The Twitter spat involving Michael Owen and Alan Shearer makes both former England frontmen look a bit stupid, writes Andy White.
The decision by Michael Owen’s PR team to serialise his new autobiography in the Daily Mirror has got to go down as one of the canniest managerial moves of the season so far.
One particular excerpt published last week, which takes a swipe at Alan Shearer, kicked off a Twitter spat between the former strike partners, significantly increasing the publicity surrounding Reboot: My Life, My Time.
Owen, once England’s brightest young star, now plies his trade as a pundit and is widely considered to be one of the worst in the business.
I don’t dislike the bloke – in fact, I was absolutely delighted when he joined Newcastle in 2005 – but when I’m after insightful analysis or charismatic footballing opinions, I’m looking elsewhere.
The 39-year-old will always be held in high esteem for what he achieved on the pitch, and rightly so. He has a Premier League title, a UEFA Cup, FA Cup and three League Cups to his name and scored over 200 goals in a club career that saw him represent Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle, Manchester United and Stoke City.
As a teenager he won back-to-back Premier League Golden Boots with Liverpool and his lightning pace combined with ruthless finishing quickly established him as England’s golden boy up top.
Aged 18, Owen announced himself on the international stage with a wonder goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. That was his third England goal and he went on to score another 37 for his country, including a hat-trick in England’s 5-1 thrashing of Germany in 2001, the year he won the Ballon D’or – a feat not matched by any British player since.
Despite being hamstrung by numerous injuries over the course of his career, the 1998 BBC Sports Personality of the Year’s goalscoring record for both club and country is excellent.
However, since hanging up his boots and becoming a pundit, Owen has come in for a fair amount of stick. He’s often described as boring, his voice branded monotonous, and when it comes to spouting utter nonsense over the mic, Owen is right up there with the best.
I won’t list the clangers he’s dropped live on air, those can be found elsewhere, but I’ll share my favourite with you: “What a shot! That’s completely unstoppable, but the keeper’s got to do better for me.” Absolute gold.
Don’t get me wrong, punditry must be tough. You’re operating in a live environment in front of an audience of millions. But I think we can all agree, Michael Owen was born to play football, not talk about it.
So, with his image dwindling somewhat in the public eye, Owen chose to write a second autobiography documenting his career and laying into some of the greats of the modern game.
Firmly in his crosshairs were Newcastle United and my boyhood hero, Alan Shearer. Writing about Shearer’s time as Toon boss and the club’s relegation from the Premier League in 2009, Owen said: “He was brought in at St. James’ Park as the saviour, the local boy.
It could have been a great story. But he failed. Newcastle United were relegated. Perhaps rather than examine his own shortcomings, it felt easier to blame Michael Owen.”
This really got Big Al’s blood boiling and when Owen, speaking about the latter part of his career, told BT Sport “For six or seven years I hated it. I couldn’t wait to retire,” Shearer couldn’t resist taking a pop.
Acting as any good keyboard warrior would, Shearer tweeted a video of the BT Sport interview, saying: “Yes Michael, we thought that also, whilst on £120k a week…”
Owen responded with: “Not sure you are as loyal to Newcastle as you make out mate. I distinctly remember you being inches away from signing for Liverpool after Sir Bobby Robson put you on the bench. You tried everything to get out.”
Airing your dirty laundry over Twitter? Grow up lads.
So, what’s the origin of the bad blood between them? It all seems to stem from the final day of the 2008/09 season.
Newcastle were away at Aston Villa and needed a result to avoid relegation. Owen was recovering from a groin injury and told Shearer that he wasn’t fully fit but volunteered to start on the bench.
This didn’t sit well with Big Al, who, perhaps down to information from a club physio, thought that Owen was bottling it and protecting himself so as not to jeopardise a summer move elsewhere.
As things transpired, Owen started as a sub and came on for the last 24 minutes but Newcastle were relegated following a 1-0 defeat.
Owen feels he was made a scapegoat by Shearer. But Shearer doesn’t need a scapegoat. When he took over with eight games to go the club was already in the bottom three and a laughing stock thanks to Joe Kinnear. Any Newcastle fan worth their salt knows the club weren’t relegated because of Alan Shearer or any shortcomings he may possess.
As a bald-headed number 9 myself, I’ve always idolised Shearer. To me, he epitomised the perfect frontman. He scored all kinds of goals – headers, free-kicks, penalties, screamers, tap-ins – led the line with determination and aggression and had an inspiring effect on his team mates.
If he harbours resentment towards Owen for asking to be on the bench for such an important match I can understand why. Owen’s attitude in those circumstances was so contrary to his.
Shearer ran through brick walls for the Toon time and again, his commitment to the club was unparalleled (despite Owen’s claim he wanted out under Sir Bobby Robson) and he would have started that game with a torn hamstring and a leg in plaster.
When he hears Owen admit how he hated the final years of his career, that just rubs salt into the wounds. His deep personal connection to the club makes it very difficult for him (and me) to stomach the fact that Owen was seemingly unwilling to put his body on the line to save them from the drop, especially given he was the club’s top earner picking up a weekly wage five times that of the national average annual income.
However, I do sympathise with Owen and his injury woes, having twice broken my leg and been sidelined for lengthy periods. He is adamant that he wasn’t fit enough to start against Villa and that he knows his body best, which is a fair point.
Speaking to talkSPORT this week, Owen said: “Football is about being a hero and scoring goals… If I could have scored a goal that kept Newcastle up, I would be absolutely buzzing!
“Why wouldn’t I want to play?”
Again, a fair point, but as he himself admits, he’d lost his love of the game by this point in his career, which does make me question just how willing he was to put his body on the line for a club he didn’t really want to be at.
We’ll never really know whether Owen could have started that game. Regardless, I don’t hold him responsible for the Magpies’ relegation and I doubt that Shearer truly does either.
But Shearer clearly does feel let down by his former friend, which I can empathise with. While in charge of an amateur side, my joint-manager and one of my best mates missed a title-deciding final day of the season to go out with his Mrs.
We didn’t get the result we needed, finished second, and for some time I felt great animosity towards said friend. I didn’t blame him for our failures – we could and should have won the game without him – but I did feel angry that he’d deserted us at such a crucial moment.
A day out with the Mrs is clearly very different to an injury but the principle is the same – how much are you willing to sacrifice for the club you play for?
It still hurts that we didn’t win the title that day but bridges were built and the friendship was repaired. Time will tell whether Owen and Shearer, who were once good mates, can do the same but given this issue has been driving a wedge between them for the past ten years, it seems a little unlikely.
The whole Twitter episode has sparked some great news coverage and discussion online. It’s proved an entertaining aside during the international break but the cynical part of me says Owen’s decision to dredge-up the beef is a well thought out ploy to help drive sales of Reboot.
In the book he accuses Newcastle of being deluded as to how big a club they are. It’s ironic then that he’s using them as a vehicle for increasing publicity for the autobiography.
Amusing as it may be, I ultimately think it’s a bit sad to see two grown men throwing shade at each other in such a public manner, but such is the nature of the digital age. The Twitter spat hasn’t covered either of them in glory – they just look petty and childish.
People will undoubtedly take sides based on what they’ve read and where their allegiances lie. As a player, I’d take Shearer over Owen every day of the week but as to who’s in the right about that fateful day at Villa Park, I’m sitting on the fence with Gary Lineker… *removes creosote from arse.