Michael Owen: Giving back to grassroots fosters a culture of excellence
Former footballer Michael Owen talks about his desire to give back to the community, the values he shares with his family and his career in sports and business.
- A winning mindset
- Transforming lives through mentorship
- Creating a positive impact on society
Michael Owen rose to stardom as a striker for Liverpool Football Club. At the young age of 18, he played for the England national football team for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, where he caught the world’s attention with his speed and prowess as a goal-scorer. After Liverpool, Owen signed for a year with Real Madrid, after which he moved to Newcastle United, Manchester United, and finally, Stoke City. In 2013, Owen retired from professional football and focused on business. He has since become a racehorse breeder and has had regular appearances on television as a sports commentator.
In this interview, Owen shares his story as a professional footballer until retirement, his personal values, and his desire to give back to the football community.
Emmanuel Daniel (ED): I’m very pleased to be able to speak to you, Michael, the Michael Owen. When I mentioned that I was going to be able to speak and spend time with you today, a lot of people I know were excited. It's just amazing how so much of the world is in love with you and find a little bit of themselves in you. Meeting you made me realise why that is the case, given your achievements in soccer and football over the years and the legend that you've created for yourself. The thing that strikes me most about you is the fact that you've kept honest to yourself a lot. Tell me a little bit about that journey to stardom and then to ordinary life.
Michael Owen (MO): Thanks for your kind words. I think I was always brought up in what I would consider the right way. Football was always something that I was in love with and I was desperate to become a professional footballer. Never for one moment did I ever waver from that. I always knew I was going to be a footballer. That sounds very arrogant or big headed, but it was just the truth. You know, as a seven-year-old, eight-year-old, nine-year-old, I was always the best player in my team by a considerable margin. Quite early on, I think people knew that I was going to be a footballer, including myself and my father who was a professional himself.
To answer your question, when you become famous from nothing – which I did, I got into the Liverpool team and I got famous right away – but then virtually straightaway, as an 18 year old, went to the World Cup and having been known by people in the UK and maybe a few people around the world, all of a sudden the whole of the footballing world knew who I was from that World Cup, dealing with that felt normal for me. Lots of people were staggered by me just thinking it was just, you know, a normal occurrence, but that's just how I was mentally tuned. I knew I was going to be a footballer, I'd always prepared to be a footballer. I've been brought up in a certain way that was always respectful to people. I also quickly understood that I was almost living two lives. I think it's very dangerous if you think that being a footballer is what it is, and it's always going to be like that.
So we have a famous tunnel in Liverpool that goes on to the River Mersey, and I used to feel myself as soon as I went under the tunnel, “That's right, you're [in] footballer mode”. You're happy, you're signing autographs, people are going to sing to you in the stage, and 45,000 people are going to sing your name. All these are very, very nice and don't get me wrong, I loved it, but I also had a feeling at the back of my mind that, you know, [in] 15 years, that will never happen, you've still got to be a good son, a good brother, a good father, a good friend to all the people. When I used to drive back away from a train and or away from matches, it was back to normal life being respectful to everybody, just like everyone else’s. I think the people, the footballers that come on stock are the people that get very carried away by their importance. They let things go to their head and then all of a sudden when they're 35 and retired, they find it very difficult to conform back to normality.
A winning mindset
ED: Before that match with Argentina in the World Cup, was there a mindset that was different from the mindset after that match? Were you saying to yourself, you know, “I'm looking forward to the day that I'm going to be famous and I'm going to make something; I'm going to cross that line, that tunnel”? Was there a difference?
MO: Definitely a difference. In getting to the top, it's all great fun. Once you're at the top, and you're continuing to score, play well, win awards and all the rest of it, it continues to be fun for a certain period of time. But if you ask anybody that reaches the top of their profession – mainly in sport, and I've spoken to a lot of people – after a short while, the driving force becomes fear. It’s fear that somebody else is going to be better than you.
I won a Golden Boot in my first two years as a professional footballer, I was 17 and 18 in the Premier League. All of a sudden I thought that trophy was mine. I was petrified that anybody was going to take it off me. So once I became 19, 20, the fun of scoring and the fun of crossing that line and frightening defenders and all that – that I'll always have for 15 years, started sloping away, slipping away slightly, and then it became ripe. I still love the game, but the feeling of scoring wasn't joy anymore. It was more relief that I'm still at the top.
