The outstanding talent of Owen Hargreaves and the dread of injuries

The outstanding talent of Owen Hargreaves and the dread of injuries

I once heard a joke involving Owen Hargreaves when the midfielder was a Manchester United player. The joke went along the lines of ‘Hargreaves ruled out for a further four weeks after injuring himself getting out of the shower this morning’. The joke had a variant, too, centring rather on his treacherous morning walk down the driveway instead of hanging on to the shower curtain for dear life.

In each scenario, Hargreaves got hurt. Indeed, in most scenarios during the latter years of a lamentably ephemeral career, Hargreaves ended up hurt. By the time Manchester City signed him in 2011 after an injury-ravaged stint at United, Hargreaves felt compelled to convince potential new employers of his fitness by uploading a YouTube video showing him in the midst of a particularly intensive cardiovascular exercise, a treadmill whirring away under his feet.

It may have been enough to convince Roberto Mancini to offer him a one-year contract, but there was always a lingering sense that if you saw Hargreaves in the street and threw a tennis ball at his head, he would shatter into a thousand pieces. He went on to make just four appearances for City before eventually retiring at the age of 31.

That paints an exceptionally negative portrait of Hargreaves’ later years, but they were exactly that. Cast the net further back, though, and we find a Canadian-born boy wonder who broke into Ottmar Hitzfeld’s mighty Bayern Munich side at the turn of the millennium while he was still a teenager and sparked an international tug-of-war between England and Wales, both nations eager for the rising starlet to commit his future to them.

Yes, Hargreaves wasn’t always the butt of so many jokes. In fact, for a long time he was considered an exhilarating anomaly in English football. Declaring for the Three Lions, Hargreaves was distinct amongst his international colleagues in that had he plied his trade exclusively in the top division of a foreign league. Steve McManaman maintained a presence in the national squad while playing for Real Madrid, but much of his reputation had been built whizzing down the flanks at Anfield in the red of Liverpool.

Hargreaves made England squads and earned caps despite having never kicked a ball in the Premier League. Of course, given his burgeoning reputation as one of the Bundesliga’s most impressive midfielders, he didn’t need to.

Born and raised in Canada to an English father and Welsh mother, Hargreaves began attracting admiring glances from scouts while playing for Calgary Foothills FC, ultimately earning himself a place in Bayern Munich’s revered and prestigious youth academy. He moved to Bavaria despite having no command of German, but thrived regardless.

There, Hargreaves settled comfortably into his esteemed surroundings, being moulded into a midfielder of artifice qualities thanks to training with master craftsmen like Oliver Kahn, Lothar Matthäus and Stefan Effenberg under the heedful eye of Hitzfeld. Hargreaves was a determined young man with an excellent mindset, eager to learn and adapt. He accepted that there had been a sliver of luck in a Bayern coach stumbling upon him closer to the Canadian Rockies than the Olympic Stadium in Munich and knew establishing himself in such elite company was no mean feat.

Hargreaves studied the experienced, educated feet of his Bayern elders in training and meticulously honed his free-kick taking skills with Mehmet Scholl. Hargreaves was receiving an Ivy League-standard education in how to become a world-class footballer – and he was listening to his professors.

bayern lahm muller

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As it were, Hargreaves was thrown under the intimidating glare of the global spotlight before long.

May 2001, and Bayern are within touching distance of another Champions League, just two years after the heartache of losing to Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble-clinching Manchester United. The Bundesliga giants are 1-0 up against Real Madrid after the first-leg of their semi-final, but there’s a hole in their midfield. Effenberg, the club’s fearsome captain and on-field general, was suspended. It was extremely disconcerting for Hitzfeld – Effenberg had been outstanding throughout the march to that stage. However, in the largely untested Hargreaves, who had still demonstrated extraordinary promise, Hitzfeld wielded a precarious solution.

Bayern held a slender advantage from the first game, but Madrid packed an almighty attacking punch, their artillery including Raúl, Steve McManaman, Figo and the perennial you-never-know-what-you’re-going-to-get Guti.

