Offside, 23 January
Michael Owen's gambling vice almost made him appealing - until he went and spoilt it.
Michael Owen’s halo slipped this week when he was ‘outed’ as a gambler and, just for a moment, I almost started to like the guy.
Michael Owen is the perfect football hero for our times: polite, squeaky-clean and nauseatingly bland. ‘He does not drink, does not smoke and rarely goes out’, says his manager Gerard Houllier.
In an age when footballers are expected to be role models it is no coincidence that the modern game has become a personality-free zone populated by nice-but-dull characters like Owen. Gone are the hell-raisers and heavy drinkers; people like Peter Osgood, Georgie Best and Stan Bowles. There is of course Dwight Yorke, whose unstinting dedication to womanising is wholly admirable, but such characters are becoming increasingly rare.
The revelation that Michael Owen actually has a vice – he likes a flutter on the nags – has added a little bit of colour to an otherwise relentlessly grey personality. Owen is a great striker and I’ll gladly cheer him on when he’s wearing the England jersey, but there is an irritating and almost creepy ultra-normality to his lifestyle. He bought five houses in the same street so he could live near his family. He enjoys nothing better than a round of golf with his dad. He still dates his childhood sweetheart Louise Bonsall. In short, he is a middle-aged man trapped in the body of a 23-year-old.
Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher very rarely says anything intelligible or interesting but I fully concur with his assessment of the Liverpool striker. ‘Michael Owen and Alan Shearer? They’re fucking coppers, man’, Liam told the NME. ‘Alan Shearer is CID and Michael Owen looks like trainee CID.’
But this week’s Sunday Mirror forced me to think again. ‘OWEN’S £2m BETTING SPREE’, screamed the front-page headline (1). Could it be that beneath that sensible, well-mannered boy-next-door image lurks a louche high-roller who inhabits the seedy netherworld of casinos and gambling dens?
The revelations about Owen’s gambling losses came at the end of a week when football’s gambling culture was the big talking point. Chelsea’s Eidur Gudjohnsen admitted losing £400,000 at a casino; Ruud van Nistelrooy revealed that his Manchester United team-mates gambled some of their ‘obscene’ and ‘astronomical’ wages on card games; and Tony Cascarino claimed that one England player had run up a £30,000 ‘card school’ gambling debt during the World Cup. Footballers, it is said, have too much money and too much time on their hands.
Invariably, the rehab lobby took its cue to sermonise about the dangers of gambling addiction. ‘Footballers competing at the highest level have admitted that they can’t get off the pitch quick enough to see who’s won the 4.45 at Haydock’, says Dr Austin Tate, medical director of the Priory clinic. ‘It deeply saddens me to see such talented sportsmen throwing away their lives like this.’ (Yeah, I bet he’s gutted at the prospect of all those millionaire fuck-ups booking into his £3000-a-week funny farm.)
As is now customary, football’s most illustrious recovering addicts also piped up. ‘They talk about drugs or drinking but the biggest danger faced by footballers these days is gambling’, said Paul Merson. ‘Gambling wrecks more lives in football than any of the other vices’, he added.
‘It can be just as dangerous as any other addiction’, warned recovering alcoholic Tony Adams. ‘They lose their self-respect and before they know where they are, they are nicking money out of their kids’ savings to have a bet.’ Never mind gambling, how do we tackle the problem of therapy-cases who can’t stop banging on about addiction?
Michael Owen has admitted that he has ‘gambled occasionally’ but that the sums of money involved are ‘nowhere near the levels reported’. Fair enough. His betting losses of £30,000 to 40,000 over two years sound excessive, but this is small change for a player who reportedly pockets £70,000 a week.
But just when we had glimpsed a devilish side to the boy wonder he reverted to type, saying: ‘I fully accept that high profile sports people like me are a role model for youngsters and I would never encourage anyone to gamble.’ Spoken like a true copper.
(1) Sunday Mirror, 19 January 2002
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