At this time of year, with the transfer window freshly-slammed, thoughts turn to one of the mutually-accepted lies that keep football trundling happily along: the length of a contract. "Signs Up For Four More Years; Ends Speculation" reads the ticker, while player and manager twinkle smiles at the greedy cameras, both knowing that this is a marriage of convenience, one that will survive for precisely as long as each remains useful to the other. It promises hope and security to the fans; it delivers nothing but pain, prolonged.
So it's always slightly surprising when a contract actually runs the distance, when a player is paid in full and delivered back into the real world with a handshake and slightly-too-firm pat on the back. Footballers are precious in most senses of the word, and they're not often allowed to just wander about on their own. Particularly if they can, as the usual phrase has it, still do a job. (Football365 is here pleased to reveal one of the great secrets of football writing: the job in question is fixing a leaky tap.)
This newfound freedom is, presumably, welcomed in much the same way that some men find a fulfilling and compensatory opportunity in being dismissed by a long-term lover. Sadness can - must! - be avoided by revelling in the sudden liberty to indulge all those vitally important pre-relationship plans that the promise of happiness - such a fickle mistress! - forced onto the shelves. "At last! The opportunity to relocate to a croft in the Highlands and cut peat/dig out the old brass-rubbing kit/get that full-colour back-tattoo of a mermaid pleasuring a narwhal!" So perhaps, for Premier League footballers, contractlessness is that chance to finally make that long-coveted move to the Cypriot league. To see what Scandinavian football is really like. To plunge into the warm embrace of the pundits' couch. To throw off the shackles and do something completely crazy.
To join Stoke.
It's easy to mock Michael Owen, yes, but that doesn't mean it's wrong. If by a man's work you shall know him, then Owen is at present the sum total of a Twitter account so dull it feels like a parody and a series of faded VHS memories that come from another, more innocent time. A footballer that doesn't football is just an...er. Doubtless he still knows where the goal is, but then - another Football365 exclusive, this - everybody does; science has shown that even his fellow free-agent and one-time strike partner Emile Heskey can successfully point to the net three times out of five. As useful attributes go, it's up there with "he can put his boots on."
Owen has been fading from view for years, diminished not just by a number of ill-advised transfers, but by a modern world that requires more from its strikers than the scamperingly precise diversions that marked him at his best. He tried adapting - his conversion into an attacking midfielder at Newcastle remains the only known example of Kevin Keegan moving a player further away from the opposing net - but when that didn't work, settled for a ceremonial position as Sir Alex Ferguson's Minister Without Portfolio But Always With A Copy Of The Racing Post To Hand.
Now he's switched a red bench for a striped one, a furious Scotsman for a psychopathic Welshman, and a place behind Javier Hernandez for a place behind Jonathan Walters. The future holds more waiting, more tweeting, and more splinters, with no consolation in sight bar the "Knows Where The Goal Is; Could Still Do A Job For England" editorial that will follow his late consolation goal in the fourth round of the FA Cup (Oliver Holt: 25/1; Paul Hayward: 12/1; Sean Custis: 10/1; Henry Winter: 1/5 favourite.) Is this any way for a Ballon d'Or winner to slip into the night? Foraging for knockdowns at the feet of Peter Crouch? Taking orders from a man wearing a baseball cap?
Ultimately, you have to feel for him. All he ever wanted was to play football for a number of famous and historic clubs, to represent his country, to score memorable goals, to win shiny silver pots and individual awards, and to provide for a loving family, all the while amassing a personal fortune to sink into his real passion, horseflesh. Instead, he's...oh. Oh right.
What a bastard.