ED: And then there's the public scrutiny, right? Everything you did had a comment to it. One of the questions I kept getting from people – you know, I asked several people like what questions they would ask you – the first thing is, why did you leave Liverpool and Manchester? Then why did you stay only a short time in Real Madrid? That kind of thing, and was Newcastle a swan song? You know, that kind of thing. They're writing the script for you. Did you feel like the story was being taken away from you, like you were not your own anymore?
MO: Yes, you become public property in many ways. You got to accept that, but I think people fail to realise that you're still a normal person. And it's very easy to criticise somebody that certain times hasn't got a voice. People will come to a decision or a conclusion about you and read into it. Oh, he left this club because he doesn't like this or he went there because of this. I had a fantastic [time], I never ever thought I was ever going to leave Liverpool. That was my team. I have grown up there.
In my life, the two teams that were just a dream for everybody, where you can actually compete and do something different and that has some mystique about it are Real Madrid and Barcelona. If you're in the Premier League or if you're anywhere in the world of football, and Real Madrid and Barcelona come in for you, it's very, very difficult – in fact, it's virtually impossible – to say no. I never had any intention ever of leaving Liverpool.
ED: Did they have to scout you? Did they have to work on you for a bit to get there? But then you didn’t stay long in Real Madrid.
MO: Not really. As soon as I found out, my agent phoned me and I was in Liverpool. He said, ‘Real Madrid wants to sign you.’ It sent my brain into chaos, really, because I wasn't willing to leave. But I also knew that if I say no, this will probably be the only time I can ever have an opportunity to live in a different country, speak a different language, try a different climate, try different food, play in that white kit in an unbelievable stadium with Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo, Raul, Beckham – all these great players – Roberto Carlos. It was just a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think I saw comfort from the chairman of Liverpool, the chief executive Rick Parry, at the time and said, ‘I do want to go and give this a try. But I only want to give it a try if you promise me that you'll buy me back in a year or two when I've had the experience.’ And we almost left with a shake of the hand. That was the thing that gave me comfort, really, to go and try it.
MO: No, I didn't stay too long. I had a great time. The people were great. The team was great. I had a fantastic time there, scored a lot of goals, made a lot of friends. But I think the Premier League at the time has overtaken La Liga. You know, I'm a home boy. I'd always been Liverpool, and I think a year was enough to have a great experience. I always knew that I wanted to come back and play in the Premier League, and of course, I wanted to come back to play for Liverpool.
Then there's a long story in terms of how and why I couldn't sign for Liverpool. Despite all our efforts, Liverpool, it only sold me for $10.4 million (£8 million) the year before and then we'd all agreed and everything. Liverpool had put in $10.4 million (£8 million) back in to buy me and I thought everything was sorted. And then by the time I flew back over to Madrid to sort everything out, Newcastle had put $20.8 million (£16 million) on the table. The president of Real Madrid came to me and said, ‘We want to keep you, but if you want to go back to England, you can, but it has to be to Newcastle.’ And of course, I knew it was coming secretly but I was so disappointed because I wanted to go to Liverpool. Liverpool couldn't match the $20.8 million (£16 million). And Madrid basically gave me an ultimatum whether to go Newcastle or to stay there.
Transforming lives through mentorship
ED: Right. The reason we're having this conversation is, well, there's lots of wealth being created in society and we want to take the football angle of how is good transferable to society, creating sustainability in society and stuff like that, and sports in general does that a lot. And you now are in a position, because of your wealth and your brand, to give back to society.
After football, you got into horses. Well, you still own horses, for example. People question, how does horse racing and stable ownership fit into the Michael Owen story? How did that come about?
MO: Not quite. I think I realised at a young age that football doesn't last forever. I had dreams of going into coaching and working on television, doing all these things when I retire and I just needed to choose which one I wanted to do. But I also thought to myself, I've got to have interests and businesses for when I finished. The last thing I wanted to do was retire from football and think to myself, ‘What should I do next?’ So I was conscious about that. And by the time I hit my mid-20s, I decided that one of my passions was horse racing. It had been since an early age. I bought a farm quite close to me and converted it from an old arable farm into a racehorse stables. We started with 20 horses, and I managed to get people like Sir Alex Ferguson owning horses.
