Few players have lived such a varied career in terms of settings and roles as Michael Owen, with the former England striker winning the Ballon d’Or at the age of just 21. Several of Barcelona’s young generation are arguably on track to hit similar heights, but Owen had some sage advice for a kid trying to survive in professional game.
In an exclusive interview conducted alongside DAZN Bet, Owen was asked what it was like coming through as young talent himself. Making his break at Liverpool, Owen was already taking the Premier League by storm at the age of 17, and announced himself on the world stage with his performances at the 1998 World Cup, still as a teenager.
With a number of talents in their infancy playing major roles for Barcelona, Football España asked what the experience was like making the leap initially, and some of the potential hazards that come with it.
“It’s an interesting balance. When you’re at a club, and you’re coming through the academy and approaching the first team, there will be one or two people that see you as a threat. Life is like that. People move around jobs and move into your space, and you can see them as a threat.”
“It might be that you [as the veteran] embrace that, it might mean you put in an extra bit of effort to stay above the competition. Or maybe you’re thinking I might do something to harm that. There’s lots of different emotions flying around a club when a youngster or even a new signing comes in.”
Clearly that potential for enmity is likely to be purely down to positional rivals for football, but the majority are predisposed to help youngsters make it.
“Generally, as you’re coming through, people want to help you to enhance the team. Obviously you didn’t cost anything. The club see you as an asset that is growing, so they want to protect you. Most players will see you as a talent, to help them to win things, and striving to realise their goals. Most of the reactions are positive.”
Those who see a youngster coming through as a reason for insecurity are something that young players experience at every level though, according to Owen.
“But there will be one or two gnarly professionals who will want to kick you and make you grow up. That’s something you will be aware of, because it’s not new. You’ll be used to being targeted, to being kicked, and you’ll know how to ride challenges, you will have been the best player in every team you’ve been in for much of the last 15 years, so it’s only an extension of what you’ve already done.”
No doubt the likes of Lamine Yamal, Gavi and Alejandro Balde will be perfectly versed in how to avoid those veterans trying to send a message, but following Barcelona’s experience with injuries to Pedri and Ansu Fati, protecting young players physically has grown in significance of late.
If there was one thing that youngsters could do to ingratiate themselves with the senior dressing room though, Owen says it is to remain willing to learn and retaining your manners.
“I think the most important thing is to be humble off the pitch. If you go in thinking you’re God before you’ve kicked a ball, that’s when problems arise. If you go in, you’re nice, you smile, you ask questions, and if you’re just generally a nice guy, that will serve you so much more than your ability. People are willing to help, and that goes for any walk of life.”
Although he admits he did not come across that gnarly professionals during his year at Real Madrid, despite playing alongside some intensely physical players like Thomas Gravesen and Walter Samuel.
“At Real Madrid, they were all superstars, so no, I didn’t have to deal with that there,” he laughed.
It’s something that Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez has highlighted previously, that the Barcelona dressing room is healthy, with the veterans lending a hand where possible. The likes of Robert Lewandowski, Ilkay Gundogan, Marcos Alonso, Oriol Romeu and Marc-Andre ter Stegen are now the elder statesmen of the current side, but rarely have any of the young players appeared to have had the breaks put on them by their own attitude.