Running To Stand Still

Michael Owen is back on the case, and as Jon Champion said on the box on Saturday week last, did anyone ever seriously doubt him? Yes, people certainly did. Radio City had a beautiful ad the following Thursday which featured two callers to their après match phone-in. The first lad insisted that it was time for Owen to pack his bags, we should sell him for £50 million. Thankfully this bloke is not in charge of sales at Anfield. “Yeah, he’s complete crap, we’re dying to be shot of him . . . £50 million to you mate.” The second caller denounced the first guy, demanding to know why Radio City gave airtime to such idiots. Idiots are the lifeblood of radio shows. How else do you think Deggsie Hatton gets a look-in? Still, if you want to know where that second man is from, just find the source of the cloud of smugness currently hanging over Liverpool.

The notion that Owen is merely a turbo-charged version of Speedy Gonzalez is one that is proving ridiculously hard to shake off. There’s some truth in the idea, typified by the manner in which he twice steamed passed the unfortunate Sun Jihai against Manchester City. Incidentally, I’m still waiting for the Speedy Gonzalez metaphor to catch on, especially since his diminutive form provides the ideal opportunity for “the fastest mouse in all of Mehico” quips (you’re dead – bad joke police). I watched Owen terrorising the Celtic defence in the Uefa Cup at Parkhead a few years back, and if you haven’t seen it, trust me when I say that it has to be seen to be believed. At one point, Jonathan Gould advanced casually from his goal to deal with a hopeful through ball, only to hastily belt the thing into row Z as the effervescent Owen hurtled from nowhere at a speed that Gould could never have anticipated. Defences did cotton on to this comet in their midst, but the fact that he kept on scoring should have alerted people to his many other goalscoring talents, but the speed merchant label had stuck, and no amount of winning cup finals single-handedly (with apologies to Stephane Henchoz) have enabled him to shake off that label.

Happily the Kop is a bit more understanding than the average radio phone-in, responding to each successive cack-footed effort on goal with a degree of sympathy that was heartening. In truth, we probably went a bit over-the-top. Poor Michael, we thought, it must be hard. Not half as hard as it was on us. Those misses hurt the fans more than the players could ever appreciate, with their three-piece suits made entirely out of wads of one hundred pound notes to cushion the blow. Still, we got our reward when he rattled in those goals against City, and now we can anticipate loadsa goals from the Boy Wonder.

The events of the last couple of weeks posed two great conundrums. The first: what is it with Owen? He’s such a cocky little sh . . . shish kebab most of the time. Watching him stroppily reject a photographer’s efforts to get him to pose during that documentary about him earlier in the year, you saw a man totally certain of his own worth. Yet every so often his form dips alarmingly. Remember his flailing performance against Crystal Palace two seasons ago, which led to the infamous baiting of Clinton Morrison (jeez, did he get his revenge for that one).

No matter what Michael says, he does doubt his ability at times, and it remains to be seen if this has long-term ramifications for the European Footballer of the Year. All the fuss over St Michael distracted folk from the second, more disquieting problem. Leaving the ground after our draw with Basel, my initial reaction was to be pretty upbeat, and the thumping of Spartak certainly justified that feeling. There were the usual complaints that we lack width, but we created so many chances that you have to wonder what a winger would have brought to the party. The goal they scored was a bit of a fluke, despite the quality finish. We hit the post three times, including Baros’ effort which seemed to hit the post and bar. It was a reasonably enjoyable European night, the Basel fans lighting up the grey September sky with their cheerful brand of well-organised spontaneity. There was also the ‘amusement’ to be derived from a colleague seated nearby who damned the Dutch referee for being a coward, “just like in Srebenica”. Ouch. As insults go, it beats the hell out of “you’re not fit to referee”. If we played Basel again we’d trash them out of sight and we’re still well placed to qualify for the next stage, so why worry?

The scores from around Europe gave us plenty of cause to worry. PSV Eindhoven 0 Arsenal 4! This was the Arsenal who previously couldn’t have got a result in Europe had they changed all the numbers on the roulette wheel at Monte Carlo to 35 black. Now they were walloping PSV, top of the Dutch league with six wins out of six, eighteen goals scored and one conceded. To make matters worse, their performance against Leeds was as complete as you are ever likely to see, walking through Leeds’ defence like Guderian’s panzers rumbling through the Ardennes, although Wenger’s French-accented outfit might not appreciate the simile.

It’s the ease at which they are doing it that’s so creepy. They haven’t been as imperious as the press have been letting on, needing a late winner to beat Bolton (brickbats to George at the ground for telling us that one had ended level) and their draw with West Ham looks bizarre given the Hammers start to the season. But when they play well, they swat teams aside with a disdain bordering on contempt. They’ve gotten two tricky away matches against the big(ger) guns out of the way with four points, while we’d be happy just not to be trashed at Stamford Bridge. Whatever team they play, whatever formation they deploy, they seem capable of flattening anybody, with football of a quality that would be signed en masse were the Harlem Globetrotters ever to take up the beautiful game. The hoopla surrounding Babigol’s hat-trick against City temporarily disguised the fact that we’ve had a superb start to the Premiership season, yet are still second. There’s no justice. We spend the best part of a decade flailing around in Man Ure’s wake, striving to see their dust, let along their heels. Now Arsenal have lifted the bar to Sergei Bubka-heights.

There’s still hope. We’ve used up a large slice of bad luck thus far – if teams got the results they truly deserved, we’d be at least level with Arsenal. The Gooners are bound to have a stinker at some point in the season, and we just have to be there to capitalise when that happens. But that’s all we’re doing at the moment. Running to stand still. Waiting for Arsenal. We could write a play with that title, and we wouldn’t be the least bit miffed if Arsenal never arrived.

Do you know Michael Owen? He is my cousin (bang! – dies)