Michael's Blog: 26th April 2014  

My London Marathon Experience
 

It started out as a way of killing two birds with one stone. Raise lots of money for charity while giving myself something to set my sights on in the future that would ultimately prevent me from doubling in size so soon after hanging up my boots! The London Marathon served both purposes but little did I realise that the day itself would open my eyes to a whole host of things that left me boarding the train home with a spring in my step (not literally as I was as stiff as a board!) and a simple renewed appreciation of people in this country.

The thrill of raising so much money for charity was a unique experience. During my playing days, lending my name to various charities, donating match fees, appearance fees and general involvement in assisting other people with charity work is something I've been used to. I've been in a privileged position whereby simply associating myself with a certain charity can raise the profile or awareness of that organisation. But never has a real sense of pride engulfed me like it did on the day when the realisation that my best mate and I were raising over £75,000 for three charities that are very close to my heart. A huge 'thank you' to everyone that donated is in order no matter how much you stumped up. You have made a big difference to a lot of lives.

Admittedly, my training in preparation for the big day could have been better. However, I paid the race the utmost of respect by building up to 22 miles in the lead up to the event, supplementing that with half a dozen other long distance grinds! Work obligations meant I couldn’t commit to training as much or as often as I would have liked but nonetheless, getting up and pounding the roads for miles on end in the wind and the rain is a challenge in itself - albeit one I relished.

Of course, there were some low points. Being alone when running down bleak country roads for hours and hours forces you to confront both physical and mental pain barriers. Despite the inevitable aches and pains that come with distance running, I never once took a lame step. It was the mental side that challenged me most and on two occasions while out training I found myself sobbing my heart out over issues that wouldn't normally bother me at all. Running for charities that have affected people close to me had touched me emotionally and that, combined with the pride I was feeling in myself for taking on such a challenge just tipped me over the edge.

All of my life I've lived in an odd world. Adulation and hate came in equal measures while performing my profession. In the glare of a live audience of tens of thousands of people and often millions around the world while trying to perform my job to the best of my ability, as well as coping with untold amounts of pressure at such a young age were situations I had to learn to deal with.

Despite trying to live a normal life outside of football, my life has, and to some degree always will be, different to most. I have always believed that I coped with every situation that was thrown at me in a positive way, almost believing I had to lead two lives - one at work and one at home. It was never a problem as I hadn't really ever known anything different.

I have to admit though, over recent years in particular, my faith in human beings has taken a real nose-dive. Being a footballer, my life away from home was always surrounded by people who wore blinkers in the colours of their favoured football team. Wear the same coloured shirt as them and you can do no wrong but wear another one and you are the enemy. Of course, I understand how supporters feel toward their team. I was a supporter too for 17 years until it became my profession and that kind of tribalism has always been seen as part of the game. I also accept that footballers (certainly at the very top level) are privileged to be paid so handsomely for kicking a ball around. However, the thing that I really can’t accept and that I’ve noticed more and more in recent years is the level of personal, not professional, hatred and abuse that is directed at players and ex-players alike.

It may well be that social media has given people an easy opportunity to hurl abuse at all times of the day and night although the levels to which some people stoop are really quite shocking. Whatever the reasons, it does mean that a large part of any online interaction I’ve had with strangers in recent times has had a large dollop of abuse attached to it and consequently I’ve found it hard to meet people without having my guard up. This is not a cry for sympathy, just a sad fact of my life.

Running The London Marathon has given me a renewed appreciation of people. I lost count of how many pats on the back I received during the race with genuine words of encouragement. From the thousands of volunteers from all walks of life, who gave up their time and effort to make sure that the event could take place so successfully, to the just under a million spectators who not only encouraged each and every runner but who also created banners, played music, dished out fruit and water among many other things, it really was a sight to behold. Every step of the way, streets were packed with genuine well-wishing people that helped push the aches and pains into the background. I can honestly say that without their constant urging and phenomenal support I would not have been able to get across the finish line. It was a day I will never forget and a day that made me realise that for every idiot out there, there are dozens of decent people who gladly give up their time and effort for others, in most cases people less fortunate than themselves.

Without stating the obvious, the race was hard, very hard! Starting on the front row of the masses didn't help. Quite naturally, as the serious runners stream past during the first half a dozen miles, it is very easy to get swept along with them. Despite constantly reminding myself to slow down, I found myself running on near 3 hour pace at the 10 mile point. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I knew deep down that I had messed up, that I had run far too fast not to suffer later in the race and just wanted to rewind the clock back 90 minutes to start again!

My fears were borne out. I had positioned my family at strategic markers to help me at the mentally tough stages of the race. My Mum, Sister, Niece and Nephew were stood at 14 miles with the request to head to mile 22 once I had passed. My wife and four children were at mile 19 before dashing to the finishing line. I figured that I wouldn't need anyone during the first half of the race as the onset of pain was set to kick in at half way and beyond. Due to me running at a far quicker pace than I ought to have, I can't pretend that I enjoyed much of the run. Put simply, I was in agony for the second half of the race and it was all down to my inexperience. Sore feet, throbbing joints and aching muscles were just some of hurdles I encountered. I have no hesitation in admitting that it was the hardest, most painful thing I've done in my life. A 90 minute high intensity game doesn't come close to the stresses and strains of a marathon. In fact, 5 days on and I was still struggling to walk.

The last 10 miles felt like a lifetime. It was torture. If it wasn't for the constant support from the people lining the streets I'd have bailed out at half way. Rounding the final turn, having the finishing line in sight my overriding emotion was one of utter relief. My name was shouted out by the race commentator as I entered the final 600 metres and I spotted my family in the grandstand. I wanted to put on a final spurt but had nothing left to give. I staggered over the line before sitting down to honour a few interview promises because I quite literally couldn't stand up! As soon as we could, we headed back to our hotel and it was only once I was sat in the hotel bar that could I finally look back and begin to reflect on what we had achieved and what an unbelievable experience it had been.

To those people who mocked my charity fundraising efforts, I sincerely hope that your attitude will change if you find yourselves relying on the charities that I supported to help you or your loved ones out in the future.

To all those fellow marathon runners, fundraisers and the many decent people in this world, I tip my cap to you. You have restored my faith in the human race once again and more importantly, you have helped to make a difference to the lives of so many people in need.


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Michael's Blog: 29th October 2013  


England - Youth system is the key to success


Despite the outcome of England's two pivotal clashes at Wembley over the past fortnight, the issue of how best to develop the next generation of English players will not go away. There is a common consensus for the need to change and it's heartening to see The FA taking steps to address the slide. In my previous Blog, I tried to highlight the difficulty faced by young players of today in breaking into their club's respective first teams at the highest level of our game. This article aims to provide some possible solutions that will not only help our national team for years to come, but also every club in each tier of our game.

I am convinced more than ever that the structure at our academies is failing our youngsters at the final hurdle. Forget finances, facilities, standards of coaching and the attitude of players. In my opinion, despite these factors all being important, none of them are the major reason for our lack of talented players breaking through into our domestic club first teams, not to mention the alarming set of recent results in our National youth football.

I listen to and read so many reasons as to why England are failing to produce top performers on the International stage. Everyone has an opinion but if I'm honest, very few of them convince me.

We have the wealthiest league in the world of football and a great deal of money is invested into our academies and youth football resulting in the facilities that our kids train at being outstanding. Their diet is monitored, their strength and conditioning is taken care of, they are coached by professional people brought in from all over the world and the medical expertise is second to none. Our academies want for nothing.

You would do well to pick many holes in our academies but, in my opinion, there is a glaring one that occurs right at the end of the academy process. As pointed out in my previous Blog, at the top level, the leap from youth team to first team nowadays is huge - and it's growing year on year. Not only is it a bigger leap than ever before but the stepping stone that used to be there for the promising few has now been eroded. The end result is that unless you are a freak of nature, you come to a grinding halt in the development process which results in a wastage of hundreds of promising teenagers who go stale in the no mans land between youth team and first team.

Long gone is the structure of reserve team football that enabled the best youngsters to mix it with a group of first team players, where priceless experience was gained before making that final step up to the first team. Judging by the way football is going, the tried and trusted path once took by myself, Fowler, McManaman, Gerrard, Carragher not to mention the 'Class of 96' at Old Trafford is becoming a thing of the past. As hard as it is sometimes to accept change, that is what's happening in the world of football and unless we take measures to accommodate these changes, we will continue to see the potential of our next generation of talent being compromised, just when the opportunity to fulfill their potential is within touching distance.

Let me explain precisely where I believe our system is falling short:

It would be foolish of me to say that everything is perfect in our academies. Yes, coaching can always improve, players attitudes can improve but by and large, we have a great structure in this country, many top coaches and amazing facilities, all of which create a fantastic environment for our youngsters to thrive. I watch many academy games. It's fair to say that most of our talent nowadays gravitates to either the big Premier League clubs or clubs that have a big catchment area. Unfortunately these days, very few promising kids are unearthed from the smaller clubs as once was the case.

