Mark E Smith, the late frontman of The Fall, was a big football fan but he held a typically acerbic view of the Match of the Day pundits he would watch on his Saturday and Sunday night returns from his local pub in Prestwich, Manchester.
“What I do love about football is the shirt brigade,” he wrote in his 2008 autobiography. “I like the way they all wear their open-necked, big-collared shirts in a casual style. I bet they all shop together. Ring each other up before they are due on, asking which colour they’re going to be wearing tonight…Policeman do that. Michael Owen and Alan Shearer look like policemen as well.”
Smith, in his roundabout yet cutting fashion, hit upon the uncertainties of a footballer’s life once the boots have been hung up. What to do next when the floodlights have faded?
Smith eventually died in 2017 with his boots on, appearing on stage when clearly gravely ill, able to see it out almost to the end. Footballers have no such luxury.
Back in 2008, Owen was still a player, perhaps figuratively in the eyes of the Newcastle fans he has reopened hostilities with this week. Shearer, meanwhile, was just stepping into the glare of the big wide world beyond wearing a number nine shirt.
— Alan Shearer (@alanshearer) September 3, 2019
This week’s social media skirmish between the former pals and former teammates with club and country suggested the fire burns deep within both. Speak to an ex-player or even read his ghostwritten book and you will find there are always scores still to settle. Very few footballers step away from the game without having themselves defined – or even defining themselves – by what they achieved in boots as a young man.
Not sure you are as loyal to Newcastle as you make out mate. I distinctly remember you being inches away from signing for Liverpool after Sir Bobby Robson put you on the bench. You tried everything to get out. https://t.co/ZQBrlojeEv
— michael owen (@themichaelowen) September 3, 2019
The competitive nature that once drove them on still needs an outlet.
The former England strike partners both sought alternative existences, with Shearer attempting to manage Newcastle, a 10-game spell in the 2008-9 season ending in relegation during which he and Owen became estranged.
The player who ought to have been Shearer’s leading striker could not be relied upon to stay fit.
Shearer eventually threw himself into full-time punditry, and his improvement from the noncommittal monosyllabic performer of his early days to the sharp-eyed and cutting observer of now has been marked.
The Shearer seen now, and occasionally aired on social media, is far more akin to the highly opinionated, politically adept player behind the dressing room door rather than the dour post-match interviewee who would respond with platitudes such as “I just like scoring goals” and talked of creosoting his fence.
Owen moved into racehorse ownership, and at times during that pursuit he appeared far more emotional about his horses than he often had been about football. Brown Panther, the globetrotting multiple Group One winner, brought him to public tears when winning big prizes and also when meeting its end when suffering a fatal injury at the Irish St Leger in 2015. “I love you Panther,” Owen tweeted that day. “Life will not be the same without you.”
The Manor House Stables that Owen owns are yet to produce a horse of similar quality, while a certain way of making a small fortune from racing is to start with a big fortune.
Far richer men than Owen have failed to find the horse than can make their reputation and offset the huge running costs. Hence, perhaps, the release of the new book within which Owen has made his latest revelations, to tell the true story behind his struggles.
Brian Clough, one of the greatest managers of all, frequently used to say that nothing could ever make up for the premature loss of his playing career, even winning European Cups and league titles.
At the 2006 World Cup, Owen suffered a very similar injury to the knee rupture that finished Clough’s goal-plundering career at 29, but modern medical science meant the younger man was able to continue living a purgatorial existence he now says he loathed.
In any case, he has admitted that he was never the same after a hamstring tear in 1999 at Elland Road, an injury that robbed him of the pace that made him such a teenage sensation.
Owen is thus left looking back to a point in his life when he was barely a sentient adult. What has followed after has been a disappointment. He is not someone who affects or has even sought much sympathy, but there is a certain tragedy within that Icarus-like flight and swift burnout.
He never got to achieve what his immediate peers grasped through long careers.
Steven Gerrard, Owen’s old youth-team pal, became Liverpool’s finest player of the 21st century and now seeks to make his way in the management game. Taking on Rangers was no shirking of a challenge, and his team betray some of the traits of Gerrard the player, prone to bursts of emotion, but he is making his mark in a world that Shearer, having been sacked by Newcastle, and Owen chose to avoid.
Frank Lampard, another teammate, has taken on an even bigger challenge at Chelsea, a team that so far during his opening weeks in charge have betrayed some of his traits as a player; a lack of adaptability is an accusation borne out by Chelsea’s inability to sustain their bright starts once an opposing manager has made an adjustment.
Gareth Southgate and Sol Campbell are other members of that late-90s/early 2000s England generation who struck out in management.
All are rich men who probably had no need to work after their careers had ended, but mere money is not enough for such driven men.
The Class of ’92 from Manchester United have kept themselves busy, with Gary Neville working as a pundit, CEO, property developer and coach, while Ryan Giggs manages Wales, Nicky Butt oversees the United academy and Phil Neville, the former runt of the littler, has made himself a new life with the crusading zeal he has brought to the England women’s team.
Only Paul Scholes, after a brief dalliance with Oldham Athletic, seems at a loose end and there are always Salford City games for him to attend. David Beckham’s designs on world domination have meanwhile never abated.
No longer does a former footballer have to open a pub or become a haulage contractor to make ends meet.
A quiet life can be sought, but many seek to capitalise on their good name.
A worldwide media offers plenty of opportunities, sponsors aplenty splash the cash, and there are club ambassadorial roles to fulfil; United’s frontman at last week’s Europa League draw was none other than Denis Irwin.
But does a pundit’s neatly ironed shirt or a lucrative sponsorship endorsement blank out the days of heaven that playing can be?
This week’s unseemly row between two England greats would suggest not.