'I had to decide who's most likely to get you a goal from 20 yards out of nothing,' he said. 'Obafemi Martins is more likely to do that than Michael Owen.'
It was a damning indictment of how far a man once regarded as England's best player for a generation had fallen. Yet now he stands on the cusp of a move to Manchester United. Premier League champions, world champions, European Cup finalists. Owen has the chance to drink Dom Perignon in the last chance saloon. In Manchester, caution has greeted the news of his unparalleled shot at resurrection. In Liverpool, scorn. All over England, hope.
Teamed with Wayne Rooney
, Owen can not only use Sir Alex Ferguson's faith to prove himself as a Premier League campaigner and a Champions League competitor, but also send a message to a man in the vanguard of the movement to decry his career as over. If it works out, Owen could yet be summering in South Africa next year.
Fabio Capello, despite his non-committal public utterances, does not believe Owen offers enough as a striker to warrant a place in his squad, let alone his side. Even at his very best, he was little more than a goal scorer, valuable enough in its own right but a breed dying out as the game demands more from its forwards.
Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba provide the blueprints for the modern striker. Both are highly mobile, strong and quick, capable of creating and finishing chances in equal measure. Owen is a throwback to days, perhaps not so long ago, when the striker's task was a simpler one. Measures taken by Kevin Keegan to convert Owen into a deep-lying forward, in the mould of Teddy Sheringham, failed. Owen is a recidivist. He cannot change.
At United, though, he may not have to. His signing seems to suggest Ferguson is preparing to ditch the 4-3-2-1 system he constructed to make the most of Cristiano Ronaldo's myriad talents and revert to a 4-4-2, primarily with Wayne Rooney
and Dimitar Berbatov as his attacking pair, with Owen the cover. Luis Antonio Valencia will occupy one wing, Nani, Ji-Sung Park, Zoran Tosic or Fabio da Silva the other, with Michael Carrick and Anderson in the centre.
It is the formation which suits Owen best. He cannot play as a lone frontman, the trademark of football in the first decade of the 21st century, and he cannot occupy a role on the wing in a 4-3-3. But in a 4-4-2, he can afford to be himself. Rooney, or Berbatov, will supply the ammunition, and all Owen will have to do is take the shot.
Their partnership for England was not an unqualified success, but they have certainly proved they can play together. If they can click for United, Capello may have to acknowledge that Owen still has a part to play at the World Cup next year. The Italian has looked to Emile Heskey to bring the best out of Rooney, but he may find that he has a more effective weapon if Rooney is deployed to get the best out of Owen.