While promoting his memoirs, Michael Owen has revealed the alleged bullying he endured as a teenage Premiership star. TheCity.ie’s Paul Caffrey examines the longstanding culture of bullying in professional football — often misdescribed as ‘character building’ — and asks if this has any place in the Beautiful Game in 2020
During a 16-year playing career that’s always divided opinion among fans, Michael Owen was generally a reserved character who preferred to let his talent do the talking.
But the former striker — who scored 158 goals for Liverpool and 40 goals for England between 1997 and 2013 — has been opening up a lot lately.
Ever since releasing his controversial tell-all memoirs eight months ago — in which he recalls being constantly “picked on” by Kevin Keegan as a young footballer in his late teens and early 20s — it seems Owen is never out of the sports headlines.
As if his no-holds-barred book Michael Owen: Reboot (an excellent read in my opinion) isn’t packed with enough revelations, Owen has followed up in recent weeks with further harrowing accounts from his early career.
Last month, speaking on Sky Sports, Owen described how, as an 18-year-old just back from his first World Cup, the much more physically imposing (and twice his age) Stuart Pearce had threatened him in a shocking fashion.
Owen told the sports channel that the encounter with a 36-year-old Pearce, just before Owen’s Liverpool kicked off against Pearce’s Newcastle on August 30, 1998, went as follows:
“Straightaway it was ‘you’re playing against me today son’ and it was serious talking about legs breaking and everything…. He tried to frighten me a little bit.”
Owen still managed to deliver a first-half hat-trick of goals, with Liverpool winning 4-1 at St James’ Park that day.
But the experience, that he spoke about publicly for the first time in recent weeks, clearly stayed with him.
Pearce, who describes himself as a “nutter” on his own Twitter, doesn’t appear to have answered those allegations yet.
The blurb for Owen’s weighty 368-page offering, that’s become one of the most talked about football books of recent years, says the ex-striker “felt he had no real voice — until now”.
Recalling his torment after Kevin Keegan took over as England manager in 1999, the married father-of-four, now 40, writes:
“With hindsight, I felt like I was being picked on all the time.”
Keegan’s unsuccessful spell as England manager was marked by a disastrous performance at Euro 2000.
Owen was 19 when Keegan took charge. Owen writes that as he entered the 2000/2001 season with Liverpool, he was “physically reasonably fit, but still mentally scarred by the happenings of Euro 2000 under Kevin Keegan.”
He says Keegan “was doing exactly the opposite” of what he was generally known for — supporting and motivating players — and that his Reds and England team-mate Steven Gerrard felt the same at the time.
For example, Owen recalls being berated by Keegan in front of other players at half-time during a Euro 2000 qualifier against Portugal — even though England were 2-0 up.
Keegan then subbed him — even though he’d appeared to back Owen by starting him in the first place. Owen recalls thinking to himself at the time, “what is going on here?” He adds:
“I was getting so many mixed messages, and I wasn’t buying any of them.”
Keegan, who finished his management career at Newcastle United in 2008, doesn’t appear to have answered those allegations yet.
However, Keegan was complimentary about Owen when interviewed by Newcastle website Chronicle Live last September, saying:
“Michael was a big match player. Look at the goals he scored when he was younger in particular. He was 17/18. He was unbelievable, like a 35-year-old guy in his head.”
Unfortunately, there’s a longstanding culture of bullying in English football that’s rarely discussed openly.
It’s based on an outdated notion that young players need to be “hammered”, so to speak, to prepare them for the physical battles of the game.
Despite increased awareness about the mental health of young people, and players now being encouraged to think for themselves about playing strategies, allegations of bullying remain rife within the Beautiful Game.
But surely, no form of bullying should have any place in football in 2020.
As former Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan told MailOnline last year: “Young players often learn more from honey than vinegar.”
Former Manchester City player David White told that website:
“If your youngsters are going in scared, you are not creating good footballers. There has to be a totally different attitude.”
But it seems that it may be a neverending vicious cycle handed down from one generation to the next.
In his own autobiography, GoodFella, Norwich City’s Craig Bellamy recalls being reduced to tears at the end of each day’s training as a young player in the 1990s, due to humiliation by older team-mates. Bellamy writes:
“I think the rest of the players saw it as character-building.”
Then in January of last year, Bellamy was forced to deny being a bully himself in his role as Under-18s coach at Cardiff City when the parents of two trainees came forward with detailed testimony.
Months later, an internal inquiry found the club had subjected teenage players to “an unacceptable coaching environment”.
Bellamy then apologised — though not unequivocally — to the players and parents concerned.
In response to the findings of the investigation — insisting that he still “categorically denied” all allegations against him personally — Bellamy said last October: “My only aim was to produce winners… If I inadvertently offended anyone then I am truly sorry.
“I have probably relied too much on my own life experiences playing under some of the best coaches in the world, rather than assessing the sensitivities of a new generation of players.”
However, the Welshman had reportedly remarked a few years before, tellingly:
“My biggest concern with most kids now is that they don’t have that edge to want to be better than their mate. Football takes such good care of you now at every age group that some of the hunger’s gone.”
Bellamy, 40, since left Cardiff City to coach Under-21s at Belgian side Anderlecht.
Relatively small in stature for a footballer, standing at 5’6, Michael Owen always admirably used his exceptional speed on the pitch — rather than brute strength — to beat the opposition and deliver goal after goal both at club and international level.
His astounding wonder goal against Argentina at France ’98 saw the then 18-year-old compared to Pelé for effortlessly beating Argentina’s defence with a 25-step solo run on goal at 16 minutes.
That goal at Saint-Étienne on June 30, 1998 was “the most significant” moment of his whole playing career, Owen writes in Reboot, adding:
“It just happened that I was ready to be the best I could possibly be at a young age. I’d never want to change anything.”
In The Day England Played Argentina, a documentary screened by the BBC in 1999 and unearthed on VHS by TheCity.ie, seasoned TV sports presenter Des Lynam says that goal “proved the boy had nerves of steel and it made him a superstar”.
Owen was just 17 when he began his professional career at Liverpool in 1997. Within 12 months he’d got the call up for England and was being compared to world all-time greats like Pelé.
No doubt, his considerable achievements must have attracted some jealousy or resentment from other more seasoned players. Owen reached the peak of his career between the ages of 18 and 22 and won the Ballon D’Or, one of football’s most prestigious awards.
While in Owen’s case, it appears he was headstrong enough not to let any harassment affect his playing, bullying has sadly forced other promising young players to quit the game at professional level.
As former Manchester City player Gordon Smith told Love Sport Radio last December: “We’ve lost a lot of good players over the years because they couldn’t handle being treated in that manner.
“It has changed a lot, people are trying to make it better now.
“A lot of people who are old school still feel you have to be ‘hard’.
“But we should have a bit more psychological training so coaches can realise that it can have a detrimental effect on people.”
Owen finished his playing career with Stoke City in 2013 and is now a respected pundit on the likes of ESPN, Sky Sports and BT Sport.
- Michael Owen: Reboot is published by Reach Sport and is available to buy on Amazon as an ebook or in printed format.