So how do we go about converting potential into an end product for the benefit of the player himself, the clubs and in some cases, the National Team? I have two solutions, one more preferable than the other:

The first option is to create 'B' teams of clubs like they do in Spain. For example, Real Madrid 'B' compete in La Liga 3 which is the equivalent of our League 1. Their team simply consists of a variety of players from their youth set up and acts as a final stepping stone to their first team. Current Real Madrid first team players Diego Lopez and Alvero Arbeloa were in the 'B Team' while I was at the club along with Tottenham's recent £30m signing Roberto Soldado. Critically, this structure provides these players with the perfect environment with which to learn their trade, pitting their wits against hardened lower league professional players and thereby learning ten times what they would learn in a youth game. As you can imagine, these games draw sizeable crowds with people eager to get a glimpse of the next generation of potential Galacticos. This dynamic also provides the club with great comfort knowing that they still have control of how much each player plays, access to the clubs medical facilities and a general continuity that filters through the club. Being a traditionalist, I don't like the thought of these teams 'just arriving' in a particular division, inevitably at the expense of another team. I'm also unsure as to how many Premier League clubs would be permitted to have a 'B Team'.

The second option, and an option that I feel would be hugely beneficial to the state of our National game would be to create a loan system whereby every team in the Premier League provides a set number of English players to be distributed fairly among The Championship, League 1 and League 2 clubs. Almost like the draft system they use in American Football. Each league club would receive 2 or 3 players per season in two waves (start of the season until Christmas and Christmas until the end of the season) from random Premier League clubs which would not only help our lower league teams but more importantly help the development of our future talent. I talk about fairly distributing these young English players across all teams in every league as this would be much fairer than the current system. At the moment, depending on which Premier League boss the lower league manager knows, a team can have a huge and unfair advantage over their league rivals in regard to the number and quality of loan signings that they can make. 

Imagine 150 or so young English players learning their trade in the lower leagues. It would do absolute wonders for their development. The experience gained and the ability to perform under pressure would be priceless. These are the challenges our youngsters need to be exposed to early on if we are to expect them to rise to the challenge later on in their careers. You can be sure that at some point a few of them will have to step up and take a spot kick in a World Cup Penalty Shoot Out. Is it just a coincidence that we lose most of these? - I think not. People are not born to handle huge pressure, they learn to deal with it through experience. Suddenly presenting someone with a highly pressured situation when they haven't regularly experienced it normally results in one outcome - them freezing on the big occasion. We've seen it too many times unfortunately.

Going out on loan would teach our stars of the future very little in terms of how the game should be played. That part should have been drilled into them since their arrival into the academy system. What it will do and what is sometimes overlooked is that this experience will give them a real insight into the realities of the game. The mental and physical toughness required to play against men, the pressure to win so that the man sat next to you in the changing room gets his £100 bonus to pay his mortgage, the expectation of the manager who needs to win to keep his job and the feeling you get from playing in front of a few thousand passionate fans in a game that actually means something.

As many people reading this article will know, there is a big difference between learning something in the comfort of a classroom to the practicality of dealing with a situation in the real world. Just ask a Doctor, a Singer, a Policeman, a Fire Fighter, a Surgeon etc, it's plying you're trade under pressure that separates the men from the boys.

Another benefit of this system is that it would show the young academy player what life is like outside of the Premier League, both on and off the pitch. As great as the facilities and financial rewards are in the Premier League and their academies, it can have the effect on young players of making them think that it's the norm and will always be that way for them.

The current alternative to the above is for the young player to play in another Academy Youth game, the same type of game he has played in for the last 3 years. Without any progression and no possible chance of making the leap from Youth Team to First Team is it any wonder our youngsters go stale and start dropping out of the game? This fate is the reality for dozens of players every year. A complete waste.

Many people are quick to point the finger at the influx of foreign players clogging up the system for our youngsters. It's a straight choice between having a successful Premier League or a successful National Team I hear them cry. I really believe we can have both. Look at Spain and Germany as shining examples. Let's continue to attract the world's best players to these shores. Our youngsters improve for playing alongside them. At the same time, let's hope that the powers that be realise that the current system isn't working, that football has changed and that our youth structure has to move with the times. Only then can we dream of producing England teams that are fighting for major honours in the years to come.

Note: If you have something to say about this Blog please post your comments on Twitter to @themichaelowen
 

 
Michael's Blog: 19th July 2013  

The Way Forward - Part Two

Further to my “The Way Forward” blog I have now read and considered all the views and suggestions posted by fans on www.sportlobster.com. These have been many and varied and I have tried to cover the most common of them in the list at the end of this blog. Thanks to everyone who contributed.


For my own part I keep coming back to the demise of reserve team football and the effect that this has had on the development of young talented players. In the not too distant past, every young player progressed through the youth system learning the basics of the game including technique, fitness, tactical awareness etc. and at that point would be deemed ready for selection for the club’s reserve team. The majority of the reserve team would consist of first team players who might be coming back from injury or had been dropped down to the reserves to gain match fitness and perhaps sharpness. This was the perfect environment for young players to begin to bridge the huge gap between the youth set up and the first team.


I’m not too sure when reserve team football began its decline but I would hazard a guess that it’s been since enormous sums of money have come into the sport and players have become considerably more powerful within the game. For reserve football to be a success it requires every single player to be committed to the cause. In the modern era of huge wages and with the ever changing manager merry go round I imagine that telling a £25 million pound player that he is to turn out on a midweek night for the reserves is a situation that most modern managers would rather avoid. I’ve been at clubs where the reserve team manager has actually been relieved when there were no first teamers involved with his squad. It only takes one or two players to either refuse to play or to turn up and not give of their best for the whole system to break down. This then creates disharmony within the club and also negates any of the benefits that the reserve team system may offer.


If we therefore accept that a formal reserve team structure is no longer relevant at a modern day club we must recognise that a void now exists between a good young player who is at the top of youth team football and an appearance in the first team. As has been mentioned previously, it takes a brave manager to thrust a youngster straight into the first team at the expense of an established player that the club probably paid a fortune for. The only way that this is likely to happen is if a youngster is incredibly talented beyond his years and players like this really are few and far between.


For the rest of the academy players this means that these days, once they reach the age of around 17, they are strictly limited in their options for further development. By 17 they will have learnt about the game, they will have honed their skills and learnt about tactics and positioning etc. etc. and at this point the top players in the group should be looking to press on and make the next big step up towards a place in the first team. Unfortunately and despite being incredibly fit and full of enthusiasm it is almost impossible to bridge the gap without an effective reserve team structure being in place. In effect they are too good for the youth team but not good enough for the first team. The years between 17 and 20 are perhaps the most important in a professional footballer’s development. Youngsters are making the change from boy to man and really need to be driven on at this stage with new targets to aim for each and every day. Without these incentives being in place these could justifiably be classed as “the wasted years” and even the most talented of youngsters will slowly but surely become stale and begin to lose all of the key attributes that got them to the top of the youth system in the first place. At some point the coaches will see that they have regressed and will feel that they’re not going to make the step up to the first team so after a year or two in the doldrums they will inevitably be released from the club. To my mind this situation simply cannot be allowed to continue.


When I was playing at Real Madrid they had a B team who were playing in the second division and included the current Valencia striker Roberto Soldado and ex-Liverpool and current Real Madrid right back Alvaro Arbeloa. The principle of the B team is that they can only play under 23s or under 25s who have signed a professional contract and this allows players with real potential who are maybe not quite ready for the first team, to continue their football development by playing regularly and at a good standard. Some of the players who have benefitted from playing in the Real Madrid B team over the years have been Raul, Guti, Iker Casillas, Juan Mata and Luis Garcia so the system clearly works in Spain!


I accept that the big Premiership clubs starting B teams in the lower leagues may well not be the way to go here in the UK but nonetheless the benefits of playing regular and competitive football shouldn’t be under-estimated. One way in which our game has evolved in recent years is with the ever increasing number of loan deals that take place. These loan deals are a great way to push an up and coming youngster into a programme of continual improvement. The downside is that many of these deals are based on who you know and which club favours which lower league club or manager. Given that many of the really big clubs will have approximately two hundred youngsters coming through their academy ranks I would love to see a system whereby every lower league club has the right to sign a fixed quota of English players from the Premier League academies on season long loan arrangements. This would be a fairer system and with the support of the Premier League it would help every lower league club whilst ensuring that all the talented English youngsters who are currently stagnating in the big academies are given an opportunity to continue their professional development. Another huge benefit of this system would be that every single youngster who is loaned out would be given a true insight into football outside of the big Premiership bubble and allow them to experience life in the real world.


