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'One of the older lads looked over and said: What the hell is Michael Owen even doing in here?’

The former England and Liverpool star reflects on his troubled spell at Stoke City.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from Reboot: My Life, My Time by Michael Owen.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-stoke-city-v-manchester-united-britannia-stadium Stoke City's manager Tony Pulis speaks with Michael Owen (right). Source: Mike Egerton

From the start, it was really hard to read Tony Pulis in terms of how he wanted to use me. Of some encouragement to me was the fact that, during the negotiations to sign me, they had also signed Charlie Adam, an undeniably gifted footballer from Liverpool for around four million.

Not only did his signing represent some degree of ambition in a financial sense, but from a footballing perspective it led me to believe that maybe Tony  was of a mind to play more football than he had previously. I thought, maybe they want to be less direct?

This theory was further reinforced during my first conversations with Tony in person. Not only were there words, there was also action in the form of signings to back them up. I even felt reassured to be part of a new-look Stoke City that was perhaps committed to a new style of play – all of which would have suited me far more than being part of a team playing one dimensional and direct.

One day we did bleep tests to gauge our fitness. Fortunately I’d been doing loads of running up and down my driveway at home and I was pretty fit. I got really good results and could tell that Tony Pulis was surprised – to the extent that I think he was considering putting me straight into the first team.

On the Thursday before the next league game against Manchester City – my first at the club – we did a team shape. I was in it. I was thinking, oh my God, I’m starting here.

‘You’re fine to start aren’t you?’ Tony said, ‘you’re fit enough, yeah?’

‘Yeah, of course,’ I replied, ‘absolutely fine.’

The next day we did another team shape. This time I wasn’t in it. I was scratching my head when he approached me. At this point I could detect hesitancy in his eyes.

‘What do you think?’ he asked me, ‘should we just bring you off the bench?’

To this day I have no idea what changed his mind. It was such a significant moment that would inform the rest of my time at the club. He opted to leave me on the bench against City. Had I started, and done well, who knows? I could well have got in the groove and gone on to play five, ten or even 20 games that season.

But it didn’t happen. The team drew the game – always something of a result for a side like Stoke City against one of the big clubs – and hadn’t played too badly in the process.

Thereafter, Tony didn’t change the team much. Before I knew it, 10 or 15 games had gone by and I’d barely kicked a ball in earnest. In that situation, at the age I was at, the body starts seizing up a bit.

Looking back on these events, I don’t blame Tony and I actually liked him as a fella. It was, after all, his prerogative to pick whatever team he wanted. I thought I’d done well enough in training to warrant more of a chance. However, with retrospect, Tony’s training sessions didn’t exactly offer a player much in the way of chances to shine.

Pulis was certainly from Allardyce’s school of coaching ideology when it came to training sessions. There was a lot of standing around while he talked tactics.

Every time anyone got the ball, Pulis would be telling the lads what to do and where to play it. I felt that his approach created robotic players more than it did free spirits. Furthermore, it seemed to me that the only way to force yourself into the team was by your performance on the pitch.

MO

Beyond this, as much as Tony had been a successful manager and perhaps did want to try and improve the way they played, the harsh reality is that you just can’t do it with a couple of players in a squad.

One weak link – a right back that can’t pass the ball or a centre half who can’t control it – and the whole thing just breaks down. Thereafter, the team inevitably reverts to what it knows best. It was nobody’s fault – but I think this is what often happens at places like Stoke City.

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As time passed, I found myself in a vicious circle of strange bemusement. I wasn’t training enough and so, by extension, whenever I did come on as a sub for a few minutes, as I did on just four occasions before Christmas of 2012, I had less and less sharpness.

The strangest thing was – and as much as it was hard to shine in training – I still felt several steps ahead of the players around me in terms of understanding the game. Some of them might have equally felt the same way about my being at the club.

As we sat in the dressing room after training one day, one of the older lads looked over and said with what felt like a degree of reverence: ‘What the hell is Michael Owen even doing in here?’ He was joking and being semi-serious at the same time.

Regardless of what anyone thought, as weeks passed, I just sat on the bench while Peter Crouch and Jon Walters started up front. For some reason, Pulis just wouldn’t bring me on, even in obvious situations when we were 1-0 down and needing a goal. I kept asking myself the same question over and over again, how the hell can I not get into this team?

Dispirited, halfway through the season around Christmas I went to see Chief Executive Tony Scholes after asking Simon to arrange a meeting.

‘I think it might be better if I just handed in my notice now,’ I told him.

As far as I was concerned, it made more sense. I wasn’t getting a game. I didn’t want to be just hanging around the club with my pride shot to pieces. Because I always held myself in such high regard, I just couldn’t face skulking around the training ground, feeling like a spare part.

I just didn’t want to be in a situation whereby I lost all respect for myself. I was already embarrassed as it was and I just thought it would have been better to shake hands and walk away. But the club didn’t agree to it at the time.

‘Just see it through until the end of the season,’ Tony told me. Reluctantly, I hung on. And ironically, in January 2013, the chance to start finally came – in a third round FA Cup game away at Crystal Palace.

I’ve been lucky enough to play for great clubs and score goals in finals
and at major tournaments. If these moments combined to be the zenith of my career,  January 5th at Selhurst Park was single-handedly the absolute nadir.

stoke-city-v-crystal-palace-premier-league-bet365-stadium Stoke City chief executive Tony Scholes. Source: Dave Thompson

Let me start by saying that it’s one thing when someone else says that you’re a shadow of your former self. But it’s an entirely worse realisation when you yourself realise, beyond doubt, that you’re an imitation of what you once were.

That day, it happened. From the start, it was all so terrible. Nothing about my personal game was good: my touch, my passing, my fitness, my vision – I had nothing. Zero. I seemed like I’d aged five years since the beginning of the season. I felt like I was completely out of touch with football at a decent level.

On a personal level, I felt lost. From a team perspective, because of the way we played, I was lost too. The Stoke City dynamic was just so different from all of the teams I’d ever played in. I was receiving passes from angles that I’d never experienced in my life. Worst of all, I couldn’t physically do anything with these passes when they came my way. Everything crumbled out there, including my self-confidence.

As the game wore on, all I was thinking was, I don’t like this. I can’t do this… I wanted the pitch to swallow me up.

From the wilderness of personal mediocrity I found myself adrift in, at various points during that game I paused to consider the players around me – players who, not long previously, I might well have dismissed completely as being far below my level. Now, however, as I looked at these guys around me I thought, Michael, you just don’t belong here.

And I was right. I didn’t belong there. Almost overnight I’d dropped to a level far below Stoke City v Crystal Palace. When I came off after 52 minutes I thought, that’s it. My career is over. Even though I did play again, and scored my only goal for Stoke, I still knew that my time was up.

Reboot: My Life, My Time by Michael Owen is published by Reach Sport. More info here.

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