Hard life in the Three Lions’ den

Interviewing Michael Owen, in Dublin last Sunday, the talk was always going to be dominated by his old club, Liverpool, and their latest quest for European glory, writes Liam Mackey.

Hard life in the Three Lions’ den

And that was even before Mo Salah worked his magic against Roma, at Anfield.

But, not least because Owen’s face still retains the boyish appearance of yesteryear, no conversation with him would be complete without reference to World Cups past and the looming resumption of England’s quest, if not for glory, then at least to avoid ignominy, in Russia.

1998, in France, was the World Cup at which the then 18-year-old Owen burst into global football consciousness, with a scorching goal against Argentina, in St Etienne.

But, in keeping with the English experience at big tournaments since 1966, that personal high gave way to collective disappointment, as David Beckham was sent off and the Three Lions went on to lose the game in the familiar manner, downed in a penalty shoot-out.

Two years previously, comedians Baddiel and Skinner had been singing about “30 years of hurt”. Now, that pain is not only running at 52 years, but England have to climb the mountain again, from the base camp of their most humbling experience yet on one of football’s two greatest stages, that shock, 2-1 defeat to Iceland, which marked their abject exit from Euro 2016.

It was in the aftermath of that game that Harry Redknapp, the manager who might have been King, said the only explanation he could come up with for England’s habit of cruising through qualifying, only to repeatedly blow up in finals, was the accumulated psychological baggage — comprised of equal parts excessive expectation and ferocious hostility — which each successive generation of players has had to carry.

Michael Owen in Dublin last week
Michael Owen in Dublin last week

And so it was interesting, last week, to not only hear a former star player agree with that analysis, but also offer some sobering insights into just how intolerably pressurised life can be inside the Three Lions’ den.

“That Iceland game was the time when it became crystal clear to me,” Owen said.

“The same people that were doing well in the Premier League were trying to put their foot down to control the ball — which they can do with their eyes closed — and they were missing the ball. I remember two or three occasions, within five minutes, a pass going into someone and it went under their foot. And that is not anything other than nerves.”

Although himself one of the outstanding strikers of his generation, Owen vividly remembers how even seasoned pros could crumble under the pressure of wearing the white shirt.

“I’ve sat at the back of the coach, after an international, and I’ve heard people saying ‘Oh God, that’s me getting a 5 in the paper tomorrow’ or ‘that’ll be me with a turnip on my head’.

"Because we’ve been ridiculed for years and years, everyone’s almost petrified of the backlash. They’re more concerned about ‘please, let me not be the one’, because they’ve seen that, at every single tournament, we have to have a scapegoat.

"If it’s someone missing a penalty or someone getting sent off, someone’s got to take the wrath of the nation. We’ve seen it, we’ve grown up with it. And I’ve felt it.

I’ve been taking a penalty in a bloody shoot-out in a World Cup, in a European Championships, and I’m not even thinking of getting through, I’m just thinking, ‘please don’t let it be me that’s gonna be the one’.

”I think the pressure in the late ’90s/early two thousands was when it was at its peak with our press. And you know how powerful the press can be.

“Back in the day, it was probably even more the case. I remember everyone dreading being the one put up for the press conference. We’re going into a qualifier and, on the Friday, it would be the captain and another person (to face the media) and you’d be saying a prayer that it wouldn’t be you.

"You’d be going into the lion’s den. They’d be grilling you and you’d be petrified of saying anything that would end up all over the papers. It was just horrible between the press and the players, an awful atmosphere at the time.”

Although he reckons that having a reliable goalscorer, like Harry Kane, will always give a team “a puncher’s chance”, Owen isn’t holding out much hope that Gareth Southgate and his boys will be able to do a great deal to change the historical narrative in a couple of months’ time.

“Not really. The only thing that’s positive is the draw. In theory, we should be in the last-eight, because we’ve had a lucky draw, but, apart from that, I don’t really see why we should win it this year, as opposed to any other year. We’re a decent team, but I wouldn’t say this team is better than any of the others.”

And so, as a footballer turned horse-racing man, who would be Michael Owen’s tip for the top in Russia?

”I’ve been thinking Germany, for the last few months, but I was looking down the squad lists the other day and I’d forgotten how good Brazil are. Jesus! Some of their players are unbelievable.

"The only other team I look at and think have it, player for player, is Belgium. But at the World Cup, a bit like Real Madrid in the Champions League, that badge counts for so much in the later stages. Why? Because of the belief it gives your own players and the respect it demands from the opposition.

"Liverpool have got a badge. Madrid have got a badge. Germany have got a badge. Brazil have got a badge. You see that yellow kit and you think, ‘World Cup winners’.

“Like I say, Belgium have amazingly talented players, but when the going gets tough — because it always does, at some point in the competition — that pure belief will come through.

"So, who will it be? You get asked all the time and you can’t be saying Germany for the last few months and then go, ‘now I’m saying Brazil’. So I’ll say Belgium (laughs).”

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