As I said earlier, there were many opinions and ideas put forward on Sportlobster and although each of them could be the subject of an individual debate I have listed below the most common or innovative ideas. Hopefully these will provide more food for thought when the powers that be consider ways in which we can set the foundations for our National teams to play at a level that we can all be proud of.

Some of the most common issues raised by fans in response to my original blog are:

  • As difficult as it is to enforce, should there be some kind of cap on the number of foreign players in every Academy?

  • Should there be some kind of mandatory minimum number of under21 player appearances that all Premier League clubs must meet during the season?

  • Is there too great an emphasis on winning competitive matches even when players are as young as 6? Should there be some kind of ban on competition until youngsters are older (say 10 years old)?

  • Is there a lack of trust in young English talent and do clubs feel more confident in investing in their foreign counterparts?

  • Are children whisked off to large academies at too young an age? Should they be allowed to stay and play locally in their early years while developing their basic skills and a love for the game?

  • Would a huge increase in the number of available coaches help to ensure that young players are taught the essentials from an early age or should youngsters just be allowed to enjoy playing and avoid being coached until they are older?

  • Do modern players prioritise playing for their individual clubs rather than for their National team. Playing for your country used to be the ultimate ambition of young players growing up but has that now changed and if so how do we rectify that situation?

  • Is it as simple as there is too much money at the top of the game and as such youngster’s priorities and ambitions have changed?

  • Should academies be scrapped and should competitive schools football be re-instated? Young players would then graduate through class teams to the school team and then onto local town teams and ultimately the FA County squads. Clubs can then only get involved once youngsters reach the age of 15.

  • Should academy youngsters be sent out at an early age to spend a week or two at a conference or league 2 club? This will make them realise how fortunate they are to be associated with a premier league club.
     

Note: If you have something to say about this Blog please post your comments on Twitter to @themichaelowen
 

 
Michael's Blog: 3rd July 2013  

The Way Forward

It has been a summer of managerial change in The Premier League with many of the hottest seats in the business changing hands but it was the recent dismissal of England Under 21's manager, Stuart Pearce, that has filled the news lately. England U21's limped tamely out of another major tournament, as did the U20s, and everyone is having their say on the state of our National game. Of course, the obvious excuse is to say we were missing some of our best young players because they were with the Senior Squad. This was certainly the case but it’s worrying that our Senior Team apparently needs them so much that our young National teams have to suffer in such a way. It's a pretty obvious observation to make but if our Senior Team had sufficient strength in depth I wouldn't be writing this blog. Excuses aside, the truth is that we’re falling short of the level expected at present and I’m concerned about the future of all our National teams.


Society has changed and will continue to do so. No longer do you drive past a park and see it rammed full of kids of all ages having a kickabout using jumpers as goalposts. Some schools even ban the use of balls at break time, thus robbing kids of practicing essential skills like balance, timing, throwing, kicking, catching etc. Our youth of today have other things to occupy their time. Computers, social media and the like are winning the battle for a child’s preferred way of filling their spare time. The end result is that we will continue to get a shallower pool of quality players to pick from once our youngsters are ready to be coached the 'footballing essentials' in their early teens and beyond.


Football is ingrained in us, it's in our blood. We will always be a nation with a competitive football team because there are simply so many positives surrounding the structure of our game. But is everyone happy with just being competitive? I think not and I sense that is the view shared by more people than ever before, including the fans and the FA themselves, who have arguably the most important role in all of this. Creating a structure that not only squeezes the maximum out of every player that kicks a ball in this country is one challenge but it is also essential to create an environment in which our elite players can thrive, exposing them to experiences at a young age that may be vital to them in future years.


It starts with our clubs. Get the system right in our academies and there is no doubt we will bear the fruit in the future. The FA and Premier League have put in place a new structure which allows clubs of Category A status far more access to coach an academy player. Kids of 12 and over are basically in full time training, skipping school hours to train with their clubs. I have to say, it smacks to me of a 'more is better' stance and I don't like the structure. Call me old fashioned but something just doesn't feel or look right when you are training and on the pitch next to you are kids who have barely learnt how to tie their boots, training longer hours than you when all their mates are in school. It is becoming a survival of the fittest. These kids are doing twice as much training as full time professionals and I know there is concern among football club medics regarding trends of injuries occurring due to the stresses placed on such immature bodies.


This system obviously filters right through an academy and it's at the final stage where I have most concerns. Fifteen years ago, there was a smooth transition through to the first team should you be good enough. There are countless examples of that. If you were good enough, it was the academy through to the youth team, on to the reserves and then into the first team. There wasn't much wastage, everyone that you thought would make it did so and each step was a new challenge. Despite the same steps being in place today, there is one vital difference and that is reserve team football. To be frank, I would question its merits as it would appear that it teaches you nothing more than you would learn from playing in the youth team. In fact, they are basically youth team matches. When I played for the reserves as a 17 year old, I played with Jan Molby, Mark Wright, Steve Harkness, Mark Kennedy, Michael Thomas and many more. These were players who, at the time, weren't in the first team’s starting eleven so had to play in the reserves. The likes of myself, Jamie Carragher, David Thompson and Steven Gerrard would make up the team and you quickly learnt how the game is really played. In my opinion the step up from youth/reserve teams into the first team is now far too big at the top clubs and unless a player goes out on loan to gain experience and bridge the gap, players who make the transition from academy to first team will be few and far between. The result is players going stale between the ages of 18 to 21 and consequently a huge pool of talent filters out of the game. Put simply, you have all the big clubs doing their best to sign up all the best young players into their academies but then they are understandably reluctant to put them in the first team at the expense of a seasoned professional who the club will have paid a great deal of money for.


I'm not sure there is much wrong with the old system. Yes, tweak it here and there but letting a kid go to school, have a kick about in the yard and return home to train after school doesn't seem too wrong to me. After all, the reality is that only a tiny percentage will make the grade and despite clubs taking extra measures to ensure their kids' education isn't compromised, you can’t help but think a normal education would be more beneficial. Banning kids from playing for their local teams is one thing but preventing them from playing for their school team seems pretty drastic. Don't get me wrong, I can see why these changes have been brought in but I believe there is a lot to be said for exposing youngsters to playing at different standards, with different people and on different types of pitches.


It’s certainly not all doom and gloom as there is still so much to be proud of within our game. The FA do a fantastic job at every level and it's only when you visit different countries as I have recently, that you appreciate the structure that we have in place. Our National Football Centre, St George’s Park is something to be immensely proud of as it doesn't only cater for the needs of our football teams but it also plays a pivotal role in improving the standards of areas that support our great game, namely improving the standard of refereeing and coaching. However, we must make sure that every element of our structure is fit for purpose and will ultimately be to the benefit of our National team.


Rather than professing to have all the answers myself, I would like to hear from you, the real fans who turn up week in and week out, about what you see as the main issues and also how you would go about improving the current setup with the ultimate aim of improving our National teams at every level.


Below are some of the issues that I believe contribute to the current situation and which I hope will be food for thought when making your own list of problems and solutions:


  • How do young English players have a chance to develop when they invariably don't get selected for their club's first team due to the pressure on the manager to win and also to justify the high costs paid for so many experienced players?

  • With kids effectively becoming "professional" at 12 years of age what is the impact on their ambition/desire and determination?

  • Most club academies are full of foreign youngsters and is this beneficial to our own young players?

  • The opportunities for home-grown talent to progress through the ranks and play senior first team football at the highest level are surely limited as a consequence of the influx of foreign players.

  • Given that clubs will try and sign as many talented youngsters as they can and then discard those who may be late developers etc., is this actually detrimental to producing a large number of decent players who may progress to the top level given more time? The process of being discarded at an early age could well demoralise the youngster and effectively turn him away from the game before he has had chance to show his true potential.
  • Many school kids who are the best at school sports are held in high regard by their fellow pupils which in turn gives them a confidence and desire to succeed. Going back to school as a "failed" academy player is more likely to knock confidence and suppress any genuine talent that they may have.

  • We have to accept that considerably fewer kids are playing in local parks etc as video games now allow them to become great players and managers (albeit virtual) online without even leaving their home! How do we go about increasing the number of kids playing locally and for real?

Due to financial constraints, many of the lower league clubs are struggling to meet mandatory levels of facilities and staff required under the Elite Player Performance Plan regulations brought in 2011 which in turn means less funding being available and consequently less academies at the lower levels of English football. In my opinion, these are the places where youngsters who develop later are given the opportunity to flourish and also where the step up from youth/reserve team to the first team is more akin to the old days.


I have decided to use Sportlobster for this blog as it’s a social network dedicated to sport. My hope is that this will stimulate a much more passionate debate and ensure that the fans voice is heard. I also think that the 140 character limit on Twitter would mean lots of bullet points rather than a proper debate. On Sportlobster all your comments will show under this article which means we will all be able to follow the debate as it progresses.


