'I just wanted to kick everyone': Michael Owen on Man United rivalry

‘I was in a trance, I just wanted to kick everyone’: Even ice-cold stars like Michael Owen knows what the Liverpool and Manchester United rivalry does to a player

  • Michael Owen said he got very fired up for the rivalry with Manchester United
  • He got a red card when he went in late on Ronny Jonsen in his early career
  • Owen believes Manchester United will struggle to win the league this season

This game gets to them all. Michael Owen was a teenage sensation when he realised that. 

His first trip to Old Trafford on Good Friday 1998 was the culmination of a lifetime’s dream. Or, to put it another way, the opportunity to settle a childhood grudge nursed over many years as a schoolboy Liverpool player.

‘When I grew up United were the bee’s knees, they were the team everybody wanted to beat because they were the best, so I had that ingrained fight in me,’ says Owen. 

Michael Owen looks back on his early career and the bitter rivalry with Manchester United

He remembers that breakthrough season, as an 18-year-old, in the run-up to the 1998 World Cup finals, where he would become a global star, the start of a career which would see him win the Ballon d’Or in 2001. 

Back then he had more parochial issues on his mind. ‘I thought: “Right, when I get into this first team I’m going to show them. I want to be one of the men to help Liverpool overtake them”.’

The call to arms came at Old Trafford that Easter. Pele was in attendance, opening Manchester United’s museum, and a media scrum was gathering around the Brazilian legend, asking him what he made of the new English wunderkind.

So all eyes were on Owen. Liverpool had lost 3-1 to United at Anfield earlier in the season, and maybe that contributed to his state of mind. ‘I remember being in a daze before that game. I always wanted to kick Peter Schmeichel for some reason! I got half a chance and missed him, but I got a yellow card.’

Then came the few minutes that would define his game. He scored on 37 minutes, a classic of the Owen genre, running on to a ball in behind the defenders, with Gary Pallister the victim, misjudging the sheer acceleration of the teenager in his prime.

The dink over Schmeichel was also pure Owen. Three months later in St Etienne he would do something similar and the whole world would sit up and take notice.

The two teams have played out many feisty games, and are looking forward to another

Three minutes later though Owen’s world would come crashing down. ‘I went in late on Ronny Jonsen, a really bad tackle and got sent off.’ The game was only 40 minutes old. ‘Of the whole part of the day, the bit I remember most was being in the shower and being a little bit emotional, thinking I had let everyone down, even though I’d just scored.’

Owen describes the disappointment overwhelming him as he sat alone in the dressing room and, as the adrenalin subsided, coming down from a self-induced high or coming out of a trance-like state.

‘After five minutes sat there on my own I felt almost as if my shoulders just dropped and I felt as if I’d just come back to life.

‘I’d built myself up so much just to play and win and score and kick everyone and score as much as I could that I was just in a real trance, in a way. I just remember falling back down to earth and thinking: “That’s not a state of mind you want to ever be in again.”

The game ended 1-1 without him and he added: ‘I think I changed after that. It was the only time I got sent off in my professional career and it made me realise that in these big games you need fire in your belly but ice cold in your brain. It was a big turning point for me.

‘When the fans are there, you’re the one that has to stay in control. It’s all right for a fan to scream his head off but as a player you have that fan mentality inside you but you have to curtail those frustrations and years of hurt.’

Owen says that in his early days, he ‘just wanted to kick everyone’ but changed later on

Referee Tierney is a safe pair of hands – CHRIS FOY

As a ref you look forward to the appointments email that drops in your inbox on a Monday afternoon, and there’s no doubt Paul Tierney will have been excited to see his name next to Liverpool versus Manchester United.

It’s a big match, it’s always been a big match, it’s first against third in the Premier League.

Once you know the game you’ve been appointed to, you can start to plan and prepare, and keep your focus. Control the controllable.

Tierney is a reliable pair of hands and has been refereeing well. He deserves this opportunity. 

