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Owen Hargreaves: The Whys and What Ifs

Owen Hargreaves
Credit: Clive Mason/Getty Images

I imagine you are familiar with one of 2019’s early front-runners for most annoying Tweet template. It starts with something along the lines of “Unpopular opinion…” and then almost always goes on to state something that plenty of people agree with, thus making it exactly the contrary – a popular opinion. It is a virtually inescapable paradox for those in search of the ever valuables likes and retweets. Is it popular to have an unpopular opinion? Is it the 21st century’s version of existential angst?

If so, then it screams “I want to be different, but I also want you to agree with me.” It indicates that it is highly probable that affirmation of one’s supposedly lesser-held view is an ideal but that running parallel to that desire is the wish to remain niche in one’s outlook. Once it has achieved mass-appeal, one can discard it, safe in the knowledge that they were the trendsetter for a short while.

Football hasn’t evaded the 240-worder’s latest social experiment. “Unpopular opinion: Football Edition,” has been alive and strong for a while now, and it provided an outlet for fans to shove their already highly accepted ideas down the throats of anyone unlucky enough to have it pop up in their feed. Football’s answer to this is “XXXX is so underrated.”

The most widespread belief among the denizens of this most peculiar phenomena is that James Milner is an underrated footballer. So underrated is the 61 times capped retired England international, former PFA Young Player of the Year, and two-time Premier League winner, Manchester City paid £26m for him at a time when £26m still bought you more than a few Freddos and a packet of Space Invaders. It could be explained in part by his boring persona – a parody he now successfully parodies – which is seemingly the main qualifying criteria for a footballer to be classed as ‘underrated.” Can a player do literally anything you ask of him, to the letter, without having an ego, wearing garish boots, or self-aggrandisement? He’s underrated then.

The other obvious explanation is what a manager sees in a player is often more respected than what an armchair pundit does. Any competent football professional recognises the vast majority of the offerings are very good footballers who are given their dues.

As I scrolled through the app and saw such a ‘please engage with me’ tweet, asking ‘who do you think is the most underrated footballer?’ I began straining every sinew of my brain to think of one. Do brains have sinews? Einstein said his brain was his gym, so I am going to go with yes.

I read the answers already posted, keen to avoid commenting with an already made suggestion. I really did want to offer up an answer that was simultaneously accurate and would stand the test of not accumulating (too many) likes. Having ruled out 50 or so players this way – ones I probably would not have gone with myself, anyway – I plumped for a player described in an ESPN profile piece as a “solid defensive midfielder who worked tirelessly to win the ball and provide his teammates with possession.” Sound familiar? It should do because it describes Milner too. But unlike the Liverpool utility man, my suggestion didn’t get remotely close to closing in on 500 top flight appearances.

Born to a Welsh mother and English father in Canada, Owen Hargreaves became the first – and to date, only – player to have represented England before ever residing in the United Kingdom first, and only the second to have done so without playing in English football. Spending the first eight years of his professional career in Germany with giants Bayern Munich, Hargreaves accumulated a wealth of accolades before signing for Manchester United in 2007, after a year of negotiations that began during the 2006 World Cup in which he excelled, winning England’s Player of the Year.

At Bayern, the hard-running, hard-tackling midfielder won four Bundesliga winners medals, three German Cup winners medals, a UEFA Champions League, and the Intercontinental Cup. It was an impressive haul and intrigue from England surrounded him on the international stage, due to his incomparable status of being neither English-born or having played there.

Although he was named in England’s 23-man squads for the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, it wasn’t until the 2006 World Cup that Hargreaves left his detractors behind, with a series of exceptional performances on his home from home soil. Prior to the tournament, criticisms of the player from English fans leant heavily on his allegiances. On top of his perceived lack of Englishness, emphasis was placed on his German fluency and Canadian background. England fans were not accustomed to their players playing abroad at the height of their career, global brand David Beckham excepted; and even he had first done his service, playing in England for 11 years before his move to Real Madrid.

All of this however, was rather perverse, because, since 2002, Hargreaves had been rather publicly pining for a move to England in the German and English press, to the ire of his club. But it in a cruel twist of fate, it was Hargreaves’ very move to England that proved to be the beginning of the end, despite being just 26-years old.

Arriving after United’s first Premier League title after the trophy had spent three seasons away from Old Trafford, Hargreaves slotted effortlessly into a midfield that contained ever-presents Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, future captain Michael Carrick, newly signed Anderson, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s much-trusted Park Ji-sung. It would become one of United’s most impressive seasons, as they successfully defended the Premier League title, beating Chelsea to it by two points, and won the second and final UEFA Champions League of Ferguson’s reign.

Hargreaves was pivotal in the Champions League success in which United beat Chelsea on penalties in Moscow. Starting at right-midfield ahead of Park Ji-sung, who had started both semi-final legs, was proof of Ferguson’s trust in him at the time.

“The game itself was a marvellous drama which drew some terrific performances from our side,” Ferguson said in his 2013 autobiography. “Moving Ronaldo left opened the door for someone to play wide right. I chose Hargreaves, who was quick, had energy and could cross the ball. He did well in that role.”

After Chelsea equalised through Frank Lampard, and then nearly took the lead when Didier Drogba hit the post, Ferguson knew he had to change the game and Hargreaves was vital to the successful execution of that too.

“That was my signal to think fast about how we might regain a hold on the game. I sent Rooney wide right and brought Hargreaves into a more central position, which put us on top in the game again. By the end I felt we were the superior group of players.”