I hope you’ll take the time to express your views and between us we can maybe give the appropriate governing bodies ideas for improving the future of our wonderful sport.


Note: If you have something to say about this Blog please post your comments on Twitter to @themichaelowen

 
Michael's Blog: 21st March 2013


RETIREMENT

 

For some reason I thought it would be easy. After all, I had known for a few months that the end was near and had in fact shared my feelings with close family and friends. Having had plenty of time to get my head around my decision, I assumed that making the announcement public would be simple. Write a statement, upload it onto my website and post a message onto my Twitter feed at 9:30am. Job done! What followed caught me totally by surprise.

 

It started with a text from my sister. It was the last thing I was expecting as I had presumed that my nearest and dearest were already hardened to my decision. A text from my best mate was followed by one from my Dad. I had emotionally gone! For a couple of hours even the slightest thing would set me off. I headed off to see my parents. They were still in their bed clothes at 2:30pm glued to Sky Sports News. My Mum's eyes were swollen from all the crying. What I thought would be a day of celebration was getting worse by the minute. The realisation had set in, after a lifetime of dedication and pleasure that football had afforded us, it was all about to end.

 

Considering retirement was a gradual process but I had come to the decision before Christmas that this would be my final season in professional football although that wasn’t quite the plan at the outset. I had signed for Stoke with every intention of playing more football than I had in recent seasons. For whatever reason, it hasn't transpired. Yes, I've had a couple of small muscle injuries but it would be wrong to blame my lack of action on fitness. I have been available for a higher percentage of games this season than in my previous two. It just hasn't happened and the simple fact is, it is either the manager’s opinion that I am not good enough to get into the team or that I don’t fit into the system that we adopt. That is an opinion that I accepted a long time ago and that has obviously contributed to the timing of my announcement. It is also an opinion that I totally respect.

 

Looking at it realistically, things are unlikely to change in the remaining weeks of the season and having played so little in recent years, the chances of me continuing to play at the top level look remote. There have been a number of offers to continue playing outside of the Premiership, including several from abroad and whilst going to play in an emerging market did cross my mind, with four children settled in school, my family’s happiness takes priority. Having played for some of the greatest teams in Europe I have decided to exit the game while I’m still plying my trade in the top level of English football.

 

Despite me wanting to put the record straight in the future regarding certain chapters of my career, here is not the time nor the place to go into such detail. Instead, for me, it is a time to look back on my career with a sense of immense pride.

 

After showing plenty of promise as a youngster, it was at Liverpool where I felt most at home. Progressing through the ranks with Steven Gerrard, following the well trodden path of Fowler, McManaman, Matteo and Carragher, there was always a sense at the time that if you were good enough you would get a chance. That chance came at Selhurst Park on May 6th, 1997. The best years of my career followed in an eight year spell at The Reds. Having enjoyed one year in La Liga playing for Spanish giants Real Madrid, it was time to move home. A four year spell at Newcastle United, followed by three years at Manchester United, before spending my final year in professional football at Stoke City. During that 17 year period I had the honour of representing my country at every level culminating in 89 full caps and scoring 40 goals.

 

Looking back on my career, I suppose I have two overriding emotions. The first is a sense of pride at not only what I achieved, but how I achieved it. Winning virtually every trophy at club level is the stuff of dreams but in amongst all that there were some incredible days. Bursting onto the scene at Liverpool winning consecutive Golden Boots was just the start. Picking up PFA Young Player of The Year and The BBC Sports Personality of The Year Awards were moments I will never forget. Making my England debut having just turned 18 before heading to The World Cup where I would score 'That Goal' which catapulted me towards global recognition. Further International glory followed in the shape of a hat trick in Munich. In that same year we won five trophies at Liverpool with the highlight undoubtedly scoring a brace in the FA Cup Final towards snatch the trophy from Arsenal’s grasp. Collecting the European Footballer of The Year award at the end of that season was an amazing feeling and that trophy takes pride of place at home! Adrenalin rushes like scoring in a 4-2 El Classico win for Real Madrid not to mention the winner in a 4-3 Manchester derby victory have given me memories to last a lifetime.

 

The second emotion that lives with me is a sense of 'what might have been' had injuries not robbed me of my most lethal weapon - speed. Many of my highlights were early on in my career and I can only wonder what more I would have achieved had my body been able to withstand the demands that I was making of it. I was almost too quick. My hamstring gave way in an away game at Leeds at the tender age of 19 and from that moment on my career as a professional footballer was compromised. I actually take great pride in the fact that, even when not fully fit, I still competed at the very highest level playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world. I have no doubt that had I not suffered those 'pace depriving' injuries, I would be sat here now with a sack full of awards and a long list records. However, how can I really have any regrets!

 

So, what does the next stage of my life have in store? As I can testify, football is a short career and I would be daft if I hadn't mentally prepared for life after football. Despite the stick I have taken for apparently taking my eye off the ball, I am satisfied that I have prepared for life after football. I retire in eight weeks knowing exactly what my next steps will be and that is a comforting thought.

 

The media side of Football interests me. As many of you will have seen, I have appeared on various channels trying out different roles and gaining experience for a future on TV. I am currently in discussions with several broadcasters and hoping to secure a contract for next season and beyond. Radio commentary and personal Blogs are also platforms that I have enjoyed doing. At times during my career it has been difficult to express an opinion for a variety of reasons. Close family and friends always tell me I am very opinionated so it will be nice to be able to express my views in a number of ways.

 

For the last couple of years I have also been putting things in place for a career that interests me greatly. The representation of players is an area I believe I can excel in.

 

On July 1st, I propose to set up Michael Owen Management Limited focusing on guiding young players through their careers and offering them advice at every juncture of what can be a career full of pitfalls. I have seen so many horror stories during my own career and have learnt plenty from my own experiences. With the team I have built around me, I feel genuinely excited by the opportunity of guiding some of our best talent through their formative years and beyond. Having already spoken with a number of people within the game, I get a real sense that they too feel that I can play an important role in helping to nurture  talented youngsters into our stars of the future both on and off the pitch.

 

It has been the best journey I could ever have wished for. Unfortunately, like all good things, it has to come to an end. I take pride in the fact that I have given people so much pleasure over the years. I retire in the knowledge that everybody knows where they were when 'That Goal' nestled into the top corner of the Argentinian’s net!

 

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Michael's Blog: 9th February 2013


CARRA

 

I had known it was coming for a while, but for some reason, until you see it appear in a newspaper or flash across your TV screen, it never seems to sink in. Jamie Carragher, or 'Carra' to most of the footballing world, announced that he will retire from the game at the end of the current Premier League campaign.

 

As always with this type of news, the initial reaction from the majority of people in the game will be to feel a sense of sadness. It was certainly mine. Having played so well in recent weeks it is understandable for many people to believe that Carra still has what it takes to compete at the top level for at least another season. After all, he has only just turned 35 and he plays in a position that requires an experienced head. It is also a position that, providing you have a football brain and your positional play is up to scratch, can leave you less exposed than many of the other positions on the field of play.

 

So, why did Carra decide to call it a day and was there a reason behind the timing of the announcement? What is Carra like as a person and a player and how will the next chapter of his life pan out? As a room-mate and team mate for 7 years and a friend for 16, I'd like to pay my own tribute to Carra and share my opinion on what made him the player he is.

 

After two substitute appearances, Carra made his full debut at Anfield against Aston Villa on the 18th January, 1997. I was in the crowd watching him as he scored a header at The Kop end in a 3-0 victory! After a couple more appearances, Carra found himself slipping back down the pecking order due to some of the established first team regulars returning to fitness.

 

In May 1997 I was called into the squad for the first time and it coincided with Carra being back amongst the first team squad. As you can imagine, the two youngsters in the squad were thrown in a room together and the rest is history.

 

We formed a lasting friendship while rooming together for 7 years, playing hundreds of games between us and winning a few trophies along the way. That was until Rafa Benitez took over and immediately broke up all of the existing room pairings. His idea was to pair both centre halves together, full-backs and wide men, central midfielders, strike partners etc, presumably trying to forge a good relationship prior to the following day’s game. Rest assured, we didn't approve of that idea!

 

As a player, a huge attribute of Carra's is his toughness. There was a season that I vividly remember him being in such pain leading up to games that I was astounded to see him out on the pitch. He was taking pain killers like smarties and somehow got to the end of the season having played virtually every minute before undergoing surgery to cure his problem. His attitude and work rate in the gym having suffered a broken leg in an away game at Blackburn was another sight to behold. He couldn't bear being out injured and came back from that injury in double quick time.

 

In my opinion, Carra's best attribute is between his ears. I have no doubt that, if asked, he could have played in any position on the park to a high standard. He quite simply has a 'football brain'. It was probably no coincidence. As a youngster he represented England as a striker. He then made his debut for Liverpool as a central midfielder before playing for years under Gerard Houllier as a full-back. Finally, it is at centre back where he ended up and who will ever forget his performance in Istanbul where every quality he possesses was evident on the biggest club stage of all?

