Michael Owen runs a finger along the back of his right leg where a hamstring used to be and retraces a career path that changed one fateful night in Leeds 13 years ago.
April 12, 1999. Owen’s star was in the ascendancy after that goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup and a successful second season for Liverpool when the 19-year-old fell to the turf at Elland Road.
‘You’ve got three hamstrings and one was just totally ruptured,’ he says, raising his leg off the sofa to demonstrate the point.
Rare breed: Michael Owen is two weeks away from full fitness - and that could strike fear into the hearts of Manchester City fans
‘It should be right the way down but one bit starts there, attaches there and the rest of it attaches there. I’ve got no hamstring in the middle. I’m basically running on two hamstrings on my right leg and three on the other.
‘That injury has probably changed my whole career. I’ve been compromised from the age of 19.
‘Every specialist says the same thing. It goes from one and then you compensate and it goes to the other one, and then to the groin, and then a double hernia and then on to this.’
Owen is referring to the thigh injury that has kept him out since early November. He has played only four games for Manchester United so far this season, but his three goals have kept up a very respectable strike rate of one in every three games (17 in 52 appearances, 34 of them off the bench) since Sir Alex Ferguson surprised many people by taking him to Old Trafford in 2009.
Owen arrived as a free agent that summer after circulating a brochure through his agents in an attempt to persuade clubs that he was not injury-prone.
Mersey master: Liverpool was the club where Michael Owen made his name
A torn hamstring in the 2010 Carling Cup final, similar to the one he suffered a decade earlier, and his current five-month lay-off might suggest otherwise.
Analysing Owen’s career has never been easy. Great? Without a doubt. He has played for some of the best clubs in the world, was voted European Footballer of the Year in 2001 and lies fourth in the list of England’s top goalscorers with 40, nine behind Sir Bobby Charlton.
But it could have been one of the greatest and Owen knows it.
‘If I’d still been in one piece from the World Cup and gone through my career, what type of player would I have been?’ he asks rhetorically. ‘No doubt about it, if I hadn’t had as many injuries I would have been the all-time leading scorer for England.
Goal getter: Owen scored over 150 goals for Liverpool including one in the FA Cup final against Arsenal
‘I look back on my career like everyone with, “What if this or what if that?”
‘There’s regret that maybe the medical care you’re getting now wasn’t available 14 years ago when I had my big injury. With United, I had it surgically repaired and it’s brand new. I wouldn’t even know I had an injury. Back then you just let it go.
You've got three hamstrings and mine was totally ruptured...that changed my whole career
‘Some people will think I was blighted with injuries and that’s a matter for them. I think to myself that I was exceptional at a young age but I paid the penalty for that.
‘I was 15 and playing in the Under 18s for England, I was seven and in the Under 11s at county level, I was playing above myself all the time.
‘When me and Steven Gerrard were breaking through at Liverpool he was phenomenal at 14 but he just couldn’t stay fit. That was the biggest blessing in disguise for him. He couldn’t play so he grew into his frame and all of a sudden he plays a lot more than me in the latter part of his career.
‘I was just ready and as fast as anything, and as mentally strong as anyone out there. I was ready-made to do it when I was young but now I’ve had to pay the price.
‘Bloody hell, when Gerard Houllier said that I couldn’t play every game I remember saying I’ll rest when I’m 30. He was probably right, wasn’t he! Part of me thinks I’ve been the luckiest person in the world as well. I’ve played for Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle, Man United, got 90-odd caps for England, 40-odd goals, don’t need to work again, got four great kids. I’m not that unlucky!
Making it on the world stage: Owen scored a wonder goal for England against Argentina as a teenager in 1998
‘I got a hat-trick in the Champions League, scored against Aston Villa in the Carling Cup final, the winner versus Manchester City and the last goal of the season (against Blackpool) when we won the league. There have been great moments, but this season has been a bloody nightmare with the injury.’
Owen is sat in the upstairs entertainment area of the Manor House Stables he co-owns with his business partner Andrew ‘Bert’ Black in Malpas, a picturesque village on the Cheshire border with Wales. It’s an idyllic setting, half an hour from
Northop where he lives with wife Louise and their young family.
A series of turns through the country lanes takes you to a long driveway, past the mile-and-a-quarter gallop and down to the house where trainer Tom Dascombe lives on site. Three dogs, German short-haired pointers, laze in the afternoon sun.
Among the racehorses poking their heads out from two sets of stables either side of a pristine lawn are Owen’s Ascot winner Brown Panther and Wayne Rooney’s horse Switcharooney.
Pain game: Owen has suffered with injuries throughout his career
Cuban Tash is owned by a syndicate of eight United players past and present, with Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, John O’Shea and Tom Cleverley among the teammates who have bought a stake in some of the 90 horses resident there.
Ferguson too is a keen follower of the sport.
No doubt about it, I would have been the all-time leading England scorer
On one side a hostel has been built to accommodate 10 stable lads among a staff of 40, next to a veterinary area complete with hydro pool.
‘There wouldn’t be too many yards in Europe or the world with their own facilities on site like that,’ says Dascombe. If only this kind of medical care had been available to Owen when he needed it most.
The 32-year-old United star and Black have invested millions, but Owen isn’t in it for the money.
He loves the sport; loves horses and the personal involvement. It’s why a striker renowned for his clinical, cold-blooded approach to scoring goals wept when Brown Panther won the King George V Stakes at Ascot in June.
‘This was like my son or a family member doing something pretty special,’ says Owen. ‘It almost gets you inside as opposed to a scream of joy or excitement, like winning something or scoring a goal.
‘I think people were surprised because they didn’t realise what goes into it.
‘Nobody knows what it takes to get that horse there. I own the mother and we’ve got all the brothers at home. From a few hours old we’ve seen him being brought into this world. The ups and downs.
