It’s easy to forget how good a player Michael Owen was for Liverpool now that he has effectively been wiped from the club’s history books. Once a hero to the Kop, Owen wronged the club that produced him on three separate occasions (leaving to Madrid for a minimal fee, returning to play for Newcastle and joining bitter rivals Manchester United); performing acts of treason that hurt that little bit more because he was an English lad that we thought respected the fans.
I never thought I could feel as much hate and disappointment towards a player as I did when Michael signed for United, but after the actions of a certain Spanish striker I might have to reconsider my opinions and maybe even apologise to Owen. For now he is the lesser of two evils.
Owen left Anfield for the Bernabau in 2004, for a measly £8m plus the infamous Antonio Nunez, after 18 months of failed contract talks in which it seemed the striker was committing his future at least once a week. The promises that a new deal would be “signed soon” were false and by the time he decided he wanted to leave the club, Owen had ran down his current contract and left Liverpool in a woeful bargaining position with potential suitors. Whether this was the England forward’s plan all along is for you to decide.
When Real Madrid came calling Michael’s head was turned and he was never going to look back. So without a care in the world Owen jetted off to sunny Spain leaving David Moores and Rick Parry to count the transfer fee they had received; an act that should have taken three times as long considering the player was worth at least £24m.
Losing your star striker always hurts and Owen’s departure wasn’t the perfect start to the Benitez era. But despite the disappointment, there wasn’t that sense of sadness that all Reds felt when Fowler left for Leeds in 2001. The Anfield faithful would miss the finishing expertise of Owen but his personality left a lot to be desired and he never had the same connection with the fans as a Dalglish for instance. Many fans had grown tired of Owen’s injury problems and felt that his international career was always his priority.
After breaking onto the scene at the 1998 World Cup with a magnificent solo goal against Argentina, Owen was always going to be built up as the great new hope. The entire country idolised him and from that moment on it felt like he was “England’s Michael Owen” rather than “Liverpool’s Michael Owen”, something that didn’t sit well at Anfield.
Liverpool fans have always had a special bond with their players, especially star strikers, and many hoped that Owen could become the next in a long line of idols to pull on the red shirt. As well as being great players, icons were expected to symbolise the club and to embody the spirit of the supporters (as Kenny did by attending so many funeral after Hillsborough and Fowler did by supporting the dock workers) but despite his incredible scoring rate it never quite felt like Owen was one of us. The lack of chemistry helped to make the parting bearable and made it easier to hate the player. With Torres, it isn’t so easy.
Fernando Torres became Liverpool’s record signing in 2007 and as soon as fans caught a glimpse of that infectious smile they were in love, there was a new messiah. Upon his arrival Torres said all the right things, he stated his respect for the club, his excitement at the prospect of playing at Anfield and told of his ambitions to become Liverpool legend. The Spaniard spoke with a glint in his eye and fans hung on his every word. Torres seemed very much a Liverpool player and seemed like someone the great Bill Shankly would’ve approved of wearing the red shirt. He was everything Owen was not, it wasn’t all about him, he had better offers but he wanted to play for Liverpool.
He backed up his bold words on the pitch too and by the end of his first season at the club Torres had broken all sorts of record after scoring an unprecedented 31 goals. That great debut season turned out to be the peak of Torres’ Liverpool career and the same injury problems that plagued Owen began to take their toll on the former Atletico man. His goal-to-games ratio remained the best in the league though and after just 12 months on Merseyside he had established himself as the club’s new talisman. The problem for Liverpool was that Torres’ great goals seemed to be spaced apart by month long layoffs and they could not afford to replace him due to the strangehold Tom Hicks and George Gillett had on the club.
The financial meltdown was worsening every year and it had become obvious to fans that progress would never be achieved until the American owners were replaced with some more favourable foreigners. Tabloids began to talk about a possible Torres exit as early as 2009 but the thought of Liverpool’s number nine moving to a club like Chelsea was one that amused fans more than worried them. We knew better than the press, we knew that Torres loved the club and would stay through the badtimes because he wanted to become a legend.
For a while it seemed that the fans could be right as Torres committed his future to the club before the 2010/11 season, despite countryman Rafa Benitez’s sacking and the disasterous 7th place finish that meant no Champions League football. Roy Hodgson had been appointed as his replacement and a new era had begun. The change did little to reinvigorate Torres and seemed to depress him more than anything. He had left his boyhood club in search of silverware and after three seasons he had nothing to show for his efforts.
For the next six months a look of distain was permanently engraved onto the face of Fernando Torres and his form had dipped to the extent that he was unrecognisable on the pitch. There was the odd moment of class and his goal record remained respectable despite his obvious unhappiness but it was his lack of effort and commitment that really upset fans. In his first two seasons Torres would chase everything down and he built up a reputation as a player who could not be kicked out of a game. Fans still remember John Terry trying and failing to rough him up on his debut. Back to 2010 and defenders didn’t even have to try to take Torres out of the game, he was doing it himself.
Come January and the transfer window and speculation was once again rife about Torres’s future. Talk of a move to Chelsea was constant but fans continued to bat away suggestions of unrest despite all that had gone on in the first half of the season. “If he was to leave he would go abroad”, fans would say. Torres loved the club too much to play against it. Most expected the Spaniard would see the new owners and the appointment of Kenny Dalglish as a step in the right direction, a step closer to the progress he wanted to see. It wasn’t to be and soon would come the news that fans thought they’d never hear. Torres wanted to move to Chelsea.
The revelation that Torres had handed in a transfer request crushed fans’ perceptions of a man they thought understood them and the Liverpool way. All previous talk of commitment was confirmed as lies and Torres had become a villain as quickly as he became a hero. Perhaps he did love the club; perhaps his motives for leaving were valid, but the manner in which he left means that his side of the story will never be considered by Liverpool supporters.
I saw one quote in the aftermath of Torres’ exit that summarised the situation better than any article could:
“We hate you so much because we loved you so much.”
Fans got over Owen relatively quickly because he never had that bond with the supporters. The scars left by this transfer will take a lot longer to heal because Torres was one of us. Atleast we thought he was.