The 1998 World Cup is my earliest football memory of substance.
Seven years old at the time, I watched the games at a British Legion thick with fog (the smoking ban was nine years away) and the unified celebrations excited me in a way that was new and pure.
By the time England had reached the knockouts – thanks to wins against Tunisia and Colombia – I was fully invested.
In the build-up to the round of 16 fixture, I first learned about the Falkland Islands and a mysterious villain who was capable of wielding the hand of God.
After a breathless first ten minutes in which both teams had converted penalties, a moment of divine inspiration…
England’s young pup flicked the ball in front of him and accelerated as if in fast-forward.
The baby-faced superhero evaded Argentina’s hopeless henchman before unleashing a strike of devastating accuracy.
It was the first goal I ever sensed a couple of seconds before it happened — that rising anticipation as a rapid player bears down on goal is one of the sport’s great sensations.
I can still hear the commentary: “It’s still Michael Owen, he’s scored a wonderful goal!”
That was the exact moment my childhood hero was determined.
Never mind the heartbreaking drama that followed — David Beckham’s dismissal and the denial of David Batty.
From then on, when I played in the garden with a plastic ball bought from a petrol station, it was Roberto Ayala who I sidestepped before lashing home the finish (though more than a few invaded the neighbour’s garden).
And I imagined the commentary: “It’s still Nick Elliott, he’s scored a wonderful goal!”
When people talk about iconic moments “inspiring the next generation”, it’s not hyperbole.
In this instance, Owen’s goal didn’t spawn a future England goalscorer as I simply wasn’t good enough — I’ve found my level at Thursday night five-a-side.
But that connection – between infatuated youngster and their idle – is truly special.
For as long as it lasts, anyway.
The story I have indulgently described above will be at least partially familiar to most of you.
You may not have been outside a semi-detached house in Surrey and it may not have been Michael Owen, but you spent hours emulating a chosen hero somewhere.
Whether you were kicking a tennis ball in your front room, a Coke bottle in the playground, or a rock in streets, the joyous escapism that came with pretending to be your hero was the same.
I invite you now to consider your relationship with your childhood hero as it is now.
This will vary considerably depending on your age of course.
Many of you who idolised Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as kids probably feel the same about them now, such has been the incredible duration of their dual reign.
But there must be some Arsenal fans who wished they were Robin van Persie once upon a time?
It’s a complex process; revising your relationship with your childhood hero.
Mine unravelled gradually over the course of many years.
Since I’m not a Liverpool fan, it started when I realised the tribal nature of club loyalty and felt obliged to adopt Leeds players as my closest heroes.
Still I enjoyed Owen’s exploits as English football’s boy wonder.
Then injuries stripped him of his invincibility and rendered him mortal.
His Ballon d’Or triumph, hat-trick in Munich, and transfer to Real Madrid partly restored his powers — the ‘Galacticos’ were a multi-national who’s who of childhood idols.
But as I got older, and the childlike wonder faded.
Owen joined Newcastle where it became starkly apparent he wasn’t sufficiently invested in the cause.
The recent spat between him and Alan Shearer has only served to illuminate those ill-fated years on Tyneside further.
Then he joined Man United – Leeds’ rivals – in a move that irked me but enraged the Liverpool faithful who used to cheer him.
United fans were wary of his injury record and his Merseyside past, Newcastle fans despised him, Real Madrid fans were indifferent towards a player they thought of as a bench warmer.
Suddenly the prince of ’98 had few admirers outside his family and friends.
I was wholly detached from Owen by the time he hung up his boots in 2013 after an underwhelming spell at Stoke.
Though that wasn’t to be the end of the former golden boy’s deterioration.
A move into punditry made him a national punchline, with fans of all clubs mocking his simplistic analysis.
It’s now impossible for me to read his name or see his face without an inward cringe.
I don’t hate Owen by any means.
I suspect he’s a decent bloke who has often been misunderstood.
But my opinion of him is complicated by my former adoration.
I’ve just taken a break from writing this to watch Owen’s goal against Argentina on YouTube, to see if I felt anything.
It stills stirs something deep inside me, that little boy in the garden with the petrol station ball.
Although, watching it back now, I’m fascinated by how inexplicably deep Ayala is positioned — he comes out of nowhere.
What’s undone is done.