I basically tried to drive business for my own stables. So at that point, of course, for the footballing world, I was an easy target. People were saying, oh, he's not interested in football now, he's more interested in horse racing. But the truth is, if you don't prepare for the future, there’s a lot of people that come on stock when they retire. They don't know what to do next, they turn to things that they shouldn't really turn to. I was simply preparing for life after football. I'm smiling now because as soon as I retired, I went seamlessly into other things, working on television. Obviously, my business was up and running and a very successful business at that. So it was something that I planned and I'm pleased that I did it because as I say, I know a lot of footballers now who wish they had planned for something and now are finding it very difficult to cope with their career after football.
ED: Right. What are the three most important things you're working on right now and how do they relate back to giving back to football?
MO: Well, football is certainly a sport that people do give back to. Of course, the rewards are great, but the rewards have to last you a lifetime. You know, I retired at 33. I've got a family, I want to provide for them.
But I think it's very easy to give back, and it doesn't always have to be financial. I have a business at the moment where I mentor a lot of young footballers, for example, a group of Man United, Manchester City, Everton, Liverpool, Leeds and different clubs like that. That is what I consider giving back. I do it for the love of the game, the love of seeing a young lad with loads of talent and ability, but knowing that that's not necessarily quite enough. You have to have a mentality to go with it. You have to be prepared for the first time you go out to a pitch.
ED: So you actually nurture a set of young people. And how is that nurturing process of the grassroots working out in England right now? Because now, football is all about money. It's big money. It's an industry and even what you do in nurturing young people is a business. How much of it is business and how much of that is you?
MO: Yes, it's one of the businesses that I formed towards the end of my career. That is really fulfilling for me, to see young players coming through and playing, because it's a very difficult thing to do, to break through into the first team. I like to do that, I like to turn my hand at coaching youngsters. I think giving back to grassroots is very important because all footballers came through in the initial stages through that grassroots program, helping young players and trying to give them a little bit of an edge.
Well, there are certain parts that are business. I think, not just me, but I think the authorities are very keen on investing back into grassroots and it doesn't have to be at the sharp end of the game, just creating an environment for people to enjoy football. It all helps at the end of the day. Yes, there will be professional players that come through these programs, these investments, but we want our football to be enjoyable, for everybody to be able to take part, no matter what religion or colour or sex or whatever it might be. I think it's really important for the authorities that that is the case and it's all encompassing and all-inclusive.
I take great pride I work with the Premier League on a lot of different campaigns. And as I said, I also have a business that, one, is a business. I want it to be successful in every way, shape, or form, but success for me is not the financial gain. It’s the pleasure I get from seeing the lad I talked to, worked with for many years, then breaking into the first team. It’s a great thrill for me because I know exactly how it feels.
ED: You probably get invited by a number of governments around the world trying to ace up their football status and get up the rankings, stuff like that. At the same time, there are conflicting priorities. Governments also want to make football a grassroots activity that's enjoyed by society. It holds society together. At the same time, it generates wealth that picks up individuals who then go up the wealth ladder, in a sense. Give us a sense of some of the initiatives that you might be working on around the world or governments that call you up to help them and so on.
MO: There are so many positives that football obviously brings – as you say, the hope for so many people. Everybody’s equal in football. If you've got a special talent, you will get the opportunity, people will see you. No stone is left unturned nowadays in the world of football. If you've got an ability, then you will eventually make it. You've got all the right assets to go with it.
But as you say, there are a lot of opportunities in the world, whether it be coaching, whether it be advice, whether it be promoting certain aspects of the game. Here in China, for example, Chinese people and right from the top as well, President Xi wants football to be a bigger part of Chinese culture, but it never has been, really. Over the last few years, the Chinese Super League has taken off. Now, the one-child policy is not anymore. There's a lot more hope, there's a lot more scope for people to actually become football players now. This is a really interesting project over here and I expect Chinese football to improve so much over the years as well. Hopefully, one day, in 20, 30 years, they’ll be competing right at the sharp end of World Cup or something like that. But, it's going to start from the youth and it has to start from there because you can't just turn a player that's 15 or 20 now into a great player having missed such a chunk [of experience].
