As the last century drew to a close, the dream of becoming a Premier League footballer still felt achievable. With players like Jason Wilcox, Gary Flitcroft and Paul Merson still gracing Match of the Day; you could relate to the people who had made it. And, for those of us still at school in 1999, there was only one player who could offer the dream ticket to the big time: Michael Owen.
Back then, Owen had the world at his feet. Fresh from his breakout season at Liverpool and 'that' goal against Argentina, he was the player that people pretended to be on the playground. To my not yet teenage mind it seemed like fate, therefore, when Michael Owen’s Soccer Skills appeared on our TV screens. Here was the show that I had been waiting for. The ultimate guide to making it as a professional footballer.
Sat here, writing this today, it’s abundantly clear that this didn’t work out. But now, over twenty years on, how many of Owen’s teachings have passed the test of time?
Once you manage to make it beyond the opening titles — strangely reminiscent of the football lab scene from Mike Bassett — it doesn’t take you long to find out. Owen, stood in the centre circle with a chalk board, asks one of the great philosophical questions. “Hey you”, throwing some chalk at one of the aspiring footballers sat in front of him, “are footballers born or made?”. Unfortunately, in a recurring theme for the series, Owen doesn’t know. Nor do any of the children surrounding him; fulfilling their supporting roles early on.
For Owen, clearly firmly under the notion that it is his natural ability that has set him out from his peers, becoming a professional footballer isn’t important. Instead all he has to offer is the knowledge that “practice makes perfect” and that you will “never stop learning". That’s all well and good Michael, but what about those of us with our eyes firmly on the prize?
Fortunately, once the introductions are over, Owen promises to teach us “everything you need to know to become the complete player". Confidence restored, I watch on ready to learn more; though I can’t say I’m not disheartened that he offers tips of heading and passing rather than the intricacies of playing the false nine.
With an unfortunate irony considering that his hamstrings wouldn’t follow him into the new Millennium, Owen reminds us of the need to warm up. He solemnly warns that failing to even stretch your legs “increases the risk of injury”. It’s no wonder that he had so many problems, watching this back, judging by the state of the warm up. A steady jog across the pitch followed by some knees up and heel flicks, it’s the start of every PE lesson you ever had.
From there, Owen leads us through a series of lessons that will help you to become the complete player; though I can’t say much for his teaching style.
Each drill starts the same: a lightning quick demonstration and “off you go kids”. Owen then meanders through the kids offering meaningless platitudes with his trademark charisma. “That’s the best one yet”, he says to no one in particular several times during each drill. Walking pace step overs, heading the ball to yourself, booting the ball into an empty goal; inverting the pyramid this is not.
As you watch clips of the young players not being as good as Michael Owen, you are treated to some of the most stilted and painful commentary imaginable. With a script clearly written by Alan Partridge, he takes us through every possible cliché you could have come across. “Cool as a cucumber", shots into “the onion bag”, something to “tell your grandchildren about”. He doesn’t have a wide literary base to draw on.
There is a moment, however, when Owen comes alive during every drill. It’s the time that he gets to show off. Gleeful nutmegs, laughable ball steals and winning at head tennis; there is no opportunity missed to show the children that they aren’t as good as him. And, ignoring the purpose of the show, that they never will be.
Unfortunately, this brings the ire of Neville Southall. The Welsh legend, brought in to handle the goalkeeping aspects of the training, is a very effective coach. Useful advice about body shape, balance and positioning pour forth from the former Everton number one. You can genuinely see the confidence and performance of the token child goalie improving. But when Owen decides to undermine all his teaching by delightedly and repeatedly lobbing the teenager, Southall decides he’s had enough. “Well done, he’s thirteen", he chides before, I assume, packing up his gloves and storming off. Not that Owen’s aware of any of this; he’s too busy celebrating his goal.
Presumably for the sake of the children, the director decides to move into one of the lifestyle segments rather than extend the awkwardness any longer. These show Owen, in his own words, “at work, rest and play". My cup runneth over. You begin to realise that his BT Sport punditry is the high watermark of his media career.
Relaxing with a good book or film are not for young Michael; instead, he likes any game that he can show off, what he’d like to call, his natural competitiveness. Unfortunately, whether it’s golf or snooker, he comes across as an insufferable man-child still needing external validation; like 50p from his dad. Possibly the most excruciating part of the segment is when he goes fishing. With his first cast, would you believe it, he manages to catch a red gurnard. Or a “crazy red fish” as Owen calls it. His relaxation comes to an abrupt end, however, when he encounters the most feared of things: an autograph hunter. “A boat flew past”, mixing his methods of transport, “and managed to notice me”. Ever the benevolent gentlemen, he rewards the sailor with an autograph before complaining that he “thought he was safe” from the general public. Warm hearted indeed.
“I hope after watching this video, you’ve learnt how to become a better player”, so ends our odyssey through the teachings of Owen. And his lesson is pretty simple. If you want to be a professional footballer, be as good as Owen. And if you’re not, be prepared to have your face rubbed in it by people who are.
And here it is, if you can stand the awkwardness and Owen’s unbridled glee as he repeatedly scores against a 13-year-old and celebrates like he’s facing prime Gianluigi Buffon. Neville Southall seems nice though.
Words by Tom Clements
Illustration by Arley Byrne