ONCE VALUED AS HIGH AS €25 MILLION, Owen Hargreaves was an excellent defensive midfielder whose career was affected by unforgiving knee injuries stemming from a broken leg. Had his career not been curtailed by injury, who knows how brightly his star may have shone.
Owen Hargreaves returned to Bayern Munich for the 2006/07 season. He had a successful showing at the World Cup and was viewed as one of England’s bright spots. Unfortunately, the injury curse hit him in the worst way Owen had ever experienced. In a match against Arminia Bielefeld, Owen broke his left fibula after a collision with Thorben Marx. This injury kept him out until late in the season.
Hargreaves recuperated and rehabilitated himself and returned to action late in the season. He took part in Bayern’s victory over Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League but were subsequently eliminated by AC Milan in the Quarter Final. It was the exclamation in a poor campaign for the Bundesliga giants, finishing fourth domestically. Finish fourth failed to qualify Bayern for the UEFA Champions League, meaning no top flight European football for the Bavarians for the first time since 1996.
At the end of the 2006/07 season, Owen revealed that he would join English giants Manchester United on a four year deal.
Owen made his first appearance in a Manchester United jersey during a pre-season fixture as a substitute against Peterborough United. His English Premier League debut against city rivals Manchester City, in which United ended up losing 1:0.
Hargreaves’ debut season for Manchester United brought as much reward as his first season did with Bayern Munich. Owen collected an English Premier League Winner’s medal and scored a penalty in United’s penalty shootout triumph in Moscow in the UEFA Champions League Final.
It was Hargreaves’ second season at Manchester United where his career began to fall apart.
A recurring patellar tendinitis problem restricted Owen’s appearances in 2008/09. He visited several specialists in London and Sweden who were unable to assist him effectively. Owen then travelled to Colorado, America, in November 2008 to see renowned surgeon Richard Steadman. Steadman operated on Hargreaves’ knee that same month and then in January 2009 he performed a similar operation on Owen’s right knee.
Having had surgery on both knees within months of each other, Owen’s 2008/09 season was written off. It was another successful season for United, retaining their English Premier League title while winning the English League Cup. Owen, having not played for the rest of the season, missed out on medals.
Owen was pencilled in to return in the 2009/10 season at Bayern Munich’s Audi Cup. However after reassessing his rehabilitation, United decided to keep Owen in America to continue his rehabilitation. He returned to Manchester in September, accompanied by his physiotherapist who assisted the club in understanding Owen’s rehabilitation requirements.
After enduring a nightmare rehabilitation period, Owen’s next scheduled return date was against Manchester City on March 11, 2010. But he withdrew from the squad to continue rehabilitating. A week later Owen played 45 minutes for the United reserve against Burnley. A little over a month later, Owen was named among the substitutes against Tottenham but didn’t see any time on the pitch.
United played Sunderland in May 2010. In the 93rd minute, Owen entered the game as a substitute for his first game since September 2008. He missed 20 months of football, which equated to 113 matches.
Despite his comeback, Owen’s luck with injuries was not going to be improved. He suffered another setback and subsequently missed the opening of the 2010/11 season.
On the 6th November 2010, Owen made another comeback. He returned as a starting player against Wolverhampton in an English Premier League fixture. In his first league start since September 2008, he was forced off with another injury just six minutes into the game.
Owen’s return against Wolverhampton was an ill-advised one. In his version of events, Owen knew he was still injured and couldn’t play, nor even run at full speed. “I started that game with two muscle injuries but I should never have been in that position to begin with. People at times must look at it from a distance and say: ‘Shit, he’s made out of glass.’ But I don’t know many people in the world who could do any sporting event with two muscle tears.”
Hargreaves was desperate to play again but hindsight is a wonderful thing. In hindsight, he wishes he was stronger mentally and told Sir Alex Ferguson that he wasn’t fit. “It was difficult. I wanted to play; they wanted me to play. There were 70,000 people there and, if I had walked away from the game, it would have looked like I didn’t want to play.”
Hargreaves’ plan was to try and last the 90 minutes without sprinting. I thought: ‘I’ll try to play, I just won’t sprint.’ I know it sounds comical. I was just going to try to get through 45 minutes because that would have been a start. But I didn’t even last five. I wasn’t surprised. I’d said to them that I had a hamstring problem, which I obviously did. I said: ‘I think I’ve got a bit of a problem here.’ I was surprised it didn’t go in the warm-up, to be completely honest.”
Owen’s time out of the game evolved into jealousy as he watched others move freely. “I’d wonder if I was ever going to be able to be as sharp, things like that.” When he came off against Wolverhampton Hargreaves sat in the dressing room and broke down in tears. “If anybody had all the facts of the last three years and some of the things that have gone on, they might understand why [I say that]. But I don’t think people will believe me, to be honest.”
Now-legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson became fed up with Owen and his struggles with injury. From Ferguson’s point of view, it was hard not to as Owen spent long periods of his United stint rehabilitating injuries. Owen only amassed a further five appearances, prompting Ferguson in May 2011 to confirm his contract wouldn’t be renewed.
The news of Owen’s contract being allowed to expire sparked rumours of him retiring. In his autobiography, Ferguson didn’t have kind words for Owen. “When I signed him there was something about him I didn’t like,” said Ferguson, further labelling the move a disaster.