ED: So what do governments do that are right and wrong? You can handpick governments in different parts of the world that actually hire brand name footballers like you and coaches who have made it with other teams. They import them and try to jumpstart the whole process. Yet, there has to be this grassroots thing, in which you start people young.
You started when you were two years old. Today, a two-year-old starting football probably pays a club an obscene amount of money, and their parents are dreaming out that they’re going to be millionaires, football stars when they grow up and stuff like that. The motivation is different. It's changed and money is changing a lot of that, you know, so what do you think that countries or societies need to do to keep to the original intent of something like football?
MO: Well, it's interesting because I think a lot of people assume that money is something that's driving football at the moment. I mentor about 25 players, and at no stage have I ever heard any of them say money is the motivation why they want to get into Manchester United’s first team, Liverpool's first team, why they want to be a footballer. I never ever even thought about money until I was about 19, 20 and I was getting there, then I realised I can buy a house or a car. I never even thought about it. I always wanted to be a footballer because I wanted to be a footballer. I wanted to be the best footballer in the world. That was my dream. And I think that young children, that's their dream.
Now, if their parents have got different ideas, if they're motivated by, you know, that they see a golden ticket at the end of it, then that's obviously their prerogative and they've got to parent their child accordingly. But I think we turn to money. The older we get, the more money becomes more of an issue or more of a driver. The innocence of being a child and wanting to be a footballer for all the right reasons, I think that remains. As I say, I think it only changes the older you get.
ED: As football becomes more democratic, meaning more countries participate, more countries build infrastructure, the ranking order up to the World Cup starts to change. Something I noticed is that the reasons why one team wins the World Cup this year changes very quickly with the reasons why the next team wins the following World Cup. It appears as if the mechanics of the industry just keeps changing, in a way becoming more technical, and at the same time the old skills of teamwork and individual skills and all that are there somewhere, but the industry is becoming highly structured in a way.
Do you get a sense that you're dealing with a very technical industry now? You said something that you build structure in terms of how players are trained, what skills you're looking out for, and stuff like that.
MO: There’s no question when I started out in football it was purely on the eye. A manager would pick a team, would buy a player, would do training and would do all these things purely on their eye and their instinct. Nowadays, everything is measured. Whether that's physical output, whether we wanted to buy a centre forward to improve our team, go into the computer and see what their output is – how many shots they have, how many goals they score, how many high speed runs or how fast they are. You can measure absolutely anything now and then it goes on to scouting the opponents, when we're looking at the opponents we're playing. Where are their strengths? Where are their weaknesses? Where are the most goals? What other team scored the most goals against them? Where can we exploit? It's all gone very technical nowadays.
ED: In that technical universe, do you see your own limitations? I was watching some of your past games and I saw that you were the fastest man on that field. You described to me that it was not just about being fast, but it's also about being technical right up to scoring the goal. Do you see limitations in yourself if you watch those same playbacks?
MO: I think so. If I look back in my career, I can see things that I could have been better at. But I'm a huge believer in if you're coaching a player, then you're looking at a player as a whole. Too many people think he's nine out of ten on that and that and that, but he's only four out of ten on that. People are really interested in trying to improve the fours to get them up to fives and sixes, whereas I think, get even better at the things you're good at, because being a footballer or being anything in life, if you're just the status quo, if you're just average at everything or good at everything, you will never get to the top. Being outstanding, having two or three outstanding attributes will take you to the top. In my case, as you mentioned, speed was one of them. I think my mental strength and a finishing ability, so being calm under pressure. But speed is just not enough, as we spoke about earlier. If speed was everything, all Olympic hundred-metre runners will all be footballers. Being able to control and manipulate a ball at top speed – that is the key. So being very, very good on a couple of things is far better than just being good at most.
ED: Football is an individual sport in that you need to get the ball across the field to the other side. It's a team sport because you need to work with the rest of your team. It is also a leadership sport in the sense that you need to have a big picture of what you're dealing with every game. Are you a leader in that sense or are you a team player?
MO: That’s a good question. I think that's the beauty of football – that it really is everything rolled into one. There have been plenty of teams that have just bought the best players in the world over the years, but did they win the title? Not necessarily, because teamwork is key.
