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Saturday, Sept. 3, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Place in England team key to Owen's move to Newcastle


LONDON -- In the end it was like an arranged marriage with one party delighted at their acquisition and the other given little alternative.

Christopher Davies

The father-in-law basked in the glory of giving his family what it wanted, with the feeling that by next summer we shall once again realize that money can't buy you love.

Michael Owen would not, in the ideal world, have signed with Newcastle United just before the transfer deadline last Wednesday.

Remarkably, the striker destined to become England's leading all-time goalscorer had only two options -- to stay at Real Madrid as a serial substitute or join one of the most underachieving clubs in the Premiership whose chairman, Freddy Shepherd, does not have a track record that stands up to close scrutiny.

Owen would rather be starting for Real than Newcastle but the Brazilian takeover (coach Wanderley Luxemburgo, strikers Ronaldo and Robinho plus midfielder Julio Baptista) meant the Englishman would be used only as an occasional substitute.

His preferred destination back home, Liverpool, would not match Newcastle's offer of £17 million which, unsurprisingly, Real was keen to accept.

While Liverpool did not want to pay double to bring Owen back to Anfield a year after selling him to Real for £8 million, the moneymen in Madrid saw doubling their initial investment in 12 months an excellent return.

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez said: "We tried until the very end to sign Michael.

In the end, it was impossible. When we spoke to Madrid, they only ever talked about £16 million or £17 million -- we couldn't spend that much money on a player we sold for £8 million.

"Real Madrid put a lot of pressure on Michael to go to Newcastle. I hoped Michael would say 'no' and then, maybe, we could do something."

But Owen said "I do" to Newcastle. At most it seems a marriage of convenience, though, 15,000 Geordies turned up as Owen was unveiled making it the biggest wedding ceremony ever in the club's history.

"I spoke to Liverpool and unfortunately that deal could not come off," said Owen unaware of his own-goal use of the word 'unfortunately' which confirmed Newcastle as, at best, second choice.

"That's life. All I can do is look to the future with Newcastle and hope to do really well in this black and white shirt."

There was another slip of the tongue from Owen -- a Freudian one perhaps -- when asked about his former England partner Alan Shearer, now in his last season as a Newcastle player and combining that with a coaching role.

"It will be an honor to play for him," said Owen, quickly correcting himself to say "with him" but given Shepherd's hair-trigger when it comes to sacking managers, Graeme Souness probably broke out in a cold sweat at his new striker's second glitch.

It was also unfortunate for Souness, who praised Owen for being "an honest lad," but forgot he was still miked-up as he moaned to Shepherd about the negative tone of the questioning after the press conference.

Owen's arrival will at least keep the pressure off Shepherd and Souness, the manager the chairman appointed after sacking Sir Bobby Robson, who led Newcastle to fourth, third and fifth in the Premiership in consecutive seasons.

Last season under Souness the club finished 14th, and when Owen signed the Magpies were in an uncomfortable 19th position without a league win so far.

A FEW YEARS ago Freddy Shepherd and majority shareholder Douglas Hall were victims of a classic tabloid sting when a reporter, claiming to be a rich Arab willing to invest in Newcastle, taped the chairman proclaiming that "Newcastle girls are all dogs . . . England is full of them" and "Alan Shearer is boring . . . we call him Mary Poppins."

However, fans are usually willing to forgive and forget as long as their team is winning and Newcastle expects the points to start to come with the arrival of Michael Owen.

At the moment, Shepherd is basking in the glory of giving the Geordie nation the club-record signing it so wanted, even though Newcastle was the only Premiership club in the race to sign the player who scored 118 goals in 216 Premiership appearances for Liverpool.

The happiest people (in no particular order) after the deal was completed were Real Madrid's accountant, Owen's bank manager, Shepherd, Souness and Newcastle supporters.

Last on the list is surely Owen, who in the end was left with nowhere else to go in order to play regular first-team football in a World Cup year.

The inescapable suspicion is that Owen signed not so much to play for Newcastle, but to keep match fit for England.

IRONICALLY, Michael Owen is suspended for Saturday's World Cup qualifying tie against Wales in Cardiff and his absence is likely to see the tactically conservative Sven-Goran Eriksson change formations.

England is expected to line up with Wayne Rooney as a lone striker after Eriksson discussed the proposed new tactic at a meeting with senior players last Tuesday night.

This would mean no place in the side for Tottenham striker Jermain Defoe, who had been expected to partner Rooney in attack in Owen's absence.

A five-man midfield would utilize David Beckham as the pivot, keeping play ticking over from a deep position, with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in more attacking roles.

Chelsea wingers Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips are expected to be the choices to operate on the flanks in a formation similar to that regularly deployed by Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge.

If the forthcoming games go as most predict, with England beating Wales, Northern Ireland (Sept. 7) and then taking three points off Austria at home (Oct. 8), it would set up a "winner takes all" showdown for the visit of Poland on Oct. 12, providing the Poles defeat Austria and Wales at home.

Poland would need to beat England to claim the automatic qualifying place, with England needing only to avoid defeat.

That is the most likely final match scenario, but football does not always work like that. There may yet be a banana skin awaiting England in the next six weeks and the two-leg playoffs will see some strong opposition.

Either Holland or the Czech Republic from Group One, Turkey, Greece or Denmark from Group Two, with Russia, France, Spain, Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia and Sweden also possibilities.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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