Hargreaves, stepping in for Effenberg, was tasked with neutralising Madrid’s menace alongside Jens Jeremies. He excelled remarkably in this showdown of European heavyweights, catching the eye with a hard-running, authoritative display which contained measure and craft well beyond his 20 years.

Making his first full Champions League appearance, he wasted no time in showing Madrid what they were up against. In the fourth minute, he dispossessed Luís Figo, the world’s most expensive player, and immediately engineered an opportunity for Giovane Élber to score. Hargreaves was a powerful, influential presence in the middle of the park for Bayern as they defeated Madrid 2-1 to reach the final.

Hitzfeld said following the game: “I threw him in at the deep end and he swam around freely.” Hargreaves, a model of industry and ebullience in midfield, also earned flattering remarks from Franz Beckenbauer, who added: “He has demonstrated that he can play in a top team. I didn’t think he would be so cool and self-confident.” Neither did most of the watching world.

Hargreaves had seized his opportunity to impress, impressing Hitzfeld enough for Der General to keep him in the starting line-up for Bayern’s Bundesliga run-in, even when Effenberg returned to the fray. It said a lot of how much of an impression Hargreaves made in the space of 90 minutes for a vastly experienced coach to entrust a precocious talent with such responsibility at a crucial time in Bayern’s season, and that he was keeping out the club captain in the process.

Hargreaves’ rapid, unstoppable surge to prominence installed him in the Bayern midfield for the Champions League showpiece at the San Siro. The midfielder and his teammates overcame Valencia on penalties to extinguish the pain of 1999 and ratify their position as the continent’s premier footballing force. Unheard of a year before, Hargreaves had become a major presence in that force, dancing to the sound of 30,000 Bayern fans singing his name in the final, marking Pablo Aimar with such efficiency that the Argentine was substituted at half-time.

Naturally, England took notice. Sven-Göran Eriksson had watched Hargreaves at Bayern for months after being notified of the player’s emergence and needed little persuading in offering him a debut senior call-up in August 2001.

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Like he did against Madrid, Hargreaves impressed at the first time of asking during a friendly against Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands. Although his exertions in central midfield had earned him the call, Hargreaves was shifted out left by Eriksson but the youngster remained unfazed, asserting himself admirably for 45 minutes.

He continued to get picked by Eriksson, perhaps also owing to an asset of versatility, to the point where he was included in the World Cup 2002 squad. It was the definition of a fast-track to stardom; Hargreaves had never played for the under-21s yet there he was, lining up alongside Paul Scholes and David Beckham against Sweden in Japan, taking the corners and free-kicks for the newly-crowned Champions League winners. Hargreaves’ leap to the pinnacle of the professional game had left both club and country starting preparations to build their respective squads around this multi-purpose midfielder.

Hargreaves was never a controversial figure – like his Bayern mentor Effenberg – but he did court controversy while at Bayern, mainly with Bayern themselves. After establishing himself as an England regular, the 21-year-old stalled on contract negotiations with Die Roten, who wanted to extend his contract by a further two years. Bayern’s anger stemmed from rather peculiar comments made by Hargreaves during an interview with Kicker magazine: “You feel a little more at home there [in England]. I have a lot of fans over there and it is something unusual if you are an England international and you don’t play there.”

Rummenigge was displeased and had a right to be. Bayern had discovered Hargreaves, trained him and provided him with the platform from which he became something. He was immensely popular with Bayern fans yet had portrayed, they felt, an unusual allegiance to England. Yes, he now represented them internationally but he had never played professionally for an English club and had never lived in the country.

As it happened, Hargreaves decided to stay, tenuously committing his future to Bayern while harbouring deeper ambitions of someday playing in the Premier League. In the 2001-02 season, he was ever-present in the Bayern side, making 49 appearances as the club finished third in the Bundesliga behind Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen.