Leadership is very important. You need a certain amount of leaders within your team. I would say that I was a leader in terms of taking responsibility. I would like to think people looked at me in the dressing room and thought we've got a chance today because we've got Michael Owen in our team. I did think every time I crossed that white line, I believed that I was the best player on the pitch and that I could influence the game.
I wasn't a leader in terms of being vocal. I didn't feel as if I was as capable of performing myself and being so comfortable with myself that I could then help others as well. Some people, it doesn't detract from their performance, they can help others as well as playing the game. But I really felt that I need to focus on my game. I felt if I'm doing my job and you're doing your job, we’ll all be all right, but some people could help others as well. I didn't feel as if I was like that.
ED: Do you find yourself being forgiving towards the 25 young people that you’re mentoring right now if you push them on the areas that they're good at or push them to strengthen the areas that they’re weak at?
MO: I would say my character is quite pushy, quite hard. There's no getting away with it. Being at the top of anything is difficult. Being a professional footballer, going through the ups and downs, getting there in the first place, staying there once you get there, having the mental capability to do all that – you can't be soft and be a footballer. So I find myself being quite tough on the players that I advise. Different characters require different ways that you're tough on them, but I would say overall that I don't paint a false picture. This is a hard game. There are going to be ups and downs.
ED: You mentioned mental strength and that’s the mental strength that took you to the World Cup with Argentina, and then it's that mental strength that kept you on the course, and then you retired. What are you using your mental strength now for?
MO: I think, every day of my life, I use it. Everybody's got a way of looking at themselves, looking at other people, knowing what you're very good at. I have three or four different businesses now. I know in one or two of them, I'm not really needed – to be honest, I'm not really interested. But there are two or three two businesses that I need to be there. I need to have my say within the business. I think it is me. I think if I left then the business would no longer exist. I think I'm not going to possibly leave a legacy for my children with two of the businesses because they solely depend on me. But on the other two businesses, they probably will because they don't. I know where my strengths lie. I know where my weaknesses are as well. As long as you can see both sides of the coin, I think that you'll be all right.
A positive impact on society
ED: So now soccer or football is being expanded across borders, new countries like the US and so on. Even China is being incorporated to the whole community as it were, and then you have football being introduced to women. The Women's [Super] League is up there somewhere. How much of this do you think will influence World Cup or that one pivotal moment in football?
MO: Well, football is growing. It's hard to believe but it's still growing. The women's game is probably the one area that’s got rapid growth at the moment. But I'd say in all over, whether it's disability sports, that's all grown as well. There’s opportunity everywhere. Football is growing in all four corners of the world. The world is becoming a better place. It's not perfect, no question about that. But football certainly goes a long way to help in so many different ways. It gives people hope. It gives people something to aspire to. The people involved can be role models for so many children all around the world. Football’s got a lot to be proud of and there are going to be so many great moments in the future.
ED: Money and football, you know the corruption of money in football. Do you find yourself having to deal with it at certain points? Do you find yourself coming across bookies and stuff like that? How do you deal with that?
MO: No, I've never come across any corruption in my career. I've never been approached by anything like that. I guess wherever there's lots of money, there is corruption in any walk of life, but I've certainly never come across it.
ED: Never come across it because you were not approached or never come across it because even if you’re approached, you would actually walk away from it?
MO: I was never approached, for starters. Of course, you would walk away from it if that was to be the case, but I've never been approached. I've been in the game for obviously a long, long time, played with a lot of different footballers. I've not known anybody that's been approached. Now you hear of rumours in certain countries, but where I played, in the English Premier League, it's a very clean sport. I'm convinced that there's no drugs involved, no performance enhancing. There's certainly no corruption. I've never been approached. I’ve never heard anything about it. I think that's one of the reasons that people love football so much is because they've got trust in the sport and they believe it to be clean, which I think it very much is.
ED: Now that football is becoming more democratic and expanding across borders and different interest groups and so on, who makes a good ambassador of football? We've had several very good ambassadors, yourself, everyone from Pele down to this generation. Do you see yourself as an ambassador of football? What do you think makes you, specifically, a good ambassador for the game?
