It is a shame when you see a career come to a premature end, even more so when the career could have been something brilliant. Owen Hargreaves will look back at his time at Manchester United with bitter-sweet memories: 39 appearances in 4 years, but with 1 premier league title and 1 Champions League medal as bounty.
The England midfielder has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, starting with a torn thigh muscle and broken leg at Bayern Munich and progressing to severe tendinitis in his knees for the majority of his spell at United. The acquisition of Hargreaves for the United midfield in May 2007 was looked upon with great anticipation following a good showing at the 2006 World Cup. The intelligence, and ball-winning qualities of Hargreaves, it was thought, would add an extra dimension to a flagging midfield which many pundits thought to be in a transitional period.
A player of real skill and strength, Hargreaves had been described by Sir Alex Ferguson as:
“A fantastically disciplined professional. You can tell he’s been brought up well: his good manners, the way he goes about the place, everything’s perfect about the boy.”
The defensive attributes of Hargreaves’s game, alongside a penchant for picking a quick, cutting pass, meant that his price tag was elevated to £18 million in the summer of 2007. A price worth paying? Providing he stayed fit. In his first season at United, he helped lift the Premier League title, and the Champions League, playing a total of 34 times for Sir Alex’s side.
Yet after the highs of his first term in the EPL, Hargreaves suffered the lows, with a nightmare three seasons at United, putting in a meagre 5 showings. The unlucky battler managed just six minutes of football in nearly two seasons, and now has been shown the door by a regretful United staff.
Sir Alex Ferguson is saddened by the path which Owen Hargreaves’s career has taken, but he has not resigned the player’s future to the waste pile yet, having offered these remarks:
“This has been a difficult decision knowing how hard the lad has worked to win back his fitness, but we have made it in the hope he will be able to resurrect his career elsewhere.”
The rumour mill had been flooded with talk that Hargreaves would be making the shock move to title rivals Arsenal, who would offer the Canadian born player a ‘pay-as-you-play’ contract, similar to the deal Manchester United currently have with Michael Owen. On paper, the wealth of experience and the remarkable talent that Hargreaves possesses could prove invaluable to Arsene Wenger and his young players, not just on the pitch, but behind closed doors also. The likelihood remains, however, that Hargreaves will find it difficult to come to grips with the turmoil his body is putting him through.
Ferguson famously backed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer through his injuries and the Norwegian currently holds the position of reserve team manager. Could a potential career in coaching loom for Hargreaves?
At the tender age of 30, Hargreaves is stuck in a difficult position. Off the pitch, his ability to speak with gravitas and meaning has seen him make several successful media appearances, yet his age, and his drive for more success, may impinge on his ability and his willingness, to call a day to his playing career.
Whatever happens in the future, Hargreaves’s time in England remains a case of ‘what might have been?’ – a question with particularly poignancy for United fans in the next couple of days.
With Manchester United reaching their third Champions League final in four years, Hargreaves could have provided the midfield a stronger, more dynamic, defensive dimension than Carrick or Fletcher will offer. That, when added to the sum of Hargreaves’s wealth of experience, being one of only two Englishman to lift the European Cup while at a foreign club, his worth to the club on Saturday evening would have been immeasurable. His success abroad and his familiarity with the continental game meant that on the, too few, occasions he was available Ferguson favoured the former Bayern player for big European ties.
United will step out onto the Wembley turf on Saturday in the unusual position of the underdog. Ferguson’s men will face a fantastic Barcelona attack with fluidity, movement, pace and skill – attributes that require an experienced, cerebral centre mid in opposition. The current options available to Sir Alex means that United will have to cope with Messi et al at a defensive level instead of in the central third. This extra burden on Vidic’s backline could drag the game away from United and pull the amount of possession Barca have, markedly towards Van der Sar’s net – a risky tactic against the world’s best attacking side.
For me, Hargreaves always favoured a combative role; his energy, and eye for a threaded pass would have made him the first choice for the United midfield. He would have optimised United’s chance of winning a fourth European title by attempting to stop the Catalonians’ passing game. As it stands, United will only have his presence in the dressing room, yet it could be a farewell to remember.
One certainty remains: on the playing field, Owen Hargreaves showed 100% commitment to his team. He embraced every tackle as if he had never been injured. He is a consummate professional who has been plagued by injuries, and still manages to hold himself up as a good role model for all aspiring players. All football fans hate to see an injury end a career, here’s hoping that on this occasion at least it doesn’t have to.