So the end is no longer near but final for Owen Hargreaves, released by Manchester United this summer. Four years and so few games later, Hargreaves departs Old Trafford having never fulfilled the potential that persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson to part with £17 million in summer 2007. The 30-year-old midfielder made just 39 appearances for the club in fours years and has not earned a new contract despite recent speculation that he would remain at Old Trafford on a pay-as-you-play basis. It means that the former Bayern Munich man is free to find a new club from June. If any will take him.
Hargreaves was a key man in United’s run to Champions League glory in 2008 but the tendinitis which ruined a career had already set in by then. In truth United should never have acquired a player among the world’s finest destructive midfielders but whose injury record in Germany was far too suspect.
Along the way there have been all too many false dawns. He played just over 30 seconds of United’s end-of-season fixture with Sunderland in May 2010; the only football he played last season. The latest comeback lasted a little longer – six minutes. Such is the Canadian-born midfielder’s luck with injuries in recent years that even that action, against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford last September, was cut short in cruel circumstances. It was Hargreaves first start for United in more than two years.
Hargreaves began on the right side of midfield against Wolves; the role he played so effectively against Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final. The comeback was fleeting though. As Hargreaves played an ambitious ball forward he clutched his left buttock, with his hamstring tweaked and his afternoon’s work over.
The injury against Wolves appeared to sum up Hargreaves time in Manchester. The midfielder traipsed towards the South West corner of the ground and the sanctuary of the home dressing room without the merest glance over his shoulder. Perhaps fearing the indignant reaction from the bench, perhaps it was simply the embarrassment of yet another false dawn. After all Hargreaves’ cost to United, with just 26 starts and 13 substitute appearances, approaches £800,000 per game, or £31 million over the past four years, including transfer fee and wages.
Yet, for all the financial waste United has greatly missed the player, who has never genuinely been replaced by Ferguson. There’s also no denying the time and effort Hargreaves has put into making a comeback from two operations at Dr. Richard Steadman’s Denver clinic to cure persistent patellar tendinitis.
The cruelty is only magnified with the knowledge that many of the player’s problems were not of his own making. When Hargreaves broke his leg playing for Bayern Munich against Arminia Bielefeld in September 2006 the player returned just four months later, appearing during the last two months of the Germans’ campaign. The rapid return ultimately proved disastrous though.
When Hargreaves moved to United in summer 2007 there was little sign of the problems to come but the player would come to blame his speedy return to action and poor injury management by Bayern for the stress placed on both knees. Initially United treated the problem with rest and injections – Hargreaves appeared in 34 games in all competitions during the 2007/8 campaign, scoring a vital penalty against Chelsea during the Champions League final shoot-out that season.
But the curly-haired midfielder appeared in just three games the following season before the pain in his knees forced the player into the hands of the surgeon. The stars’ knees, described as “the worst ever seen” by Steadman in 25 years operating on injured sportsmen, were to show significant degeneration. It led to surgery on his right knee in November 2008 and the left the following January.
Now the midfielder faces a fight to save a career in any form, which has once promises so much. There has been speculation about a return to Canada with MLS outfit Toronto FC, while clubs in England and Germany may take a risk on the player. Indeed, while it Ferguson who has made the final decision on Hargreaves’ future, the Scot believes the player can return.
“This has been a difficult decision knowing how hard the lad has worked to win back his fitness,” said the United manager on Saturday. “But we have made it in the hope he will be able to resurrect his career elsewhere.”
Ultimately it is a cold-hearted decision by the club but one that comes as little surprise. There is, of course, nothing but sympathy for the player who has effectively played no part in the team for three years. Yet United, as the phrase goes, is a cynical club. Today fans bid farewell to Hargreaves; tomorrow attention will turn to his replacement.