 

His relationship with the fans is second to none. People can relate to him. His demeanour, attitude and style of play both characterised and represented where he is from. He lives in the city and rubs shoulders with the fans over a pint after a game on a Saturday. He was brought up that way. In many ways his retirement from International Football at a relatively young age helped form an even stronger bond with the fans. They felt that he only had eyes for them and to a certain degree it was true. He was proud to play for his country but he always seemed to be fourth choice. I think the tipping point came when his two kids arrived. Being away from home for long periods is tough enough but when you are not playing it compounds the agony. With players of a similar age ahead of him in the queue, he decided to focus his efforts on Liverpool.

 

The timing of the announcement was typical Carra. Inevitably, whenever the news broke it was going to make the headlines. However, he chose the day after an England game, maybe a strategic ploy to get his story slightly watered down during other major sporting news while also creating enough time between the announcement and Liverpool's next game for the dust to settle and the news not to be too much of a distraction. It was a reflection of how he is as a player and person - understated, unselfish and class.

 

One of the most flattering things to have been brought up since Carra made his announcement is the possibility of retiring the No.23 shirt. I read an interesting tweet from Paul Dalglish (son of Kenny) suggesting it wouldn't be a great idea. I have to go along with his reasoning. Nearly every kid in the red half of Merseyside will grow up wanting to be Carra. Wearing 'his' shirt will not only create something to strive for, but once on their back, provide a responsibility to wear the shirt displaying the same pride as the previous owner. Much like the Newcastle No.9, the Liverpool No.7, and the Manchester United No.7, the Liverpool No.23 will from now on always be synonymous with the man who wore it.

 

So what next for Carra? There is no doubt that he is management material. He is an encyclopaedia of football knowledge and potential managerial talents like him don't come around too often. On the flip side to that, he isn't the most tolerant of people and I'd envisage him having the odd confrontation with some of the more pampered footballers of today. I also don't see him wanting to venture far from the North West. He is, and always has been, amongst his friends and family in Bootle and prizing him away could be an impossible task.

 

Of course, the perfect job in the long term would be the Liverpool hot seat but it remains to be seen whether a rookie manager could take on a job so big. Maybe working his way up the ladder from within is the way to go, treading those same famous steps as many of the boot room boys did during the club’s glory years. Whatever he does, sometimes you come across people in life that are just born to succeed. Carra is certainly one of them.

 
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Michael's Blog: 28th January 2013


FATHER AND SON

It’s almost every young boy’s dream as they’re growing up to one day become a Professional Footballer. We switch the TV on most evenings to see the game played in all its glory by athletes at the top of their profession. We get absorbed in the speed and skill of the players on display. As we get older and have children of our own, most of us dream that one day it will be our own son strutting their stuff on the greatest stage of all.

There are millions of things that need to click for a budding young footballer to make it all the way to the top. If it was easy to make it, it wouldn't be the great game that it is.

I often get asked for advice from aspiring young kids and their parents. Of course, there are plenty of things I have experienced that may be of benefit to others but if I were to look back on my career and single out one thing that stood me in good stead it would be the environment in which I grew up. Without that, I could never have flourished into the player I was.

Of course, there are many different pathways to the top. Just because I made it doesn't mean that following my path to the letter is the only way to do it. I have, however, seen hundreds of players with huge potential drop out of the game for a variety of reasons.

I am one of five children. My brothers and sisters were all lightning fast. It's a genetic trait that courses through my family. I was born lucky in that respect. Sadly, muscle injuries is another common trait of my family! My Dad suffered as a player and my brothers and I have been plagued by them too. Bad luck in many ways but some would say it's the price you pay for being quick! Putting genetics aside, reaching the top of your profession on your own is nigh on impossible. Doing it with the support of others gives you a small chance. Having the support of all your family whilst being guided by a father like mine made it hard to fail.

My Dad, Leslie Terrence Owen. A professional footballer of 15 years plying his trade in the lower leagues for teams like Bradford City, Chester City, Port Vale, Rochdale and Cambridge United is the person, above anyone else, who I credit for moulding a young raw talent into the man I am today. Of course, I inherited my body off my parents but from the minute my Dad witnessed something about me that was different, he created an unwritten set of rules, an unbreakable bond and an understanding between us that hardly required a word to be spoken.

One of the most important roles of any parent is to create an environment for their children to flourish. In my case, my parents did just that. At an early age I was showing ability. At six, I was too young to join a football club so my Dad took me to mini-club where I'd mix it with other kids. He recalls that I used to loiter around the goal waiting for a chance and when it arrived, I'd side foot it into the corner. Not once, he says, did I ever lash at a ball in front of goal as a kid. It was always a calm finish focused on accuracy. At this point, I was showing signs of having a natural ability to play football and to score goals.

What followed was a decade of dedication and skill from my parents. My motivation was to please my Dad. He was, and still is, my hero. Putting in a good tackle, making a nice pass or scoring a great goal meant nothing in isolation. Taking a sneak peak behind the goal to where my Dad was standing and being acknowledged by a nod or a wink of approval meant the world to me. It wasn't all a bed of roses. On the odd occasion I played poorly or did something wrong he couldn't hide his disappointment. He would never shout. He just wouldn't talk to me. This wasn’t an intentional ploy by my dad, just his disappointment at my performance. It was the most painful thing he could do. I had let my best mate down and it hurt badly.

As a child, having my Dad there to watch me was my comfort blanket. He even changed jobs to one that he hated but he did it so there was more flexibility in his working hours. In other words, he didn't want to miss a single second of anything I did. I was trying to do the maths the other day. Since the age of seven I'd say I've played in around 1250 football matches. I think he has missed around six and they were only because we were skint and he couldn't afford to travel overseas when I was young.

The most amusing thing when I look back now is seeing my Dad during my PE lessons. If we were doing cricket, rugby, football or athletics, he would find a vantage point somewhere to watch me. We often did cross-country. I would be ambling along in 4th gear totally in my comfort zone when I would spot my Dad’s car at the side of the road. Believe me, I would be in front the next time he saw me when the finishing line was in sight! Not because I would be in trouble but because it was another chance to impress my Dad. I suspect many people reading that will disapprove of me feeling like I always needed to perform at my best given that football and other sports are meant to be fun, especially when played at a young age. I agree to a point. Remember, I have two brothers that went through the same process. Not making it as a footballer didn't scar them and my Dad is as proud of them as he is of me. What matters most to my parents is that their kids are happy and decent people. My Dad would never raise his voice, I can’t recall him ever shouting at me throughout my childhood. Neither would he ever punish me for playing poorly. I simply knew how much me playing well meant to him and I didn't ever want to disappoint.

It's at this point I disagree with certain aspects of modern society. I believe pressure is good. If you don't learn to cope with pressure at a young age then how are you supposed to deal with it later on in life? Earning a living, raising a family, performing in a highly pressurised job, these are all things that we need to be able to handle. How can people expect to do that if they’ve never been taught to? Of course, there are different levels of pressure and young children can't be expected to deal with everything that life may throw at them. But in my book there is nothing wrong with gradually cranking up the level of expectancy as they grow older.

Winning is good. Hurting when you lose is even better. These are emotions that should be experienced and tucked away in the back of your mind at an early age so that you are in no doubt how you want to feel in the future. It sounds awful but I’m pleased when I see my kids getting upset if they lose at something. It just proves that we are all born with a hunger, a will to win and a desire to please. It's such a shame that for many youngsters, those attributes are drained away from them throughout childhood, robbing them of vital attributes for later life. Dress it up how you like but life is a permanent challenge. I cringe when I hear parents saying it's the taking part that counts. Of course everyone should be encouraged to enjoy what they are doing. If it's not fun then they won't want to continue taking part and improving. That said, one thing I have learnt is that winning is a whole lot more fun than losing!
 


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Michael's Blog: 18th December 2012

Toss Of A Coin

Another weekend, another fresh set of misdemeanours. Unfortunately, it seems to be the norm in the Premiership this season. From diving to racism and most things in between, a negative vibe has cast a shadow over what, from a footballing point of view, has been a fantastic first half of the season.

Hot on the heels of last Sunday’s Manchester Derby, the incidents this weekend once again opened up our sport for yet more criticism from the people who love to point an accusing finger.

At The Britannia, Marouane Fellaini displayed the ugly side of football not once but three times. What was most surprising was that it seemed so out of character. The Premier League has marvelled at his performances this season and it’s a shame that his actions mean that, due to his ban, we won’t now get to see him over the festive period. Whilst I don't in anyway condone his seemingly persistent attack on our skipper, Ryan Shawcross, I admire the way his manager, David Moyes handled the situation. I'd also hazard a guess that the officials and management staff at Everton forcefully advised Fellaini to make a public apology and try to dampen the flames. It was the right course of action and given that the tv cameras had all three incidents covered in their entirety, there was nowhere for him to hide. From Fellaini's point of view there is nothing more frustrating than being held in the box while trying to make a run. In saying that, looking at the footage, Ryan hardly had a good grip of him and there is certainly no excuse for the actions that followed.

