It was the morning after the night before and Michael Owen looked a little embarrassed when the first question centred on his latest TV appearance. The previous evening Owen and his wife, Louise, had appeared on ITV's All Star Mr & Mrs show, which was guaranteed to provide his new Stoke City team-mates with plenty of ammunition before training started. "I'm going to take some stick for that, for sure," he says with a chuckle.
It is good to see Owen smiling again and decked out in full training kit after a summer when one of England's finest goalscorers looked as if he might be left on the shelf. Owen's reputation has preceded him ever since he scored that goal in St Etienne 14 years ago, although these days it is the lack of appearances and injuries that spring most readily to mind, rather than the sight of a teenager leaving the Argentina defence in his wake. Six Premier League starts in three years at Manchester United tells its own story.
Stoke have had a longstanding interest in Owen and made their move as soon as Sir Alex Ferguson decided there was no value in keeping a forward who played only 79 minutes of Premier League football last season. Tony Pulis met Owen several months ago and, although it was not until last week that a one-year deal was agreed, the Stoke manager had always been quietly confident he would sign the player. "I kept the No10 shirt for him and loads of people wanted it," says Pulis, who was a spectator in St Etienne at the 1998 World Cup.
Owen, keen to find a Premier League club close to his family home in Cheshire, as well as the stables that occupy so much of his time, says he is happy with the end result. "I'm really pleased to sign here. It ticks an awful lot of boxes. And the manager has been keen to sign me for a number of years. It's nice to feel wanted and to have that feeling of anticipation again, not just for yourself but for the fans. It's a club that anyone can see with their own eyes has been on an upward curve for quite some time."
The same cannot be said for Owen's career. He spent more time watching than playing at United and at times it was hard to understand how he could be content to have such a peripheral role. "People say I should've gone earlier but in those first couple of years I had some great memories, scoring cup final goals [against Aston Villa in the League Cup], hat-tricks in the Champions League and the winner versus Man City," Owen says. "People conveniently forget all that and talk about all the time I was on the bench.
"The thing is, when the manager said to me [before the 2011-12 season] that I would have a big role to play and he wanted me to stay, it was great to hear that from Sir Alex Ferguson. But in hindsight that extra year, it might have been better if I had moved – though the problem last season was I was injured, so it might not have mattered anyway."
If there was one moment that summed up Owen's time at Old Trafford it was the Saturday in December 2009 when he was left out of the side for the visit of Aston Villa three days after scoring a hat-trick against Wolfsburg in the Champions League. Owen just took it on the chin. "I've never been one to complain," he says. "I was privileged to play at a top club like Manchester United. It was everything I hoped it would be. Manager, players, fans, staff, everything was brilliant. I would not even think of complaining one iota.
"I scored a hat-trick in one game and did not start the next but that goes to show how good the players were. I'd be foolish to think at 30 or 31 I was going to play ahead of Wayne Rooney and the top players there. I don't take it as a slant on me. It was more the other way – the manager suggesting I could be at a top club with some of the best players in the world. But if I score a hat-trick here, you'd probably expect to play."
It will be fascinating to see how Owen fares at Stoke, whether he avoids injury and goes on to form another potent partnership with Peter Crouch – the two of them scored 11 goals at a rate of one every 52 minutes during the 571 minutes they played together for England between 2005 and 2008. "The evidence is there for all to see that we have done well together in the past," Owen says before politely pointing out there are other strikers at the club.
First of all Owen has to prove his fitness. He says he is in "decent shape" but he has not played a competitive game in 10 months and admitted to feeling "just a little bit rusty in training", which suggests the best he can hope for at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday is a place on the bench. That Manchester City are the opponents, almost three years to the day since he came off the bench to score a dramatic injury-time winner against them for United, means the stage is set for him.
Owen described that moment as "a memory that no one will ever take away from me", although his ambitions at Stoke stretch well beyond scoring against the champions. Asked whether he felt like a man on a mission after the last few years, he replied: "That's a very good way of putting it – that's how I feel. People say you have things to prove and I suppose you have. I want to prove I can stand the rigours of a full season and from the club's point of view that's a slight risk. But I think we all like to think it's a risk worth taking."
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