In a show of commitment to the club, Owen offered his services for free in the 2011/12 season but the club politely declined. He then became a free agent.
Owen’s record with injury seemingly put off any interest from clubs to a point where it seemed retirement now became a serious option. The player himself had different ideas and was determined to prove his fitness to anyone interested. Owen was further buoyed by the positive assessment from Steadman, who said that his knees could withstand the impact of jumping from the Eiffel Tower.
To prove his fitness, Owen posted a series of videos to YouTube. The videos showed him going through a range of exercises and motions. His determination to continue his playing career in spite of what many thought were chronic injuries won him many admirers. English clubs, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City, West Bromwich Albion, Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers, along with Scottish club Rangers and several MLS clubs were all rumoured to have an interest in signing Owen.
In a surprisingly turn of events, Hargreaves was photographed having a medical with Manchester City doctor Phillip Batty ahead of a speculated move to the Manchester City. City needed a replacement for the retired Patrick Vieira, as well as Yaya Toure’s expected absence due to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. City were impressed with Hargreaves’ condition and state of mind and consequently signed him. Some saw this as desperation, however, resulting in their failure to sign other, more prominent players.
Manchester City signed Hargreaves on a one year deal. Signing with City also provided Hargreaves with UEFA Champions League football but he was not included in their initial squad. His debut for City provided plenty of promise. Owen scored a goal and played 57 minutes in a Carling Cup game against Birmingham City. His performance was indicative that if he could reach full fitness, he may yet have an important role to play with City throughout the season.
Signing Owen proved to be a mistake on City’s behalf. He only managed to make four appearances in his only season at the club. As City went on to win their first league title in 44 years, Hargreaves failed to qualify for a Winner’s Medal, having not played the minimum amount of games required to be eligible for a medal.
Having completed his seasons at Manchester City, Owen went to train with Queens Park Rangers but was not offered a deal.
Hargreaves believed that the bulk of his injury problems were caused by the broken leg which initially started his wretched luck with injuries. When he returned from the broken leg in 2007, he felt as though his leg muscles were weaker than prior to the injury. Owen said he suffered from aches and pains in his knees but ignored them and continued to play on. When it got worse at Manchester United, Owen was told that the best cure was to have injections.
“I came back a week early for pre-season to get it done,” said Owen. “They said I would be fit for the start of pre-season but, after that, I never got back on my feet. My tendon was never the same. They said my tendon was good, but it felt like I was made out of glass.”
To be 100% positive that Manchester United mishandled his injury and recovery, Owen insists that you’d have to ask the club. “You would have to ask them,” he says. “There were a few crucial points. We treated it and it got significantly worse through the injections. That obviously had a huge impact. Basically, I was left to pick up the pieces, which was incredibly frustrating. That was surgery, and that was 18 months gone.”
“In hindsight, it should have gone differently. I had envisaged training for two years and coming back and it didn’t go like that. But I wanted to play. I was new and it is hard to come in and say: ‘I don’t want to play.’ We had big games and Capello wanted me to play in big England games. I just wanted to make myself available. I’m not a guy who wants to bitch and complain. I was trying to make the most of it, but it deteriorated over the season and we had to do these injections. After that, my knee, my tendon, was never the same.”
When he moved to Manchester City, Hargreaves claimed that he felt like a guinea pig during his injury-plagued tenure at Manchester United. He believed the revolutionary treatments he was forced to undergo exacerbated his injuries, a claim which Sir Alex Ferguson has since denied.
Hargreaves described how his desire to play immediately after leaving Bayern worsened his condition. “Part of the problem for me was my competitiveness,” he said. “I was new to Manchester United and they had spent a lot of time, energy and money in getting me from Bayern Munich. I wanted to do well obviously. I came with symptoms [of tendinitis] but everyone said ‘don’t worry it will go’ and so I always tried to be available. But playing on it made it worse. I wanted to play, though, so I played through it.”
“United are one of the biggest clubs in the world with Barcelona and Real Madrid. They have a lot of wonderful people there. I’m sad for myself that I wasn’t able to play a bigger part there,” Hargreaves says. “I really envisaged it going differently but it didn’t materialise the way I anticipated. But the last three years have taught me that you need to live in the moment.”
Bayern Munich Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge once described him as “one of the best holding midfielders in the world.” The ten years that Hargreaves spent with Bayern Munich is fondly remembered by the player saying, “Munich was a beautiful place and the club were great to me. I’ll always be grateful to Bayern.”
Owen Hargreaves was known as a solid, hard-working midfielder who worked tirelessly to win possession and in turn provide that possession to his teammates. It is arguable that his industrious style played a part in his injury plague career but in saying that, he was still able to be successful in amassing winners’ medals. We can only begin to imagine that if he didn’t have a torrid time with injuries late on in his career, we may well be talking about him in the same breath that we mention FC Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta and Xavi and current Bayern Munich midfielder Xabi Alonso.
Hargreaves is now a regular pundit for BT Sport’s and Sky Deutschland’s football coverage.
Owen Hargreaves’ quotes regarding his injuries at Manchester United have been taken from a 2011 interview Owen did with the Guardian.