Up at St James' Park, another allegation was made of a racist comment. This time it was apparently directed at a Newcastle supporter by Manchester City's Aleksandar Kolarov and although, at this stage it remains an allegation, after a number of racist incidents over the last few months, it’s certainly something that football could do without.

The previous weekend, we had an incident that, for all the wrong reasons, hit the headlines worldwide. Due to the enormity of the game and the millions around the world watching it, the coin flung at Rio Ferdinand causing a cut above his eye would have felt like nothing compared to the 'dagger in the heart' kind of feeling that must surely have been felt by those charged with running our sport and indeed by everyone else who cares about the image of our game.

As with all of these things, it was interesting in the aftermath listening to people dissect what went on and of equal importance, what should be done, if anything, to stop the same thing happening in the future. First of all we had our PFA leader, Gordon Taylor, suggesting that some form of netting could be one option. We then had a wave of people saying Rio was to blame for celebrating his team’s goal too close to the City fans. On that note, when a team only has a couple of thousand fans in a narrow strip of seating behind the goal it's pretty difficult to celebrate beyond the throwing distance of the home fans!

I heard people saying after the game that it was only one mindless idiot that spoilt it but if we’re honest, we know that's not true. I watched the game as I was covering it for Match of the Day that evening. For starters, Wayne Rooney had half a dozen objects thrown at him each time he wandered over to take a corner and if you look at the video footage, there are coins raining in on Rio before one eventually struck him. We then had a fan run onto the pitch and I think it's safe to say he wasn't running on to give Rio a cuddle! There were echoes of the Chris Kirkland incident a month or so ago until Joe Hart stepped in to rescue what could have been a disastrous situation.

For the record, I thought Rio handled himself brilliantly. He even found time to play the whole incident down later that night via his Twitter feed. The lad that ran on also made a public apology which helped matters to some degree and Manchester City took the right stance too. But does this make everything alright? What have we learnt from this latest episode and what should be done in future to prevent it happening again?

First of all, I would scrap the idea about netting. Why punish all the decent fans who are in the vast majority, for the sake of a few who spoil things? Many fans already feel as though a divide between them and modern day players has never been bigger. Making fans feel like caged animals will hardly help matters. Instead, why can't we increase the amount of stewards and cameras around the ground to catch people in the act, just like we have on the field of play? Gone are the days you can get away with punching or kicking someone while the ball is at the other end of the pitch. The same should apply on the terraces.

Finally, what happened to people having a bit of respect for each other? Whether that’s players, supporters, officials or whoever. We all love the emotion and passion that football can evoke in us and as such we’ve all been caught up in the excitement of the moment. However, just because you’ve paid your money to watch a match it doesn't mean that you’re suddenly allowed to behave differently to the way you would normally. And just because you have a skill for kicking a ball about doesn't mean you can verbally or physically assault someone on the field of play.

We all want to keep the passion, the drama and the excitement of this wonderful game of football. In order to protect it, as players and fans, let's take more responsibility for our own actions and police our own game, before the authorities are forced to do it for us.

 

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Michael's Blog: 7th December 2012

Too Much Too Soon?

One topic that is never far from people's lips is “The next generation” After all, the kids of today will be the stars of tomorrow, representing our country in years to come. For this reason, it is essential that we, as a country, get it spot on when it comes to nurturing our young talent from raw potential to the finished article.

We have all heard the chorus of dissatisfaction many times before; it normally reaches fever pitch late on in June as our National team board the plane home, tail between their legs, while the Nation come to terms with a dose of reality as England bow out of another major tournament at the quarter final stage. A couple of weeks dissecting where it all went wrong follows, before most people come to the conclusion that we are technically not good enough to compete at the highest level and for that reason alone, our youth system and the coaches within it are to blame. Is this assumption fair?

There are many topics that are debated when it comes to considering the future of our National game. From the way we coach our kids to the amount of football we expose them to. I'm not one of those who think that every little detail is crucial to whether a child makes it or not. Kids are more adaptable than we give them credit for. If their boots aren't top of the range or the pitch isn't like a bowling green, that won't be the issue that prevents them from making the grade. I think that if a player is to make it to the top it's vitally important to have the fundamentals in place.

For the purpose of this blog, I'd like to mainly focus on the stresses and strains put on our youngsters during the transition from youth team player to first team regular.

Football has changed over the years. Life in general has. Long gone are the days when you get home from school, grab your ball and immediately head to the park knocking on as many doors as possible en route to conjure up the numbers for a 5-a-side. On my estate, it was a way of life. Fast forward to today and that same park is empty. Most parks I drive past are empty. You don't even see many kids playing in the street any more using the garage as a goal. So, what's the reason for this change?

First of all, the children of today have more choice. Computers, mobile phones, iPods and the rest were barely invented when I was a lad. TV was rubbish, you were lucky to see an hour of sport a week in those days and that was only if you were lucky enough to have your Dad let you stay up late to watch Match Of The Day! These days you can watch any sport at any time of the day and on virtually any device. These facts simply have to bring you to the conclusion that to some, it's as much fun staying in the house choosing what to play or watch next as opposed to getting out and actually taking part.

Secondly, the world has changed. My generation would be out and about all day, playing football down the park, riding our bikes or building dens in the local woods. As long as you were back for dinner at 7pm your Mum would be fine. It's my opinion that far less of that goes on nowadays and as a parent myself, I can understand why. I certainly wouldn't want my kids roaming the streets like I used to. But is this to the detriment of our future athletes? I think it has an effect. Taking part in these normal activities is where you learn. You can't be a good footballer and average at everything else. Running, jumping, throwing, catching and general skills that you put little thought into all add up when you take to the field. Coordination and balance are vital tools to possess in most sports and these skills should, sometimes unknowingly, be ingrained into us at an early age.

To combat these changes in behaviour, and to catch up with the nations currently leading the way, the FA, together with the football clubs have increased the amount of time that coaches can work with the kids at football clubs by roughly three times the amount than when I was at Liverpool's Academy. But is more necessarily better? Are young bodies able to cope with such demands? I know many people within the game who are concerned by the amount and more importantly the type of injuries that are occurring in our young players. Despite this, over time I am sure the clubs will find the right balance between work, rest and play and with the money our football clubs are investing into youth coaches and facilities, the results will be there for us all to see in the coming years.

For the select few who have the talent and mental strength to make it, what is the next step? What happens once you make the transition from academy prospect to first team squad member? Well, first of all you need to be managed well. The amount of football you are exposed to in 'the big league' is vital. Of course, it's easier to manage if you have a big squad full of quality players as there is no need for the manager to rely on a youngster week in week out to earn him the results he needs. This has been perfectly illustrated by Sir Alex Ferguson over the past 20 years with home grown talent such as Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, Butt, Neville to name just a few. For me, the most impressive part of these players respective careers is the longevity displayed. Surely that has been influenced by the way they have been managed from their academy days to today?

Only a couple of weeks ago I read with great interest an article that was written about me. Sir Alex had made some comments suggesting that I would have been a better player had I been managed more effectively in the early part of my career. I have to agree with most of what he said except the usage of the word 'better'. In my opinion, had I been managed differently I would have been at my best for longer as opposed to being a better player.

As a youngster, I was considered exceptional and in many ways, that was to my detriment. While I was playing every game available to me, there was another young kid in the Liverpool Academy called Steven Gerrard who was also showing huge potential. Unlike me, who was playing 80 odd games a year, Stevie just couldn't stay fit. I am convinced that this played to his advantage in the long run. His body just needed time to grow into itself and at that time it just couldn't take the stresses and strains of football. By contrast, I was a little pocket rocket that lapped up games. I couldn't get enough of it. Because of this, I would play a full season with Liverpool and then once the season was over, while everyone wrapped their best youngsters up to have a summer break, I was jetting off to play for England, sometimes playing 3 years above my age group at the highest level. This continued for a few years. I played week in week out without a break, for years.

When the time came to make my debut for Liverpool. I was mentally ready. I knew I had what it took to make it to the top and it was just a case of when Roy Evans saw fit to release the hand brake. I hit the ground running and won the Premier League Golden Boot in my first two seasons of first team football. Then, on a cold night in March ‘99 at Elland Road my body made me pay for pushing it to the limit too often. My hamstring snapped in two and it was at that point that my ability to perform unimpeded was finished. It didn't have to be that way. My rehabilitation was compromised due to our physio leaving the Club that summer and not being replaced until the following season and with no regular medical care during such a critical time, a routine injury was destined to restrict me for the rest of my career.

