| Michael Owen during a training session at Villa Park with Rio Ferdinand a day before their friendly against Portugal. (AFP)
Just when it seemed the players in the England camp were staging a production of “I’m a Premiership Celebrity. . . Get Me Out of Here!” along came Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard on Thursday to reassure the nation that players love representing their country.
The Liverpool duo dampened down, if not quite extinguished, a club-versus-country fire rekindled this week by leading managers like Sir Alex Ferguson, Gerard Houllier and Arsene Wenger, who each expressed through word or deed their dislike of friendly international fixtures such as Saturday’s meeting with Portugal at Villa Park.
Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Sol Campbell are all missing, for a variety of reasons, but Gerrard and Owen emphasised that every elite footballer remained desperate to pull on the Three Lions shirt.
“Everyone wants to play in international games,” said Owen, who captains England in Beckham’s absence. “You don’t get the chance to play in hundreds of international games like you do for club games. We do play a lot of club games but we have big squads so managers can deal with that.”
International work-outs like Saturday’s were important. “If we didn’t have this friendly, we would be going into a European qualifier (in Slovakia on October 12) with our last game being the World Cup defeat to Brazil,” he continued. “It is not as if we play 10 friendlies between every competitive international. If we have one friendly between Brazil and our first competitive game that’s a fair compromise. With the young age group of the squad, we need to play together to gel well.”
Owen rejected the suggestion that players were often ordered by club managers to miss internationals through invented injuries. “I can only recall one or two times when I have had to pull out,” the Liverpool striker said. “They have been legitimate injuries — I have not played in the next club game.
“The manager (Houllier) has never had any problems with me being here. He has been an international manager — he knows the pride we get out of playing for the country. He has always been great towards me joining up. He has never sent me off to England with orders to play only this or that amount of time. I’m sure if he wants me to play only a half a game, he will tell the manager (Sven-Goran Eriksson).”
Owen’s club-mate, Gerrard, has tended to miss friendlies but stressed their significance. “I am motivated for every game I play — whether friendly or important,” the midfielder said. “Friendlies are all about improving ourselves before the qualifiers come up. As far as I am concerned, I will play all of them and give my all.”
England were unhappy that Gerrard was forced to miss the World Cup for a groin operation they felt he could have undergone earlier in the season; Houllier, though, needed Gerrard available for as many games as possible as Liverpool sought a Champions League place.
“It was a massive disappointment missing the World Cup,” Gerrard said. “I could have said ‘yeah’ and gone and maybe been fit but my groin was not in a condition where I could have played three games in eight days. Towards the end of the season, my groin got worse and worse. It was fairer to let fitter players go and Nicky Butt had a fantastic World Cup. Of all the players, Nicky impressed me the most; he came in and took my position and did really well.”
Gerrard watched England’s games on television at home and on holiday in Dubai, reflecting his commitment to the cause by living every moment vicariously.