MO: Well, it's quite hard to talk about yourself in that way. But if you've reached the heights of the game that I have, then you've seen a lot, you've heard a lot, you've done a lot. And I think, throughout my career, I always played the game in a fair way, in an honest way. I only ever had one red card in my career. I think I've never brought the game into disrepute. For that matter, I've always been a positive influence, I would have thought and endorsed the game in the right way, played the game in the right way. That's probably what constitutes a good football ambassador.
ED: You've lent your name to brands as a brand ambassador to other commercial ventures, partially out of a commercial consideration, but what do you think about before you lend your name to a brand?
MO: The first thing that I think would be: is this in keeping with my image? Which is, I would say, respectable, pretty clean living. You do your due diligence on the company and think, is it the right fit? Is it the right balance? Is it healthy? They all come into consideration. I think you've got to have responsibilities. People look at you and some people look up to you and you can have an influence. So I think it's always important that if you're going to align yourself with another brand, then it's got to be a reputable one that is going to fit your image.
ED: Do you see your children carrying on the tradition, that gene that passed from your father to you? Do you see that going to the next generation?
MO: I think so, yeah. I've got four children, three girls, one boy. My boy, one week he likes football, the next week he doesn't. With an attitude like that, I can't imagine he's going to be a footballer, but he's very good in school, academically.
My girls are very sporty. I've got my eldest, she rides for Great Britain, the dressage, and then my third child, she's an exceptional runner. She's very fast, she's a very good swimmer as well. She's got a great mentality. She wants to be an Olympian. I don't know what it's going to be, but I wouldn't put it past her because she's strong-willed, strong-minded and exceptionally quick. So hopefully it will be in that discipline.
ED: It’s interesting that you've allowed them all to be their own persons, but at the same time, each of them carrying their own tenacity, which you had that built your own career.
MO: Yeah, that's right. It's frustrating for my wife, because she hears what I sometimes say to my kids. I can't really understand why I'd say it and how I say it. I find it very difficult to give lots and lots of praise. I like being very subtle.
I like my kids to yearn, to want to impress, because that's what I was like with my dad. I had to impress him. He used to watch every game. Even until I was 33 and retiring, if I could impress one person in the world, [it would be him] even though he watched every game. I didn't need to show him how good I was. He still had this spell over me that no matter what, just a little nod of approval as if to say, “Well played, son”. My heart would die if he’d just give me a little nod, and I try to have that sort of attitude with my kids.
The results came through with my third child is a runner. Officially, she was the fourth fastest in her age group in England last year. My wife goes ‘Oh, it’s fantastic’ to my daughter. I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, but you’re fourth, not first’, that type of attitude and keep her wanting to be the best.
ED: What keeps you mentored? Who are the signposts that you have for yourself at this point in your career?
MO: Well, I think it's important always to want to impress somebody, and I don't care who that is. Growing up, I had my dad and I had Steve Heighway. Steve Heighway was an old Liverpool player in the great teams of the past. He was the academy manager of Liverpool. No matter what he said or did, I just couldn't stop trying to impress him. I think it's really important because it gives you a focus all the time. There's never ever a training session that I took part and I didn't have anyone to impress. Even to this day, my parents, I love the thought of them being proud of what I'm doing not just in my first career, but now in all the other things I do. It's great to feel that they're proud of me. On the flip side, I want my children to grow up, thinking fair play, my dad works hard, is very honest, does his best. So I think, roles reverse, now I'm trying to be a good role model for them.
ED: Michael, I started this conversation wanting to map what you've achieved in your career to what large countries are doing in order to create that grassroots effect, and then build up individual stars that create wealth and good for society. But I think what we've ended up building in this conversation is that at the end of the day, it starts with what's inside here and being true to yourself. That's the message you seem to be passing on to me.
MO: Definitely. It's a long time that you're on this planet and I don't think you can go through life not being true to yourself. Everything I do, every business that I go into is what I want, what I see myself doing because I enjoy it. I've got a passion for it. There's a purpose to everything I do. You've got to be like that. I'm very fortunate though, I got to do exactly what I wanted to do in life – and then I got choices because of that. I was very fortunate then that I could choose to do what I want to do. I realise that not everybody can do that, so I am one of the lucky ones. But, being true to yourself is certainly one of my mottos.
ED: Thank you, Michael.
MO: Thank you.