England’s talisman and goalscoring extraordinaire Michael Owen is one of only four Englishmen to have been awarded football’s highest individual honour, the Ballon d’Or. Following his debut autobiography in 2004, Mark Eglinton took up the reins to help get a fresh take on Owen’s life story, six years after hanging up his boots.
Congratulations on being involved in Reboot, which has been nominated for The Telegraph Sports Book Awards Autobiography of the Year, in your role as ghostwriter, can you tell us how you came to be involved as ghostwriter on the book?
It was quite a simple process in this case. Where in other circumstances a project might arise as a result of a conversation with an agent or a publisher, in this instance the conversation was directly with Michael and his management. We discussed what the book could be given he’d written one many years previously when he was still playing, and we agreed that there was an opportunity for something unique. Michael Owen in 2018 when we first started talking was a fundamentally different person to the 2004 version. We went from there…
How closely had you followed Michael’s career before you began the project? Did you have any preconceptions before you started on the book and were there any particular stories or issues you really wanted to address?
I was always a fan of his footballing endeavours. As a Celtic supporter I saw him play at Celtic Park in 1997 in the UEFA Cup. He was electrifying. Beyond that I’m a racing enthusiast too so it was logical to follow what he’s been doing with Manor House Stables since he retired from football. Beyond that I always felt that there was a lot more to him than what was presented publicly. There was a clear opportunity to get that across without the burdens of club / manager/ agent loyalty getting in the way of the truth. As far as preconceptions – not really. I try to not get sucked into believing press portrayals, good or bad. As a ghost-writer I can’t really afford to judge.
Can you tell us a bit about the actual process of working with Michael to get the material for the book?
It was primarily in-person. From time to time I’d drive to the Chester area and stay in a hotel. We’d meet up during the day, usually at his home, and just talk. We’d go for lunch at a local pub and just keep talking. We did this several times and it was great to build a really important relationship. I was never interviewing him per se. We just talked – and the conversations inevitably went all over the place, as good as he was at sticking to one train of thought.
When I wasn’t with him, we did a huge amount of constructive work via whatsapp. I have literally hundreds of voice memos from him at various times: thoughts, recollections, stories etc. He was incredibly engaged from day one until the book went to print. It was total collaboration, which was refreshing.
Was there anything unexpected that you learnt about Michael or any particular stories that surprised you or that you really connected with?
Michael is undeniably a little (and unapologetically) eccentric! – I didn’t appreciate just how much until we worked together. I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that. He has a unique way of viewing the world and in many ways that method is part of the reason why he was and is so successful at everything he does. He simply will not allow negativity to encroach on his thinking. Some would call that delusion, but in his case it really isn’t. It’s a means of navigating the world that has been his since childhood. So, stories that we’ve all heard about him not liking movies, never having had tea or coffee etc. are all absolutely true. None of them surprised me!
The title of the book has various connotations, can you explain a bit about how it fits in with the autobiography?
I’ll take credit for that title! It was my idea. Apart from the obvious footballing connotations, I saw the book as an obvious route to redressing a few things – and by extension ‘rebooting’ his image somewhat. It’s that simple. There were so many misconceptions out there that needed explanation at a point in his life where he could do so without fear of any kind of repercussions. So you’re right – it’s a dual purpose title that will stick in people’s minds.
Michael shot to global fame at the age of 18 as a fresh-faced teenager and that’s an image that has followed him around ever since, so how important was it to shake off that image and allow Michael to emerge as a more rounded person in this autobiography?
Very important. As Michael says himself, that image was created for him and for good reason. The commercial benefits of an image that was attractive to blue chip brands were many and welcome. However, it is and always has been a false image. He’s not squeaky clean and never was, so from that perspective it seemed appropriate to show the entirety of his personality, good and bad. And for the record he was always forthcoming when discussing his faults and weaknesses. I didn’t have to drag it out of him at all. In fact, I got the impression that the whiter than white image had been something of a burden for him, and one he needed to shed for good.
Michael is only one of four English players to win the Ballon D’Or, as well as having former records for England goals and various Premier League and FIFA accolades, do you think he gets the recognition he deserves for these achievements and his career?
No, I don’t. And on some level I can understand why he doesn’t. People remember the most recent image of someone. And in his case that most recent image was a player ravaged by injury playing a bit-part role at best at Stoke City. It was as if that Michael Owen was a completely different person from the scorer of that incredible goal in St Etienne. Part of the book’s purpose is to explain how the young Michael became the older one, and everything in between. Injuries play such a huge part in that transition, but his record speaks for itself. Even at Real Madrid, where it’s become irritatingly fashionable to say that he failed, Michael played more than people think and his goal-scoring record was good.
Michael was very much a precursor to the modern game, with his speed and style of play, did we see the best of him or do you think he would have been even better playing today?
I always get frustrated when people say that Michael’s only gift was pace. While it’s undeniable that pace was a tremendous weapon in the early part of his career, there was a lot more to his game. Obviously he was as cool as anyone in front of goal. Few would argue that Michael Owen was as sure a thing as you could want when one on one with a keeper. But how many people talk about his heading ability? Or his positional awareness? As much as his pace was lethal, Michael Owen also knew exactly where to be, and did it all so instinctively as I’m sure Steven Gerrard would confirm. He’d be as effective in today’s game as in his own era.
What are you most proud of with this book?
We set out to make it no-holds-barred. For lots of reasons it’s easy to get defensive or cautious and to stray from that path. I take little credit for that; Michael wanted this book to address many misconceptions and to call things as they are in a way that’s rarely done in sports autobiographies. I’m just proud that we got it all down in an entertaining way that surprised a lot of people and perhaps led them to understand why he made some of the career decisions he did – decisions he has always stood by.
We can’t ignore the fact that we all had to get used to a world without sport, what have you particularly missed and are there any particular sporting events you are looking forward to?
I’ve been a bit conflicted by this throughout lockdown. On one hand, as a sports fan, I miss the familiarity of the calendar: the Masters in April, the 2000 Guineas in May, the Derby in June, Wimbledon – and everything in between. But on the other hand I’ve caught myself feeling that sport – as much as we love it – is all a bit trivial in the context of a global pandemic. Which view is right? Probably a bit of both. Sport is important, and it’s a way by which we all relate. But safety has to be paramount or else sport’s meaning and significance is lost. I’m sure some kind of normality will return to sport and life, but I suspect it might take longer than we think.
Imagine if you will a world where we can all have dinner parties, which four sporting greats past or present would be invited?
Henrik Larsson, Tom Watson, John McEnroe, Mick Kinane
And finally, what three words would you use to sum up Michael Owen?
Loyal. Intense. Cold. ( all in the nicest possible way!)