The next season, though, was when injuries really started to hamper his progress. The 2002/03 campaign saw Hargreaves reduced to 35 appearances after missing games with thigh and adductor injuries. When he played, he was impressive, and Bayern may have captured a momentous league and cup double, but the portentous warning signs had begun to flash for Hargreaves’ career.

Then, after a 2003/04 season which failed to produce additional silverware, Hargreaves again invited offers from English clubs, only this time he did it even more candidly. “Sometimes you just know when it’s time to move on and take a new step,” he revealed to The Guardian. “That time might be now or maybe it will be after another season. But I’m very excited about the next few years and thinking where I might end up.”

Perhaps because Hitzfeld was stepping down at the end of the season or perhaps because he had started receiving offers from the Premier League, but Hargreaves’ mind was made up; he didn’t intend on staying at Bayern for much longer.

Of course, Hargreaves wasn’t that fast out the door. He stayed on for three more seasons at Bayern, the last of which saw him break his leg and miss most of the season. However, he remained an integral part of the England set-up, being the outstanding player during the World Cup 2006 quarter-final exit at the hands of Portugal. During that game, the England supporters roared “there’s only one Owen Hargreaves”, and no one had expected such chanting to take place, especially not Hargreaves.

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Football fans are mysterious creatures at times and in the build-up to the World Cup in Germany that summer, Hargreaves had been booed and heckled by his own England supporters, mainly because he played in Germany. Ridiculous, yes, but Hargreaves emphatically captured their hearts with a superb performance against Portugal, chasing down lost causes and flying in with meaty tackles, two acts that are always likely to elicit roars of approval from fans. In Gelsenkirchen that night, Hargreaves laboured stoically to convince the England fans that he was indeed one of them.

When his dream move to the Premier League finally materialised by signing for Manchester United in 2007, it should have been the dawning of the midfielder’s most exciting period yet. However, his spell at Old Trafford proved to be as torturous as the 12 months of negotiations between Bayern and United that preceded it.

Sir Alex Ferguson had been impressed by Hargreaves’ performances at the World Cup and had failed in a bid to prise him away from the Bundesliga club after Bayern had lost Michael Ballack to Chelsea, but had finally got his man. On the surface, it seemed like an arrangement both player and club could beam with positivity about; Ferguson had added a dynamic, versatile midfielder of pedigree to his squad who could either slot in alongside Michael Carrick in a 4-2-3-1 formation or operate in a four-man midfield and, at 26, Hargreaves still had his best years ahead of him. He was the combative midfielder United’s midfield needed, possessing the ability to inject speed and energy into Ferguson’s tactical plans – but it failed to transpire in such a manner.

Instead, Hargreaves’ time in England was one of great exasperation and torment for the midfielder. Assured of a crucial role at the heart of Ferguson’s United, Hargreaves spent the vast majority of his four seasons at Old Trafford watching from the stands, or the bench. Hargreaves had the presence of mind to exercise patience, though, and impress when he was afforded the opportunity.

The midfielder scored a winner against Arsenal in the 2007/08 season to move United six points clear at the top, but it was in the Champions League final that Hargreaves really came full circle. He played the entire 120 minutes against Chelsea in Moscow, scoring United’s fourth penalty in the shootout too.

From that point, however, Hargreaves’ career as a United player was never allowed to lift off, and he slowly became a luxury no team could afford to gamble on. His appearances became a collector’s item during his subsequent three years to the point where we reached those jokes about him getting injured in his own driveway.

When we look back on his career now, it’s only fair to judge it as unfortunate, rather than unfulfilled. Ferguson’s comments in his autobiography that Hargreaves was a disastrous signing were a tad harsh considering how the midfielder contributed to one of United’s greatest ever triumphs.

The midfielder retired at the age of 31, but his career had effectively ended by 28. It is one of English football’s great shames; Hargreaves was a proven talent at Bayern and could have been a force in United’s midfield for many years in the style of Carrick, but unrelenting injuries ravaged his body to the point where the man who constantly overcame challenges was forced to finally give up.

England and Manchester United may not even realise it but they’ve missed him for the best part of the last decade.

By Matt Gault @MattGault11

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