|Owen and Wilkinson: the pair of tens in need of a full house
||[Oct. 28th, 2006|12:08 pm]
Our correspondents join England's injured duo at their first meeting |
IN THE end it was rather romantic. A sunset glowing pink and orange behind the Tyne Bridge, ten past six and 10 to 10. “So which of us has got the most bits of metal in them?” Michael Owen asks, by way of introduction.
“I haven’t got any,” Jonny Wilkinson replies.
“So I win that one,” Owen says. “I wish I didn’t.”
“But have you done a groin?” Wilkinson proffers.
“No. That’s one-all,” Owen counters quickly. “I hope you win this game.”
And on we go. This is a strange kind of blind date. The two have never met, yet know each other nevertheless. They have been the pin-up names of Newcastle sport for the 14 months since Owen became a Magpie and yet, in that time, have played only a handful of games between them.
They have both won BBC Sports Personality of the Year and watched each other on TV, yet never in the flesh. Wilkinson has even spent large chunks of time at Newcastle United’s indoor training centre in Longbenton and has come across a number of United footballers there; but never Owen.
It has taken a year for the two Newcastle No 10s to meet, a succession of dates being cancelled, invariably at the hands of another injury. But with the pair of them crocked simultaneously — Wilkinson hopes to make his latest comeback a week today — unhappy circumstance finally unites them.
“You feel lonely when you’re injured,” Owen says, albeit that he had now found something of a soul-mate. “I’d like to put a sticker on my head saying:
‘Doing fine, thanks. Don’t ask.’ It is a challenge mentally being injured, but I do feel I can cope with it.”
This last statement is noted down in Wikinson’s head. “Do you ever,” Wilkinson asks, “get that feeling on a Saturday: ‘I am a football player and I am not playing, so what am I? I am a bit purposeless.’ ”
“A little bit,” Owen replies, though you suspect he is being charitable here.
“Guilt” is a word they both relate to regarding injury. Wilkinson says his sympathies lie with José María Olazábal, who returned endorsement cheques when he was not playing; if he agrees with that sentiment, Owen does not say so.
Owen does say, though — twice — that he can “switch off” when injured: “Straight away, I think. A year out might put another year on, or it might give me the chance to do this or that. I trick myself. I convince myself that this is good for me.”
Wilkinson, who has had considerably more injury experience, finds it far more of a struggle. “I find I go back inside myself, staring at walls, ruminating,” he says. Owen has a cool, straightforward mentality; Wilkinson is more of a tortured soul. Owen admires Wilkinson, yet Wilkinson would like to be more like Owen. And we are still on the subject of the physics of the knee.
Yet they enjoy sharing experiences. Would you go to the cinema? Do you read your marks out of ten in the newspapers? Can you walk into a room in a public place and immediately sense how many people have twigged who it is that you are? (Yes, both.) Do you loathe mediocrity of attitude? (Yes, both again.)
Wilkinson is famously shy yet has a real appetite for this conversation. However, it seems that what interests them most is where they are so different. One of Wilkinson’s driving forces is fear: “Fear of getting completely smashed in a legal tackle, because that is a show of someone’s total dominance over you. It’s not a fear of being hurt, it’s fear of being embarrassed.”
He asks Owen: “Isn’t missing the open goal the fear for you?” And Owen’s reply floors him somewhat: “Yes, but there’s always a bobble or something. It wouldn’t be my fault. You have total belief that you can’t get made to look inadequate. Even if I did get totally done by a defender, I could still convince myself that I could have beaten him.”
“My problem,” Wilkinson says, “is that I take offence at people running directly at me as if to say, ‘I’m bigger than you’. It’s as if that’s a slur on my character. So I sprint into them.”
“Yes,” Owen says, wryly, “and injure yourself. You can tackle by bringing someone down as they’re going past, but you tend not to.”
The key here is the way they have trained their minds. Owen has a brain that has learnt to iron out self-doubt; Wilkinson, conversely, is governed by it and has only managed to conquer it through his infamous excesses on the training field. When he tells Owen how his kicking sessions can often stretch on for an extra hour and a half if he is not happy, Owen’s eyes roll.
“For a long time I interpreted this training regime as a double strength,” Wilkinson says. “I would go into a game feeling I doubly deserved to win.” Owen counters: “I wouldn’t do that extra hour and a half. I just always find a positive. I can play poorly and make a spin on it, convince myself. I know people who have to train well or they feel they won’t play well — David James, for instance. If he doesn’t train well then three hours later in the hotel he is still talking about it.
