amount of pleading "who else would you want in a World Cup semi-final one-on-one with the keeper?" talk changed that. Neither his club nor his country could keep him employed just for the small number of occasions he'd be able to do something of note.
The romance between the media and Owen has been a lasting one. Perhaps he is their Boys' Own hero; forever young, forever hanging on the shoulder of the last defender, waiting to pounce. A boy-man who lived right, lived clean, at a time of supposed moral decline. A mere handful of special moments across the last ten long years have been spun into the finest gold and knitted into a halo for the man we still think of as wee Mickey.
None of this should be laid at the door of the player himself, and indeed one would not care either way were it not for one looming horror: this unanimous approval of Owen means he will walk into a TV pundit role to join other paragons of blanditude, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer. If England's Michael Owen is not a regular fixture on MOTD for the next 25 years, we will eat our hat. Indeed, he's already been on the BBC in this role where he comes over as a slightly odd chap. Not unlikeable, not some alpha male bully or a medals-on-the-table boor, clearly not without some brains and yet somehow, crushingly, almost claustrophobically dull. We sense he tries to pull some Gary Neville-style analysis out of his brain but finds it is like clutching at morning mist.
We already know that football TV producers have boundlessly poor judgement for who is or isn't a good pundit. Owen looks clean and tidy and as ever, you could take him home to meet your mam and dad without any fear he would poop on the carpet. But it is exactly this laminated, plastic veneer that keeps him at arm's length and makes him seem somehow unreal, almost mythic.
So Michael Owen the footballer, if he ever really existed, is retiring, but the MickBot will live on in our TVs, radio and newspapers, still staring and unchanged, like a man trapped in time.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
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