In the 13 months since Owen Hargreaves last played for Manchester United the midfielder – having undergone operations both knees – has worked patiently towards a long-overdue return. After returning to training at Carrington in September, the player can now put months of rehabilitation behind him with a first team return in sight.
Many believed that it would never happen, including at times the England international himself. Having been diagnosed with severe tendinitis in both knees many observers felt that the Canada-born player would struggle to ever make a return to football, let alone at the top level.
Initially believing rest would cure the problem, Hargreaves eventually travelled to world-famous surgeon Dr. Richard Steadman for a diagnosis. Steadman has treated Ruud van Nistelerooy and Roy Keane among others.
“Going to Colorado and getting the diagnosis from Dr Steadman was a dark day,” Hargreaves told the Manchester Evening News.
“When I got to the Vale clinic he said ‘I have rarely ever seen a tendon look like that in my 35 years of working’. It was hard to take because this was coming from a guy who was 72 years old and had seen a lot of knees.
“But it was refreshing in some ways because I had received so many contradicting opinions about what was actually wrong with my knees.
“Dr Steadman explained I had an extreme form of tendonitis. Him explaining to me what I had after having the symptoms he was describing for so long it all finally made sense. It was a dark day but it was a relief because I realised I could then get on with things and deal with them.”
Hargreaves’ condition, patellar tendonitis – often refered to as ‘jumper’s knee’ – arises when the tendon attaching the knee-cap to the shin bone, and the tissues that surround it, become inflamed and irritated. This is usually due to overuse. The problem being compounded following a broken leg in 2006 while at Bayern Munich, leading to muscle atrophy and added stress on the knee.
“All the force, instead of going through the muscle went through the tendon. I had a slight twinge in my knee, we did some sprint training one day, something just went, and I didn’t know what it was,” said Hargreaves.
“My knee almost locked and I couldn’t do anything. I was told to rest and I did. Then the transfer to United went through. I had the medical here and they could see I had some slight trouble but it was figured with time it would get better.
“A normal person if something hurts you just stop but for me I don’t have that choice. If it hurts I think I can play through it. That’s what I did but it was only making things much much worse.
Hargreaves managed 25 starts in his first season and a bit at Old Trafford, including the 2008 Champions League final in which many believed he put in a man-of-the-match performance. But in between matches Hargreaves suffered with increasing amounts of pain and inflammation in the knee, leading to the meeting with Steadman and surgery.
“I was a bit negative that day and maybe the day after my first surgery on the left knee which was the worst of the two tendons. I was down and in a lot of pain and I thought ‘why me?’ But all those self-defeating things I tried to leave them behind and focus on getting better every day,” said Hargreaves.
“When you have such a long term injury it is difficult having to see your team-mates going out every day training and playing
“It is tough to be confronted by it every day when you are not fit. It was better off being in a tiny ski village with only 2,000 people and focusing on rehab. All I did was eat, sleep and train. It was a blessing being there.”
Now back in Manchester Hargreaves says that although he missed a year at his peak he intends to come back stronger, with injury problems firmly behind him. For United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Hargreaves represents an outstanding addition to a squad still lacking a defensive midfielder.
In the midfielder’s absence Darren Fletcher has taken on an important role as United’s destroyer. Even so, Hargreaves – fit and back to his very best – will walk back into United’s engine-room and place in Fabio Capello’s England World Cup squad too.
“Part of the problem for me was my competitiveness,” Hargreaves added.
“I was new to Manchester United and they had spent a lot of time, energy and money in getting me from Bayern Munich. I came with the symptoms but everyone said don’t worry it will go and so I always tried to be available. But playing on it made it worse.”
It’s just the kind of determination that has helped Hargreaves regain fitness from a career threatening injury. More importantly, Hargreaves will to succeed will be vital to United this season.