Galacticos: Owen joined stars such as Ronaldo and David Beckham at Real Madrid
Breaking it in, putting the saddle on its back, chucking its jockey off, all the things you need to learn. And then to see it win on the grandest stage of all when I’ve had it as a pet.
‘People are spending millions and millions to get a Royal Ascot winner. But to breed one? What I did there was a million to one. It’s impossible to do. I’m obviously just very lucky.’
Horseracing has helped bring out the other side in Owen. He can express himself more easily these days than the intense young man who used to distrust the world and snap at his family. He regularly airs his opinions on Twitter.
‘I’ve formed more friends out of this place than I ever have in my football career because you’re in a tight bubble,’ says Owen, speaking to mark the launch of Manor House’s three-year partnership with Trinity Elite, a tax, accounting and wealth management specialist.
‘You’re scared what you say because different things get out, but here you can relax and meet like-minded people.
‘If you look at anyone at the top of their profession, there has to be something a little bit different. Some of the top musicians are quirky aren’t they, to say the least. You have to be driven, cold, hard and mentally tough as iron.
No fun on the Tyne: Owen suffered relegation with Newcastle
‘My missus thinks I’m a bit weird. I’m cold and don’t have many emotions really. When Brown Panther won I had a tear in my eye but I don’t think I’ve cried in about 20 years.
‘When I was at the top, I had more quirks than now. My wife thinks I’ve mellowed. I was tough to live with a few years ago, she tells me.
I've formed more friends in this sport than I ever have in my football career
‘On match days I was very on edge if there was anything said to me. She would go into a different room because I would spin things. I was so fired up and ready. I was a lot more volatile. Not physically, just in terms of what I said.
‘I thought I was reasonable but I’d take it out on the ones I love most. My mum used to get it in the neck as well. I never did that with my dad, maybe because I was trying to impress him most with my performances.
‘I was a bit sheltered in my early life because it’s very uncommon for someone so young to be in the spotlight. If you’re a goalscorer you have to have a certain attitude because not everyone can do it.
‘But there was no game face. That was me. I’m very serious. I’m a lot of things that people wouldn’t be able to understand.
‘You’re obviously conscious of being brash or big-headed but I always knew I was going to be a footballer when I was seven or eight. I didn’t just think I wanted to be one, I knew I was going to be one. Nothing ever surprised me really.
Surprise move: Owen joined Manchester United on a free transfer in 2009
‘A bit like when I scored the goal against Argentina. I came back and it’s like, “What did you expect me to do?” I expected to do that. If you don’t think you’re going to do something, then you’ll never do it.’
Owen is as sensitive about his horseracing commitments as he used to be about his injury record.The last thing he wants is to be seen as an old pro serving out his career and picking up a salary while pursuing an expensive interest outside the game.
‘When I retire from football, I won’t do any more or less than I do now,’ says Owen, who has already started his coaching badges. ‘If it (his business) washes its hands and we have a nice profit out of it, that’s fine, but football is where I want to stay for the rest of my career.
‘I never intended it to be this grand. Once my partner bought in, we’ve taken it to the next level and now it’s something pretty damn special, but it still hasn’t changed my life in many ways.
‘Footballers are criticised for not planning for the future and getting depressed because they’ve nothing to get up in the morning for.
Familiar scene: Owen scoring against Israel at Wembley in 2007
‘Then if you do this, the first question is, “Doesn’t this take your mind off football?” so you can’t win whatever you do. Either you’re a dumb footballer not thinking ahead or you’re not concentrating on football enough. I still probably spend five per cent of my time here, 20 per cent with my family and 60 per cent training.’
My missus thinks I’m a bit weird. I’m cold and don’t have many emotions really
Dascombe sees a different side to Owen. They talk every day and meet at the stables every couple of weeks.
‘He always gets very excited,’ says the trainer. ‘Embarrassingly excited, even if we have any little winner, whether he owns it or not.
‘We had a launch day here two years ago in March and our first run from here won a big race down at Lingfield. He was stood here watching it on Sky and he was dancing around, hugging me. He loves his horseracing. He is absolutely so passionate about it. He feels that they’re all his.’
Another regular sight: Owen is forced to leave the pitch during Manchester United's Champions League game with Otelul Galati in November
The United striker is two weeks away from full fitness. It means he could feasibly play in the Manchester derby on April 30, which should strike fear into the hearts of the City fans still haunted by his injury-time winner in the 4-3 classic at Old Trafford in September 2009.
Ferguson gave Owen a new one-year contract last summer. There is no guarantee of another.
‘I don’t think I’ll play until my late 30s like Giggsy,’ he says. ‘But I’d like to play more, probably for two or three years after this season.
‘I don’t wake up in the morning with sore knees or an achilles. It doesn’t take me half an hour to get out of bed as I hear from some older players. None of that resonates with me. When I get injured it’s sudden and a disaster for three or four months, never just a week.
Next step: Owen has moved into the world of horse racing and owns a number of horses including Brown Panther who won the King George V stakes at Royal Ascot
‘As long as I’m wanted at a good level I will play on, but part of that is in my hands and part isn’t. I’ll wait to see what the manager says on that.
ON THE FUTURE:
I want three more years as a player and then spend the rest of my career in football
‘If it happens, great, we’ll talk about it. If not, I’ll try to stay at a high level. I wouldn’t drop out of the Premier League. I want to stay at the top level or look at other markets, but I have four children and they’re settled in school and that’s something to weigh up.
‘There are a couple of possibilities when I’ve finished and media might interest me. Gary Neville is a breath of fresh air and has almost encouraged me to do it. I get excited when it’s half-time now because he’s so intelligent and brings something new to it.’
The options are there but it is clear Owen is not ready to be put out to grass.