Why Owen Hargreaves never quite found the adulation he surely deserved in Canada, Germany or England

Why Owen Hargreaves never quite found the adulation he surely deserved in Canada, Germany or England

Owen Hargreaves might as well have played on the moon. At least for a young kid living in a council house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, an Englishman, occasionally spotted in the Three Lions jersey, yet one who was never seen in a club shirt on my terrestrial television, begged some questions. Where does he play? What does he actually do? How do people even know about him? I assumed it was the same way as me: video games.

When I read more about him as I grew up, my strange fascination with the quasi-mystical footballer grew. I also found out that one of my youthful assumptions of the player was wrong. The scouts didn’t find him in England but in Canada’s vast and various Alberta, where the terrain of snowy mountains coalesce with coniferous woods, eventually giving way to stark desert planes. Here, a young Hargreaves played for the aptly named Calgary Foothills FC. 

Born in Canada after his parents emigrated in 1980, Hargreaves is the only Canadian-born in his family, with a Welsh mother and English father and two brothers; also one English and one Welsh. So how was it that Hargreaves ended up playing for England? It was in his father’s footsteps he followed, himself an accomplished footballer who played for Bolton as a youth.

The genes of football must have run from father to son, although their imprint wasn’t always apparent. Hargreaves’ formative years were largely taken up by the traditional triumvirate of North American sports – basketball, ice hockey and American Football. Ask him about his idols growing up and you’d find no mention of the footballers dominating during the early-90s, rather he’d have told you it was basketball icon Michael Jordan or the eye-wateringly fast cornerback, Deion Sanders.

Yet, when it came to playing himself, it was on the football pitch that he shone, impressing enough in his short stint at Calgary Foothills to attract the attention of, and court an offer from, Bavarian giants Bayern Munich. He hadn’t played for particularly long, not with the passion he felt for his favourite sports. This trajectory is just one of the things that made Hargreaves’ career so unique. It’s also the foreword to a disjointed path where, despite representing England over Canada and playing most of his life in Germany, none of those identities stuck, yet all existed to varying degrees.

As a 20-year-old, five years into his stay in Germany, the starlet had cut his teeth in Die Roten’s youth and reserve system, absorbing the lessons from his established coaches and peers, when he received an unexpected call from a charming Swede: Hargreaves was required for international duties for England.

Technical eligibility allowed him to pull on the English, Welsh or Canadian shirt and in 1998, after helping guide a young Welsh side to a third-place finish in the Milk Cup, an annual tournament for youth nationals held in Northern Ireland, his choice appeared to be made.

Original Series  |  Brits Abroad

This is international capping we’re talking about, though, a dark art in football. Through a last-minute swoop by England’s under-21 coach Howard Wilkinson, Hargreaves graced the field as an Englishman. When he got the call from Sven-Göran Eriksson to step up against the Netherlands, Hargreaves became the only player ever to appear for England having never lived there. 

This infuriated his Canadian fans, whose grudge was so severe that, much later in his career, they were extremely vocal against a domestic side signing him. It was a burned bridge. Yet, even with England, the place he admittedly only went to visit his relatives but still chose to represent, fans took their time warming to the player.

Upon being called up, Hargreaves spoke in interviews about the disbelief and glee he felt at the opportunity and the fact that an unconventional path into international football gave him a unique perspective, “Tactically I’m pretty much German, but with my English head I like to get involved and win tackles.” An English heart with a German brain is certainly a novel and desirable combination and, at the turn of the millennium, Hargreaves was one of world football’s most exciting prospects.

In 2001, Italian magazine Guerin Sportivo awarded him the ‘Bravo Award’, an annual title for the best young European footballer. It’s an illustrious award, certainly one that has an incredible roster of recipients. Before him came Ronaldo, the toothy Brazilian wünderkid, as well as Paolo Maldini and Roberto Baggio before that. Then after Hargreaves was Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Paul Pogba. 

