LONDON: Michael Owen, once the embodiment of youth and promise in English football, has had his thunder stolen.
The Liverpool striker, now 23, is no longer the Next Big Thing. That honour is being disputed by Wayne Rooney and James Milner, two teenagers whose precocious talents have lit up the Premier League in the dying weeks of 2002.
Everton’s Rooney was first to emerge, becoming the youngest player to score a league goal since Owen in 1997 when he netted the winner against champions Arsenal – aged 16 years, 359 days – in October.
But as fans marvelled at the skills of “Roonaldo,” another tyro appeared almost unnoticed.
Milner, who made his first team debut for Leeds United in November, eclipsed Rooney by setting a new record for youngest goalscorer – he was 16 years, 356 days when his strike against Sunderland on Dec 26 helped Leeds win 2-1.
The media hysteria surrounding Milner and particularly Rooney has probably not been seen since Paul Gascoigne burst on the scene in 1985 as an 18-year-old for Newcastle United.
As with Gascoigne, the most startling similarity between Rooney and Milner is their uncanny grasp of a “man’s game” at such a tender age.
Not only are they blessed with great talent, they are physically tough and appear mentally strong enough to cope with the demands of professional football at a time when their peers are still learning their trade in the youth teams.
Rooney, now 17, already has enough of a physical presence to trouble the most battle-hardened of defenders and his ability to lead Everton’s forward line marks him out as a rarity.
He knows where to run, how to time his runs, he can play with his back to goal or with the ball out in front. Ask England keeper David Seaman, who was beaten by a Rooney rocket from 25m at Goodison Park in October.
No less a judge than Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger called Rooney “the best talent I have seen in my time in England.”
Everton manager David Moyes is refusing to allow Rooney to talk to the media, wary of loading a young temperament with too much pressure too soon.
Milner, slightly gawky, at least looks his age and he does not turn 17 until Saturday.
The attacking midfielder is strongly built and the confidence he showed in possession during Leeds’ 2-0 win over Chelsea at Elland Road on Saturday was breathtaking.
He left World Cup winner Marcel Desailly on his backside in scoring Leeds’ second goal – after picking up the ball on the edge of the area, Milner skipped past the Frenchman and curled a perfect shot into the corner of Chelsea’s net.
“(Milner) is a player who is very sure of himself, he is mature and very confident without being too cocky, and he is a pleasure to work with,” Leeds manager Terry Venables told the club’s website.
“There is not much missing from his performance. He has very quick feet, he can play on the right side and the left and he can turn people very quickly.”
Rooney and Milner have undoubtedly impressed England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and it will be a surprise if Rooney is not called up for England’s friendly against Australia in February.
But as soon as they start pushing for England recognition, it will be time for the elder statesman Owen to rise to the challenge. – Reuters