Michael Owen called time on his career on Sunday but there was to be no fairy-tale ending, as Stoke were held to a 1-1 draw at Southampton.
After an illustrious career that has taken him to Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle and Manchester United, the former England striker announced in March that this was to be his last season. Winner of the Ballon d’Or in 2001, a career that started with such brilliance tailed off in his latter years as injuries took their toll.
The fact Owen has not started a league match for Stoke since joining them last summer only highlights that and he began the final game of his career on the bench. The clash got off to a blistering start with Adam Lallana hitting the post and Rickie Lambert having a goal chalked off for offside inside the opening 31 seconds.
That was as good as it got in a poor first half, with Stoke returning after the break with a bang as Peter Crouch headed them ahead within two minutes. Lambert netted the 15th goal of his debut Barclays Premier League season to level and, with 16 minutes remaining, Owen came on to a standing ovation from all four corners of the ground.
There was to be no dream ending, though, as the match ended 1-1, leaving both sides looking forward to another season in the Premier League and the former England striker preparing for a life after football. The big talk in the build-up surrounded off-field issues at both clubs.
Executive chairman Nicola Cortese ended speculation about his future on Saturday by committing himself to Southampton, while Stoke were forced to a launch an internal investigation after a training-ground prank went wrong.
Kenwyne Jones smashed team-mate Glenn Whelan’s car windscreen in a mistaken act of retribution after he found a pig’s head wrapped in his clothes. Jones did not travel to the south coast to face his former club, while Whelan continued to miss out through a groin injury.
Saints got off to a fine start at St Mary’s and Lallana saw a fine low strike tipped onto the post by Asmir Begovic, with Lambert lashing home the rebound from a tight angle.
The top scorer wheeled off in celebration but his strike after just 31 seconds was rightly chalked off for offside. Stoke were struggling to deal with Saints’ early attacking intent and Lambert fired a long-range effort wide, before heading over when backpedalling to meet a Nathaniel Clyne cross.
Stoke were struggling to make an impression and, after Tony Pulis replaced Marc Wilson with Andy Wilkinson in the 20th minute, there were appeals for a spot-kick.
Jos Hooiveld slipped under pressure from Jonathan Walters, who looked set to get a shot away until Morgan Schneiderlin came back to barge him off the ball but referee Lee Probert waved away penalty shouts.
Stoke were beginning to threaten the hosts with increasing regularity and Matthew Etherington came close with a dipping half volley, before Kelvin Davis got down well to deny a low Walters shot. There would be no breakthrough in the first half, but just 67 seconds after the restart came the opening goal.
Geoff Cameron swung in a fine right-wing cross to Crouch and the former Southampton striker headed past Kelvin Davis in front of the 2,767 travelling fans.
It was a great start to the half by Stoke but the goal seemed to kick-start Southampton into life. A fine cut-back by Clyne was struck goalwards by Steven Davis, whose effort would have found the back of the net had it not been for Begovic’s fine reactions.
The former Portsmouth goalkeeper did well to block a fierce Lambert shot shortly afterwards, but could not hold Saints at bay for long. Begovic did excellently to stop a Steven Davis strike sneaking in but Lambert was alert to fire home the rebound, ending a 621-minute wait for a goal.
Were it not for the reactions of Ryan Shawcross, Saints could have turned the game on its head almost immediately. Substitute Wilkinson directed the ball dangerously towards his own goal but the Stoke captain rose highest to head the ball clear away from danger.
Much of the attention was on Stoke’s bench, though, and chants of "bring Michael Owen on" were followed by his 74th-minute introduction. However, the former England striker was unable to cap his final match with a goal – much to the relief of Saints boss Mauricio Pochettino, whose leg Owen admitted he took a tumble over at the 2002 World Cup.
The hosts came closest to nabbing the winner, but Begovic was a match for Jay Rodriguez and Jason Puncheon efforts before Emmanuel Mayuka fired into the side-netting.