On Facebook, a group can be found championing an imaginary "achievement" that can be unlocked on the forthcoming incarnation of the award-winning FIFA series.
“FIFA 12 achievement” it states “play football with Owen Hargreaves”. The group is just one amongst a plethora of creations on the immensely popular social-networking site, of which “FIFA 12 Achievement, score with Fernando Torres," remains this writer’s personal highlight.
The groups themselves are simply products of light-hearted docility, poking fun at the inadequacies and sudden fallibility of an elite group of supremely talented individuals. Yet they speak wonders of the popular perception and stereotyping of the players in question. Indeed, using the past five years as reference, a reward may well have been warranted for facilitating Hargreaves’ participation in a match, such has been former England international’s affliction at the hands of a series of debilitating injuries.
Back in 2006, Hargreaves sat atop the pinnacle of England’s footballing (cough-cough) excellence*. At the World cup of the same year, he was by far and away his country's most potent threat, and a subsequent move to English Champions Manchester United was seen as a logical step in Hargreaves’ progression.
Fast forward five years and the road lies littered with failed hope, crushed dreams and wasted potential, as apart from leaving an indelible mark in the treatment table, 27 appearances in nigh on five years lies tantamount to a farce. To put it into perspective the ratio of games per season—around six—is superseded by Gabriel Obertan in his illustrious two-year tenure at the club. Over his 11-year professional career to date, Hargreaves has amassed an average of just 20 appearances per season.
It was almost inevitable that at some point down the line, promise and the reflection of past glories would run out on Hargreaves. There was only so much Manchester United could take.
And so, it was this summer that the man who was once his country’s best player was gently cajoled into free agency for the first time in his career. Many of the lesser lights muted the signing of the Canadian born Hargreaves, including his former England boss Sven Goran-Eriksson, now at Championship big-spenders Leicester City. Yet the interest died, and growing consensus mounted that Hargreaves would either move to the MLS stock-pile of the former stars or incongruously slip into an enforced retirement, at just 30 years of age.
Hargreaves himself, in seeming desperation, took the unprecedented step of uploading numerous videos of his strenuous exercise regimen onto video-sharer YouTube in an attempt to alleviate concern over his troublesome knee injury. It appeared to be the last stand of a man who had nothing else to lose, a final plaintive plea for forgiveness of one who had suffered so much.
Then came the shock of the summer, a bolt from the Sky Blue. Manchester City, the brethren of the richest, most pampered stars on the planet, wanted Hargreaves. Unsurprisingly, when the rumour was compounded as legitimate, Hargreaves jumped at the chance of a move to the Etihad Stadium, home of his former club’s bitter rivals, and the formalities were completed in days.
We had to wait until Wednesday, however, for Hargreaves to make his City bow. Debilitated by the self-doubt of such a prolonged period away from the game, a return was penciled for around mid-October.
Yet Hargreaves, with the strength of one invigorated by the chance he never expected to get, began to turn the corner. His passion and desire in training enamoured his boss Roberto Mancini enough that he handed Hargreaves a start in the club’s League Cup Third round tie against holders Birmingham.
From the start, it was evident that this was a very different Hargreaves, to the recluse of haunted the Carrington physio room for the past five years.
And on 17 minutes, that moment few envisaged came to pass. An incongruous goal-flash, a casual statistic on the sports feed, yet with ramification that transcended way beyond the immediate. “Manchester City Goal: O. Hargreaves 17." It was written.
Unleashing a fierce 25-yard drive born on the frustration of the last five years, Hargreaves gave Brum keeper Colin Doyle no chance, as the ball nestled in the top corner.
The joy on Owen Hargreaves face as he turned to revel in the adulation he had almost forgotten said it all. It was the smile of a man reborn.
So what of United in the saga of Owen Hargreaves?
Admittedly, one 57 minute appearance in the Carling Cup, against Championship opposition, cannot possibly constitute “a return," yet it does signal a corner turned. This was a man who hadn’t kicked a ball professionally in over a year suddenly scoring a screamer.
At the time of his departure from United back at the start of July, I wonder if any, even Hargreaves himself, could have envisaged the path of his next three months. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it would be easy to bemoan the decision to allow Hargreaves’ departure, yet under the circumstance, I cannot see how else United could have acted.
They made a decision based on four years of huge medical expense on a player who was tragically unable to fulfill the playing side of his duty to the club. He played less than Gabriel Obertan.
So as a United fan, I wish Owen Hargreaves luck and genuinely and sincerely hope for him to recapture the form that caused United to capture his services almost five years ago. I’m sure if he does United will learn to rue their loss, but with the situation as it was two months ago, I really don’t know what else they could have done.