Under the weight of expectation, where a lesser man could easily fall, Hargreaves managed to hold strong, coming under appraisal for his work-rate and tireless ability to control and command in a defensive midfield position. Still young, he was a crucial element in a dominant era for Bayern. Ottmar Hitzfeld, one of Germany’s most revered coaches, had built a solid Bayern side in which Hargreaves thrived. Even after his departure, to be replaced by Felix Magath in 2004, the young Canadian-born ball player racked up titles. 

Leading up to his crescendo as a player in Germany, Hargreaves was victorious in four Bundesliga title campaigns, with the 2000/01 title combining with the Champions League and 2002/03 with the DFB-Pokal, only the third league-cup double in the side’s history. Although falling out of favour in the 2005/06 campaign, Hargreaves managed to secure a four-year contract extension.

Waning influence at Bayern didn’t necessarily hamper his influence elsewhere, though. Although his selection for England in Euro 2004 wasn’t particularly noteworthy, his World Cup 2006 selection was – both for the resistance against it and his impact on the side when he did play. 

Almost mirroring the way Canadian fans had rejected him after choosing to play with England, English fans viewed him as an outsider. The ‘German-ness’ that Hargreaves had years before shown pride in jarred with the particular brand of nationalism often shown by English football fans. The fact that he spoke in a North American accent in interviews certainly didn’t help. Still, he was an achiever, as shown by his Bayern trophy cabinet, and put in a series of strong performances at the 2006 tournament. England were widely regarded as underachieving, yet Hargreaves was a positive to be taken.

In the FA’s official polls, he won the England Player of the Year and England Player of the World Cup, the first to collect both titles simultaneously, adding to his other title of the first English player never to have played there. It was a blessing and a curse. He was a glitch in the matrix, a cause of real cognitive dissonance. Is he ours or is he theirs? It turns out, such burning questions didn’t even matter. The following season it came. The leg break.

At the height of his powers, he was now faced with a career-derailing injury. It took almost the full season for Hargreaves to recover but, when he did, Sir Alex Ferguson, who had first declared his interest in the player the previous season, managed to strike a deal with Bayern for a fee of £17m to bring the player to Manchester.

Ferguson’s judgement seemed justified as United went on to win the Premier League and Champions League double, with Hargreaves playing for the entire gruelling 120 minutes of the latter’s final. He was also one of the penalty takers that guided the side beyond Chelsea in the 6-5 shootout victory. He had been a surprise inclusion, displacing Park Ji-sung from the side, despite the Korean playing in both semi-final legs. This was a big game requiring a big game player and, under such circumstances, Hargreaves was tried and tested mettle.

Hoping to build on this prior momentum, heading into his second season in England, an all too familiar story returned. Injury after injury ruled him out for almost an entire season in 2008, with a rehabilitation programme in the United States taking him unexpectedly up until May 2010, 20 months on from his initial injury, to return as a substitute.

A hellish fall from grace continued as Hargreaves was unable to break into the side’s 2010/11 side after yet another injury. When he finally got a start in November 2010, his first since 2008, he lasted all of five minutes, his career effectively finished.

This was enough for Ferguson to decide against renewing his contract. Hargreaves, clearly broken in spirit as well as body, offered to play the 2010/11 season for free – an offer that didn’t fly. As a free agent, he flexed his fitness to potential suitors by posting a video of a high-intensity cardiovascular workout on YouTube. Oddly, it seemed to work. A repaired and renewed Hargreaves rose Phoenix-like from the ashes of injury to sign for United’s city rivals. Although retaining a degree of fitness, he didn’t fit into the new-look City side, an unfortunately familiar tale.

With Bayern he was the king that wanted to rule England and yet, in England, he was never really able to find a kingdom at all. Turning his back on Canada, as many others would have done, he caught the ire of his former home. Similar sentiments hung over his head in Germany, too. 

Owen Hargreaves seemed to desire the embrace of the footballing world, yet it never really came, despite pocket of fans appreciating his undoubted quality. He could have had it all and, in some ways, he did – there’s just a niggling feeling that it all could’ve been so much more.

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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