MANCHESTER, July 31- Despite the flood of big-money arrivals across town at Manchester City, it is Manchester United's signing of Michael Owen that ranks as the most surprising transfer of the close-season.At 29, and with four miserable seasons behind him, the future looked bleak when Owen became a free agent in June in the aftermath of Newcastle’s relegation to the Championship.
The former Liverpool star had been written off as injury-prone and having lost the pace and goal-scoring instincts that marked the peak of his career.
Owen’s agents even took the remarkable step of sending out a glossy brochure to clubs around Europe to alert them to their client’s availability.
Although Owen claims there was quiet interest from elsewhere, Hull and Stoke were the only clubs to publicise their desire to sign the former golden boy of English football.
Twelve months away from the World Cup in South Africa, another relegation scrap would hardly have been ideal for Owen to push his way back into Fabio Capello’s plans.
But Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision not to match Real Madrid’s 35 million pounds bid for Lyon’s Karim Benzema meant that the United manager needed another striker following Carlos Tevez’s departure.
And the Scot had no hesitation in rushing through the two-year deal for ex-Real Madrid forward Owen that shocked English football.
A few weeks on, Owen has settled quickly at Old Trafford and scored four goals in his first four pre-season games for his new club.
Owen’s displays – and the regularity of his appearances – have quickly dispelled concerns about his conditioning.
Now few pundits would bet against Owen, fitness permitting, being a regular goal-scorer for Ferguson this season and booking a place in Capello’s squad for South Africa.
At United Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov both drift into deep and wide areas and Owen’s desire to slip into channels and latch onto anything around the six-yard area should give the team more balance.
And even without Cristiano Ronaldo and Tevez, United’s larger squad means Ferguson can pick and choose when to use Owen, which should give him a better chance of steering clear of injuries.
With no transfer fee involved, Ferguson feels the move is risk-free for United and has handed the former Anfield star the iconic number seven shirt.
"His injuries have always been the main subject and that is probably why everyone in Europe was not after him," Ferguson said.
"We don’t think we have taken a risk, given his record as a goal-scorer.
"It is a good punt, or a good bet on him to do well, and hopefully we are right. He is a natural goal-scorer and his record is fantastic.
"He is 29 now and he has just got to stay the way he has been for 10 years."
United’s players have been full of praise for their new team-mate’s attitude and ability.
Ryan Giggs feels that joining United could be a catalyst for Owen to surpass Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals for England.
And the veteran midfielder believes Owen can give United another dimension.
"Michael is a predator in the box and that is something we have not really had since Ruud Van Nistelrooy left," Giggs said.
"Our chances to goals conversion ratio was not so good last season, but Michael should improve that.
"Michael is a goal poacher who scores all types of goals. He scores headers, tap-ins, and he scored a great volley in China.
"They have all come from inside the box and that is where he does his work. It’s where he comes alive."