It is due to this factor (confirmed by many medical experts), that I have suffered multiple injuries since. People laugh when I say that I am not naturally injury prone. It is my genuine opinion that I have become injury prone due to overplaying at a young age, suffering an injury as a result and then having a dreadful rehabilitation at such a critical time. To back this up, I have done a little research!

I have looked at some of the British players who I consider to be among the best to have played in the Premier League and totalled each of their games up for club and country prior to their 24th birthday.

380 - Wayne Rooney
316 - Michael Owen
284 - Emile Heskey
261 - Jermaine Defoe
261 - Steven Gerrard
243 - Darren Bent
201 - Alan Shearer
184 - David Beckham
147 - Robbie Fowler
123 - Paul Scholes
112 - Ryan Giggs

Looking at the top of the chart, I would say that Rooney and Heskey were born to play early. Both had the physical strength to compete from a young age and both made an immediate impact. Lower down the list, in particular the players from Manchester United, are players who had less of a demanding schedule earlier in their career, which could explain the consistency in their performances over such a long period of time. Of course, over the past 20 years, Manchester United have had the luxury of rotating a fantastic squad of players whereas most other teams have had to rely so heavily on certain players that they play every minute of every game. This simply has to be a contributory factor when it comes to the likelihood of picking up injuries later on in a player’s career.

It's also apparent that myself and Ryan Giggs in particular, were blessed with raw pace as youngsters. This attribute, despite being a potent weapon, leaves you more vulnerable to muscle injuries. As with most things in life, the faster you do something, the more risks there are of things going wrong. We are all different shapes and sizes and one particular type of training or weight session won't suit everyone. Again, this is an important issue for a manager and his staff to recognise and adapting a programme to suit individual needs is a vital part of good management.

In my case, I certainly feel like I played 'Too Much Too Soon'. I cringe when I look back on a quote I came out with after Gerard Houllier 'rested' me for a game. "I will rest when I'm 40" I muttered in an interview. How wrong could I be? You can't force nature and nature has certainly forced me to “rest” far more than I would have wanted in the second half of my career. The problem is that as a young player you want to play every week and therefore it has to be the responsibility of the manager to take the decision to rest young players thereby giving them the best chance of a long and injury-free career.

Strangely, I enjoy looking back on my career thinking what might have been. There is no doubt I would have won more honours had I signed for Manchester United as a youngster. I am pretty confident I would have been at the height of my powers over a longer period of time too. But would I change anything if I could rewind the clock? Not a chance! The best years of my life were at Liverpool. Spells at Real Madrid, Newcastle, Manchester United and Stoke have given me a career to be proud of. Now it's time to finish it off in style!


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Michael's Blog :25th October 2012

Loyalty

In Football, 'loyalty' is a word that is commonly used in terraces, pubs, clubs and living rooms up and down the land. It's a word that, for the majority of fans, can rightly never be questioned about them. Most fans can look themselves in the mirror knowing that they have nailed their colours to the mast and it would be criminal to change. Come rain or shine, through thick and thin, they will be there for their team. And rightly so. If I were still a fan, I would be exactly the same. So why isn't it like that for footballers? To me, the answer is pretty simple:

In an ideal world it would be great if all of your team's players were born next to your club's stadium, they supported your team throughout their childhood, they made their debut and then spent every minute of their career playing for your team before retiring as a club legend. Well, for a very select few, that has happened. Steven Gerrard is a prime example. Generally speaking though, after progressing into 'the first team' at a club, a player will either improve and become a target for bigger and better teams or will struggle to attain the level required and be sold to a club lower down the ladder. Worse still, that player may have no takers and drop out of the game altogether. For obvious reasons, we seldom hear about these players and tend to focus on the players who 'make it'. It's plain and simple; no loyalty, no sentiment. If you are good enough you are sought after and if not, it's down to the job centre.

Bearing these factors in mind, I have always failed to see how football is different to any other business. If my brother worked for Tesco and there was an Asda closer to his house who offered him an extra £50 a week with better hours and better working conditions would you expect him to stay put? I certainly wouldn't and I would bet my bottom dollar that many people reading this blog have either done a similar thing or know somebody who has. We all want to better ourselves, there is no shame in that.

Another perfect illustration of my point is the current situation of Frankie Dettori. As many people know, I'm a keen Racing enthusiast. Over the weekend it was announced that my good friend Frankie Dettori is set to leave Godolphin, arguably the biggest superpower in Racing. Inevitably, in the future he will be riding against the Boys in Blue. I would imagine he will be asked to occasionally ride for Godolphin’s biggest rivals, Coolmore, just as he was in this year’s Arc De Triumph. People within the game have already questioned whether it would be morally correct to do such thing. Let's look at the facts:

At the start of the season Godolphin recruited two of the hottest properties around. Two young jockeys who look destined for the top. Increasingly, Frankie has been pushed to the side while the new kids on the block started snapping up what would normally be Frankie's rides. There is no doubt that Godolphin have shown loyalty towards Frankie. They have rewarded him handsomely for nearly two decades. On the flip side, he too has shown loyalty by sticking by them through thick and thin while his talent has helped them win virtually every big race the sport has to offer. So who is right in all of this? In my opinion, it is both. Godolphin has every right to employ who they like and, in this multi-million pound industry, they would be foolish not to snap up the next big talent before somebody else does. Now they have the talent, they can hardly ignore it and tell them to wait 5 years until Frankie retires. And what of Frankie?

From the outside it looks like he has been gently pushed to one side. So what now? Do people expect him to curl up, feel sorry for himself and retire? Not a chance. He has a life to live, an inner pride to service and a god given talent that is in demand. If that demand comes from his old rivals should he decline and accept mediocrity elsewhere for an easier life? I think not. After all, it was Godolphin who forced his hand by employing people to take his place.

My point is that footballers are human too. Their heads will get turned if a better job offer comes along and who can blame them? They all have different motivations, as do most people. I know some players that are hungry for medals, some who are hungry for money to support their family back home, some that like to feel loved and play for a certain manager, the list of reasons goes on.

It's nice to show loyalty. I am proud that my best mate has been my best mate since infant school. My wife lived 10 doors from my house throughout my childhood and we have always been together. That is the type of loyalty that I am proud to possess. Most people possess loyalty, but circumstances can often create the wrong impression, none more so than in football.

Despite the general consensus that footballers hold all of the power nowadays, there is the other side of the coin that people fail to see. If you are in demand, you have every right to accept a better contract, as make no mistake, a club wouldn't offer you that deal if they didn't think it would benefit them in the long run.

Putting the star players to one side for a minute, this is where people conveniently fail to see the bigger picture. For every Wayne Rooney there are a 100 average players scrapping to earn a living. Do clubs show any loyalty to them if they hardly contribute? I wouldn't waste your time thinking of the answer.

When I analyse my own career, many of the points I have touched upon above have occurred. In the early years I was very much in demand. Now I am approaching the final few years of my career the power shift has changed. Do I think I was disloyal in trying to stretch myself in pursuit of having the best career possible, playing for arguably 3 of the biggest 4 teams in the world, different cultures, playing under some great managers in every top stadium on the planet? No I do not!

On the flip side, do I think that Manchester United were disloyal towards me for not asking me to stay? Or after 89 caps and 40 goals for England do I feel my country should have been more loyal to me and at least called me to explain why I may never play for them again? Of course not. If a manager or club no longer feel you have a part to play, then sentiment or loyalty doesn't come into it.

There are many great examples of clubs showing no apparent loyalty to players despite a player giving their heart and soul for a club. I'm pretty certain it broke Robbie Fowler's heart when Gerrard Houllier told him he no longer wanted him at Liverpool. I'd also be surprised if David Beckham wanted to leave Manchester United. The list goes on. In fact, I'd confidently say that twice as many players are shipped out of a club when, if given the option, they would prefer to stay.

The recent transfer of Robin Van Persie is another example of a player’s loyalty being questioned. Whilst I’m sure it’s disappointing from an Arsenal fan's point of view, can anybody deny him his move? He will be playing in a better team, in front of more fans at a club with a huge tradition, will have more chance of winning something and will be rewarded handsomely for it. It's a no-brainer. I just don't buy into the 'We stuck by him while he was injured' argument which, I guess, is a way of saying he is indebted to the club? Rubbish. It was probably due to the fact that Arsene Wenger knew he was a world class player and low and behold, he turned out to be, bagging Arsenal dozens of goals and netting them £25m in their back pocket in the process. I'd hazard a guess to suggest that's why Arsene Wenger stuck by him and he has been proved right in a big way to the benefit of the club.

In my opinion, none of this is wrong. This isn't the club being disloyal. It's the harsh facts of the industry we are part of. The only 'wrong' part of it is that not a single word is said if the club get rid of a player who has no desire to leave compared to the uproar when a player moves to another club of his own accord.

