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Michael Owen highlights mental health concerns for retiring footballers

Michael Owen highlights mental health concerns for retiring footballers
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The former England striker said his career was on the decline at 23 years old.

For a man who admits he peaked at 19, Michael Owen is philosophical about turning 40 this weekend.

However, he is concerned retirement is a major problem for footballers who struggle to cope both mentally and financially.

While he has considerable business interests, not least his Manor House Stables now racing has become his sporting passion, as well as media work, he knows a number of his contemporaries are struggling.

"When you retire you are worthless to your employers, you are pretty worthless to the game and to get your head around that is quite tricky," he told the PA news agency in an exclusive interview.

"The stats are quite staggering when you look at footballers retiring – the breakdown of marriages, what they turn to. A lot of it doesn't surface, where they are financially, mentally.

"People think, 'They're all on 100-grand a week'. Go and check, there are more bankrupt than living the life of luxury.

"It is the most dangerous sport mentally. You are retired at 33. If you haven't got your head screwed on setting up a business or doing something to keep you going you would go doolally.

"I'd like to think I came through it and I'm in a good place, but I see all the time old players I used to play with and it is heartbreaking."

Michael Owen's 1998 World Cup goal against Argentina catapulted him to worldwide fame
Michael Owen's 1998 World Cup goal against Argentina catapulted him to worldwide fame (Seam Dempsey/PA)

In his current book Michael Owen Reboot the former England, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United star talks about "dark forces" and being on a "cliff edge" in 2014, the year after he retired.

In his interview he spoke of the "emptiness" of not training, of not feeling "special" any more and asking himself questions about the purpose of his life.

"It has some side-effects and it did with me, fortunately not anything serious but it easily could have been," added Owen, whose relationship with wife Louise suffered.

"It is hard to explain. Even when I knew I was rubbish at 33 compared to what I was, I still thought I was the best player in the world. It's a struggle and you're fighting your own brain."

Part of Owen's 'problem' was that he packed in so much so soon, making his Liverpool debut aged 17, winning back-to-back Golden Boots in his first two full seasons and showcasing his talent to the world with a stunning World Cup goal for England at 18.

By the end of 2001 he had won a treble with Liverpool, scored a hat-trick in the famous 5-1 win against Germany and lifted the Ballon d'Or.

From that point it was downhill all the way.

"Up until the age of 20 I was one of the best players in the world at that age," said Owen, who was hampered by chronic hamstring problems.

"That continued for a certain period of time, but then injuries slowed me down. I was probably on the decline at 23.

"When you rupture one of your hamstrings and it doesn't repair I was compromised. That happened at 19 and I won the Ballon d'Or at 21.

"I think I was at my very best at 17, 18, 19 and then at 21, 22 I was still right up there but on the decline."

Owen's 1998 World Cup goal against Argentina elevated him to a different level, but his personal highlight was his 2001 FA Cup final winner against Arsenal.

"The better goal was the goal against Argentina because of the quality of it, but if you said to me now I could rewind my life and have one day again then I would say Cardiff against Arsenal in the FA Cup final," he said.

With a landmark birthday to celebrate on Saturday it seems an appropriate time to reflect.

Owen has no regrets about signing for Liverpool's arch-rivals Manchester United
Owen has no regrets about signing for Liverpool's arch-rivals Manchester United (Dave Thompson/PA)

"I'm really pleased I played for Real Madrid, it was an opportunity to try something different, it was the Holy Grail in many ways to go and play for Barcelona or Real Madrid," he said.

"Following that I wished things had been different and I had come back to Liverpool and lived happily ever after.

"But I would still sign for Man United because that was the best option at the time.

"I'm not ashamed of what I did despite people wanting me to be ashamed.

"It was never my dream to play for Stoke, Man United or Newcastle but that's where my career took me."

:: Michael Owen Reboot, published by Reach Sport, is on sale now in hardback, digital book and audiobook.

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