If Owen Hargreaves was born a horse he would have long been sent out to stud. But with a lengthy contract and expensive transfer fee to justify, Manchester United has persisted in what looks like an increasingly furlorn attempt to rehabilitate the 29-year-old former Bayern Munich midfielder. The latest comeback lasted just six minutes.
Such is the Canadian-born midfielder’s luck with injuries in recent years that even yesterday’s comeback against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford 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 position he played so effectively against Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final, which was perhaps the last meaningful act in a career that has stagnated since a £17 million move from Bayern Munich.
The comeback was fleeting though. As Hargreaves played an ambitious ball forward he immediately clutched his left buttock; hamstring tweaked and his afternoon’s work over. The midfielder didn’t attempt a return to the pitch, heading instead towards the South West corner of the ground and the sanctuary of the home dressing room.
Perhaps Hargreaves feared the indignant reaction from the bench, perhaps it was simply the embarrassment of yet another false dawn. After all Hargreaves cost £17 million when signed from Bayern in 2007 and with just 26 starts and 13 substitute appearances to his name that’s almost £436,000 per game for the club.
That is to saying nothing of the £70,000 per week wages the 29-year-old has picked up for six minutes and 30 seconds of football in the past two years.
“It was disappointing for Owen, it is just the way things are going for him at the moment,” assistant manager Mike Phelan told Sky Sports yesterday.
“He has made himself available, he has worked extremely hard in the two years that he has been out and he has had his little blips along the way.
“It didn’t work out for him today. It was a risk and that’s the way it goes in football.”
It’s a risk Sir Alex Ferguson was prepared to take with the midfielder, who has undergone two operations at Dr. Richard Steadman’s Denver clinic to cure persistent tendonitis. Then came repeated setbacks, including severe pain after the midfielder’s 30 second cameo at Sunderland last season.
Indeed, Hargreaves has spent months back at Steadman’s clinic this season learning how to run and turn in new ways so to minimise future risk of relapse. But with the midfielder only just recovered from a calf problem the new set-back only adds to the sense of doom surrounding the player’s future.
“We will assess every situation in the next 48 hours and just see where he is at,” added Phelan last night.
“But hopefully it is not what everybody might fear and we will move on with the boy.”
That future is now further clouded in doubt, even if the latest injury is only minor. After all, Hargreaves has not completed a Premier League match since August 2008. Recovery from injury is one step; a return to the Hargreaves of old is quite another.
United miss him of course. Hargreaves’ all-action, high energy style and ability to break up play has only been replicated to some extent by Darren Fletcher’s rise to prominence. Arguably, a fully fit Hargreaves would still walk into the United side. It makes the player’s repeated failure to find fitness all the more frustrating.
With the midfielder out-of-contract in the summer, it seems unlikely Hargreaves will ever make a serious comeback for United, at least not one that involves appearing in two games a week. It is almost inconceivable that the club will offer Hargreaves a new contract in the current circumstances.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who last season stated the player owes the club “some service”, could hardly contain his frustration at the latest relapse in Hargreaves’ long recovery.
“I took a gamble with Hargreaves but he’d been training really well and I thought by picking him we’d have a compact midfield with experience,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“But it only lasted a couple of minutes, it was a disaster.”
It’s probably a sentiment the player and fans can agree with. Not that there isn’t considerable sympathy with the player, of course, despite the huge outlay on fee and salary for a player that has offered so little to the club.
At his best Hargreaves was an important addition to United’s midfield options. It is more than two and half years since the former England international was anywhere near his best though.
Indeed, history dictates that fans should not expect Hargreaves to return to the player of old, if he returns at all.
In Gary Neville and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the club has already experienced two lengthy absences by important players. Neither returned the same.