It is hard to be loyal if it's not reciprocated, and in all walks of life that has proven to be the case time and time again. For those people who think footballers show no loyalty, just remember that there are always two sides to a story...

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Michael's Blog: 4th October 2012


They say that good things come to those who wait. In my case, that was certainly true this Summer when, after months of waiting, I finally put pen to paper confirming myself as a Stoke City player. Tony Pulis had shown an interest in me before I signed for Manchester United and despite having to wait three years, his desire to sign me never wavered. There are not many better feelings in life than to feel wanted and I have been made to feel that way by the manager, the players and the fans ever since I arrived. I can't wait to cement these relationships and enjoy a successful time at the Britannia.

 

During the Summer and while speculation mounted about the likely destination of my next club, my situation inevitably attracted plenty of opinion from within the game, media channels, not to mention general "football talk" amongst fans. Like any good debate, there were strong arguments for and against me signing for any given club. I'd say that the general view was  "If you can keep him fit then he'd be a good signing." Fair enough I thought.

 

Now, being a footballer, criticism has to be something you can take otherwise you're pretty much doomed before you even begin! However, one point annoyingly kept rearing its head and that point is the reason I'm currently writing this blog.

 

"Michael Owen hasn't got the passion anymore; he prefers his horses; he has other things in his life" was the cry.

 

Unfortunately, in this semi-real world that I've lived in for the past 15 years, perception is key. Everybody, including myself, automatically forms an opinion of someone having watched them do an interview on TV, having followed them on Twitter, or having read a story about them in the newspaper. In reality the image formed is very often wide of the mark.

 

So, I ask myself, why do people have this perception of me and how has that changed over the last few years? I think the answer is pretty simple but whether people have recently formed a lazy opinion of me or I have taken less and less interest in how I'm perceived to the outside world is open to debate. I am obviously not content with the current perception of me as I wouldn't be writing this blog if I was.

 

People evolve. Long gone are the days when I had little else in my life other than football. I'm now happily married and have the small task of bringing up four children! I have the most wonderful parents and have two brothers and two sisters with children of their own, all of whom play a major part in my life. In addition and as a result of my passions outside of football, I part own a Physiotherapy business and a Racing Stables among other business interests while employing over 50 people in the process. Inevitably, taking on these responsibilities requires a certain amount of time and effort but does that necessarily mean that I have taken my eye off the ball when it comes to plying my trade? Absolutely not!

 

As everyone knows, a footballer's career is short. At roughly 35 years of age, not even halfway through his life, a player can be faced with dropping out of the game he has played all his life and this inevitably leaves a huge gap to fill. This crossroads, I believe, is the most testing in a footballer's life. Some can come to terms with the change and go on to make a second successful career for themselves. Some go the other way and we've all heard the tragic stories of ex-players turning to alcohol, drugs, suffering from depression to name but a few of the common illnesses. From being in the spotlight, receiving adulation every week and generally being made to feel important - it stops in an instant.  And then what?

 

What I have done in recent years is to try and prepare myself for life after football and I’m not the only one to be thinking along these lines. Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand and Frankie Dettori have all ventured into owning Bars or Restaurants. The Williams sisters seem to be very busy off court while the likes of Ian Poulter, LeBron James, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have business interests outside of their respective sports, ranging from owning their own marketing agency to having their own clothing range. The last thing I want is to be told I'm no longer any use on the football field and then wonder what I'm going to do next. For sure I want to continue to provide for my family, to try and make sure they are financially secure for the rest of their lives but I also want to have a fulfilled life myself as opposed to looking back and feeling depressed at the life I used to live.

 

So, why did I get the urge to justify my actions?  Because it feels like a slur on my character and integrity to hear people questioning my desire. Nature has dictated that I am no longer the player I once was. It's got nothing to do with dedication, hunger or desire. Due to the nature of my injuries I have had to re-invent myself and the way I play. No longer can I sprint 100 times in a game at lightning speed and as a result I have had to adapt. But, you know what? I believe that my greatest achievement is to still be playing at the highest level after all the injuries I've suffered. I look at the Scholes' and Giggs' of this world and marvel at the way they have adapted their game over the years and stayed at the top as a consequence.

 

To reach the highs that I have been fortunate enough to reach in my career, one thing you cannot lack is desire. From the minute I could walk I've carried a football under my arm. I have loved the game of football as much as anyone. Nothing was handed to me. I had the desire to be the best and that certainly hasn't left me - and never will.

 

I believe that more players should start planning for their futures much earlier than they currently do. You are a long time retired in this game and I've lost count of the number of team mates that have no idea what they want to do once their career comes to an end.

 

To me, the last few years have felt like a no-win situation for me. Ignore the future and risk falling into the same trap as many that have gone before me. Or plan ahead and get accused of taking my eye off the ball.

 

When the time comes to hang up my boots I won't be sitting around wondering what to do next but until then, I am as hungry as I've ever been to succeed in the game that I love.
 

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Michael's Blog: 16th August 2012

   

It was about this time two weeks ago that I turned to my wife, Louise, while sat in our lounge at home watching the Olympics, and said 'Just you watch footballers get hammered once this is over'. And here we are two weeks on with the bandwagon in full flow.

Like most people, I was extremely proud that not only did London host arguably the greatest sporting event in history, but Team GB produced countless outstanding performances that captured the hearts of the Nation. It was a magical two weeks and I was almost depressed that it had to end.

So, as the dust now settles, I ask myself 'How is it that public opinion of football, and in particular, footballers, has slipped so far that it was simply inevitable that comparisons would be drawn up the minute the Olympic flame was extinguished?'

It's very easy to see why footballers are increasingly becoming the target of so much criticism. "Big wages", "Flash cars", "Fancy jewellery", "No passion" and "No loyalty" are common accusations we have to face. These accusations multiply ten-fold on the back of England winning the Rugby World Cup or Team GB taking all before them at the Olympics. But are these accusations justified?


I would agree that football is in real danger of losing touch with reality and footballers need to take some responsibility. But is this slide solely the fault of footballers? Sure, some footballers don't help themselves with the way they behave but as I've said many times, footballers are a reflection of society. They are normal people that just happen to have a certain talent. If you grabbed a group of lads between 17 - 35 years old I'm pretty certain you would get a cross section of weird and wonderful people. Family men, alcoholics, homosexuals, criminals, lads with a tough upbringing, guys with drug habits, the list goes on. The Beautiful Game contains all types. It concerns me that just because somebody can kick a bag of air about pretty well, the majority of people think they should
automatically be role models. It's ridiculous. I do appreciate that we as footballers should, at all times, be aware that we are being watched by millions of people on a regular basis but many people are simply not capable of being role models. Surely that is not their fault as nobody is born a role model, it can only evolve over time.

Over the last couple of days I have heard people commenting on the atmosphere during the Olympics, the spirit in which the events have been played and the sportsmanship displayed by those participating. In my opinion, unfair comparisons have been drawn between these and football matches.


Let's take it from the start. As children, a large percentage of the population are brought up supporting a certain team. If you support City, you are encouraged to dislike United. If your team wears Black and White, you can't have anything Red and White. The rivalry is ingrained in us throughout our childhood. With this in mind, can anybody seriously expect a football stadium to be anything but hostile to the opposing team and it's players? Our supporters want us to beat the opposing team and beat them well, preferably seeing them limping off the pitch at the end, full of bruises with their shoulders sagging and their heads bowed. Think about it, most people go to watch a game wanting one side or the other to win. How many true supporters of the game attend a football match with an impartial view?

People attending the Olympics were either true supporters of their chosen sport or just wanted to be part of the occasion. This created a totally different atmosphere at the Olympics, a carnival type atmosphere appreciative of great sport regardless of where the individual came from. As much as I admired Usain Bolt and his interaction with the crowd, can anybody seriously claim that a player should laugh and joke with opponents, cuddle spectators and pose for photos in a crowd of opposing fans? We are playing a totally different sport under totally different circumstances and conditions, so comparisons aren't realistic.

Football needs to improve it's image as a whole and the authorities are proactive in making this happen. Diving, feigning injury, abusing opposing players and showing a lack of respect to officials are just a few issues in a long list that need to be addressed. But let's not think everyone else have their houses in order. Rugby had the fake blood scandal, cricket had the match fixing episodes and even the Olympics had it's fair share of issues. Drug cheats, multiple badminton players trying to lose their matches and an athlete that walked off the track in the middle of a race claiming to be injured only to race and win Gold the following day. Quite rightly, these misdemeanours were not sensationalised as there were bigger, more important and positive stories to be told. Better still, not every athlete was tarnished with the same brush. I'm not sure this would have been the case had similar issues arisen in football. Football, and in particular, footballers, seem to be an easy target at present.

Having been in football all of my life, I know that there are many more good people in the game than bad. On Saturday, the greatest game on earth returns. It's time we all tried a little harder to make it beautiful once more.

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