“I don’t think that I am a particularly good trainer. I certainly won’t sit there thinking: ‘I missed that last chance on Friday afternoon, so I’m in trouble for Saturday.’ ”
“I envy that in you,” Wilkinson says, “that faith in your natural ability, the confidence of knowing that you will score and that if it doesn’t happen this week, it’ll happen next week. That’s brilliant. I am trying to learn that.”
Wilkinson asks if footballers train as robotically as he does. Owen: “Well, I’m not sure I’ve met a footballer who’s as dedicated as . . . ”
Wilkinson: “Obsessed, you mean.”
“I wouldn’t say you’re the norm in rugby,” Owen says, as if in defence of his sport. “It’s you who are a lot different.”
“I am a classic obsessive,” Wilkinson concedes, regaling Owen with another yarn about a training session when he has converted 55 kicks from 55 — and is still going. “You’re right,” Owen says. “You are obsessed.”
Yet this was not just a case of two elite athletes swapping notes. They have both been successful in finding their own path to the top, yet they acknowledge on meeting how much they could learn from the other. “Every impression I had of you beforehand has probably been doubled,” Owen says. “I actually feel a bit lazy. I need to improve.”
“I need to meet successful people like you,” Wilkinson replies. “It’s nice to see someone doing it differently, doing it with better balance than me. You’ve got the kind of balance I’m after. Your attitude to training is great for me to hear. I am always keen to learn, but I’ve got a lot to do.”
Maybe we will see a bit of it in Wilkinson as another comeback looms. He knows that Owen’s way makes sense. And Owen knows that there is something to be said for Wilkinson’s way, too. Something. Not too much. But it was fascinating meeting you.
JW: With penalties, do you believe that if you went for a certain area and could always put it within a yard of that target, you would score every time?
MO: Yes, you would.
JW: I’d hate to take a penalty in football. The whole idea of having a keeper there changes the deal completely. When we practise, all we have to deal with is the wind.
MO: When you practise a conversion, do you believe you are recreating a situation in the game? Because what footballers say is you can do it in training. So why on earth in a World Cup can you not get within two metres of the same spot?
JW: For me, you can always hear the crowd and your heart isn’t beating any slower, but you just realise it doesn’t have to affect what you’re doing. I believe and I have believed that if you do something over and over again, it becomes machine-like, robotic. The memory-path in your head means you get this close every time — the margins are good enough to succeed.
MO: You’ve got to be mentally great to do it, because I’ve taken penalties when I’ve thought: “Bloody hell, I don’t fancy this, the keeper looks massive.”
“IF YOU MISS, START AGAIN”
JW: I am a classic obsessive, classically driven. As a kid, I was one of those people who shoots paper in a bin and thinks, “If I miss this one, I’m going to die.”
MO: Oh, I do that. I will drive to a game and if I overtake someone and touch one of the cat’s eyes in the middle of the road, I won’t score. Or in the dressing-room I will aim for the rubbish bin and think, “If this goes in, we win and I score a hat-trick.” If it misses I will go and get it. Then it’ll be, “If this goes in, we win and I score two goals.”
JW: I have always had six kicks at the end of a training session. Normally I put six through the posts and think “job done”. But if you miss one you have to start them again. And if you miss one early, then you think, “Now you are really pissing me off.” An hour and a half later I can be starting the whole session again.
MO: I just always find a positive, like, “I kept trying.” Find a positive even if you did crap that day.
JW: But at the end of all that I will go home feeling even stronger, feeling, “Well, someone really threw a curve ball at me, but I went back and did it.” I interpreted that for a long time as a double strength. I would go into a game feeling, “I doubly deserve to win now because no one else will have done that.”
OWEN'S STRESS AND STRAIN
Concussion - out for four weeks. Had two brain scans
Various injuries, mainly thigh - out for six weeks
Hamstring - out for three weeks
Hamstring - out for four months either side of close-season
Hamstring - out for six weeks
Hamstring - out for five weeks
Knee ligament - out for possibly a year
Shin - out for three weeks
Metatarsal - out for four months
WILKINSON'S PAIN GAME
Fractures facet in shoulder - out for three weeks
Operation on neck and shoulder - out for six months
Injures shoulder and arm - out for two months
Haematoma upper right arm - out for six weeks
Appendix removed - out for four weeks
Groin strain - out for two months
Torn adductor muscle - out for three months
Medial left knee ligament damage - out for two months
Reinjures same knee - out for two months
Medial right knee ligament damage - still out