Of course, there will be no fans today but, with United top and three points in front of Liverpool, and with Liverpool having assumed their position of dominance as reigning champions, with United their subordinates again and without a title since 2013, the hype could scarcely be more pronounced. ‘I’m sure Man United players will be looking at Liverpool with envy over the last few years thinking: “I want a bit of that, I want to win the title. Liverpool are the team we want to knock off the top.” They might show some frustration. You never know how it will affect people.

‘I’m pretty sure the frustration that year [1998] was about growing up and wanting Liverpool to win so much, you ended up forgetting about the game and wanting to kick people. Not the right attitude.’

Owen is primarily a Liverpool man, having won the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup and the League Cup there at his peak. But he also won the League Cup with United, scoring in the final, and was part of the 2011 squad that won the Premier League title. So he is well placed to judge today’s match.

‘My gut feeling is that I’m struggling to believe that Man United will win the league. Four weeks ago, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seemed to be under a lot of pressure, Man United had just been knocked out of Europe and were playing inconsistently. And in the blink of an eye they’re top of the league and everybody is saying they’ve a great chance to win the title.

‘I’ve had Man United down as counter-attacking team for a number of seasons and they’re one of the best sides in the word at that. It suits them down to the ground, because they struggle for a bit of pace at the back, so that negates any worries there, if they sit deep. When they play against a good team, they have two shielding midfielders in Fred and Scott McTominay and are very structured.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has to figure out how best to use his midfield against Liverpool

‘Their full-backs have the worst record of the big teams in terms of crosses and chances created. What will happen on Sunday is that they’ll sit back and they have the insurance policy of McTominay and Fred. To convince me, they’re going have to do the other side of the game. And if they’re going to do that other side of the game and be brilliant with the ball, you simply have to find ways of playing Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.

‘It’s outstanding players that win the league. If you have one, you have to find a way. As much as every team needs a certain amount of steady eddies, you need that magic touch. So Ole has to find ways of playing Pogba regularly if they want to win the league. That’s why I question them for the league. I don’t think they’re rounded enough at the moment. They’re an exceptional counter-attacking team and they’re finding their feet in terms of the build-up play.’

Manchester United might even need to look to Jurgen Klopp to bridge the gap at the top

Indeed, they might need to take a look at Jurgen Klopp if they are to bridge that gap.

‘If you’re going to get to the top you’ve got to go through a bit of pain. Go back to Liverpool: it was only three years ago that everyone was saying Klopp continues to make the same mistakes; they go 3-0 ahead and draw 3-3.

‘That was actually the best thing you could do, as it exposes the weak links in your team and all of a sudden you see: “OK, we want to play this style but simply can’t do it with these players: boom, let’s get Van Dijk, let’s get Alisson.”

‘Whereas if you continue to cover holes in your team I don’t think you’ll ever get to your final destination, you’ll just continue to be alright and fight around third and fourth.

‘So I think Man United have to be brave and say: “This is what we’ve got. Can you cope with us?” With Liverpool, you want to go and put pressure on them and they’ll counter-attack with the best of them; you want to sit back and they’ll be able to prise you open. No matter what you throw at great teams [they find a way].

‘Listen, Man United were one of those many years ago… if you want to fight with them, they’re as tough as anything, if you want to put pressure on them and press high or sit back, they had answers to everything.’

Owen has played on both sides of the rivalry having joined Manchester United later on

That said, should United do something unexpected and win — and bear in mind Liverpool haven’t lost at Anfield in the Premier League since April 2017 — to go six points clear of their rivals, we may all have to reappraise the situation.

‘Look, six points is significant whoever you are. When Leicester were top and they went six points clear, you’re thinking: “Yeah, but surely? It’s Leicester.” With all due respect, they weren’t a team you expected to win the league. Now this is Man United. You can’t give six points to anybody, let alone Liverpool, Man City or United.

‘It’s a very big game. All of a sudden United are playing well. If they nicked a result at Anfield and go six points clear, who knows? At the minute, I’m struggling to be totally convinced. But if they win at Anfield, you have to start believing it can happen.’ 

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