With the game level at 1-1 after 120 minutes, the game went to penalties. Both sides scored their first two with Tevez and Carrick, and Ballack and Belletti, keeping their nerve. Then the unexpected happened – Cristiano Ronaldo missed. Lampard scored his and the balance was now in Chelsea’s favour. United’s fourth penalty taker was Hargreaves. If he didn’t score and Ashley Cole did, Chelsea would win.

The man Ferguson had placed his trust in did not disappoint, leathering it into the top corner. Cole scored and then Nani did too, so it was all down to John Terry to score the winner for Chelsea. He missed and United went on to win it in sudden death when Edwin van der Sar saved a poor penalty from Nicolas Anelka.

It was Hargreaves’ premature crowning triumph. He played just 5 more times for Manchester United and 9 more games in total, in the 4 seasons he continued playing for. He retired aged just 31 years old, but he was finished, in essence, at 27.

“I look back less fondly on our move for Owen Hargreaves,” Ferguson said of his summer 2007 transfer business that also saw Luis Nani and Anderson join. “[He] was phenomenal in the summer of 2006 and was just the type of player we needed to fill the gap left by [Roy] Keane. We started to put together a bid for him. But I studied his playing record and felt a tinge of doubt. I didn’t feel a strong vibe about him….it turned out to be a disaster.”

The much-accomplished Scottish manager is a master orator in the genre of hindsight, and the way he talks of Hargreaves smacks of revisionism and a defensive retort to his former player’s claims of being subject to experimental treatments by United’s medical team, after developing patella tendonitis in late 2008.

“When I signed him, there was something about him I didn’t like. The thing every good leader should have is an instinct. Mine said to me: ‘I don’t fancy this.’ When he came to Old Trafford for the medical, I still had some indefinable doubt.”

It is a good thing Ferguson’s reservation didn’t win out that day, because the season ahead could have panned out very differently without the man he admitted he had “no qualms about” when it came to “the games he did actually play,” adding that he had “definite value.”

“In September 2011, we took a blast from Hargreaves about how he had been supposedly let down by our medical staff in his time with us. He claimed we had used him like ‘a guinea pig’ for treatment for his tendonitis and various knee problems,” Ferguson stated. “We did the best for that lad. No matter what the staff did for him, he created his own agenda.”

Perhaps disarmed by his midfielder’s quiet and “nice” demeanour, and perhaps motivated by the fact he went on to join Manchester City, following in the recent footsteps of teammate Carlos Tevez, Ferguson questioned Hargreaves mental strength following his injury, believing he didn’t have the confidence or the determination to overcome it. The whole episode is rather reminiscent of another famous and hugely successful Scottish manager who would allegedly shun injured players – Bill Shankly.

Amid that whirlwind first season at United were the final games of England’s doomed qualification for Euro 2008. Needing just a draw against an already qualified Croatia, England slumped to a 3-2 defeat at Wembley and with it they were not going to the Finals. It was the first England squad to fail to qualify for a major tournament since Graham Taylor’s side didn’t make it to USA ’94.

“When we got back into the game,” Steven Gerrard said after, “we should have shut up shop. When you get back into the game like that, you’ve got to see it out and take the draw, but we took risks and we were punished. We had a mountain to climb, climbed it and were controlling the game, but then we gave it away.”

England started with a five-man midfield that day, with Gareth Barry sitting behind Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, and Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the flanks. On the bench was Owen Hargreaves. The same Owen Hargreaves who was the reigning England Player of the Year in the middle of a double-winning season with Manchester United.

Numerous pundits agreed that Owen Hargreaves should immediately have been introduced,” Jonathan Wilson wrote in The Anatomy of England: A History in Ten Matches, a book in which he dedicated 31 pages to the defeat. “Not doing so, Martin Samuel wrote, was McClaren’s ‘final, gigantic error.’”

Instead, 2-0 down at half-time, McClaren brought on David Beckham for Barry, and Jermaine Defoe for Wright-Phillips, changing to a 4-4-2. It paid dividends as England roared back into the game, levelling through Peter Crouch in the 65th minute after a Lampard penalty 11 minutes into the second half. A defensive change is what was needed, and with one substitute left, it would have made sense to withdraw Crouch for Hargreaves and sit him behind the midfield like Barry had in the first half or taken off Gerrard or Lampard and kept to a 4-4-2.

It didn’t happen though, and with just over ten minutes left, Croatia grabbed a third and a reactive substitution of Darren Bent for Crouch couldn’t rescue the tie. We can only imagine what England could have achieved at Euro 2008 with a fit and in-form Hargreaves, in the same way that we can only speculate what might have been had Ferguson acted on his gut instinct. Both are examples of how the perception of Hargreaves differed from his talent on the pitch, leading to him being, in my unpopular opinion, underrated.

“I read later that the FA were going to fast-track Hargreaves into coaching. That’s one of the things that’s wrong with our game,” Ferguson topped his takedown of his former player with. “That wouldn’t happen in France or Germany or Holland, where you would spend three years earning your stripes.”

If it wasn’t already clear that Ferguson was blinded by his passionate loyalty to Manchester United, those last comments were the final proof needed, because at the time of his autobiography printing, it had been a year since the FA had clearly stated that no such preferential treatment was on the cards.

As it panned out, Hargreaves did not pursue a career in coaching, which is perhaps less of surprise when you consider that he didn’t start playing football seriously until he was already 15-years old. Instead, he chose to go into punditry, where he regularly lines up alongside former colleagues such as Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes.

Overlooked by Steve McClaren when he was in the form of his life for club and country, and scorned by Sir Alex Ferguson retrospectively, Owen Hargreaves spent the first half of his career underrated by England fans, and the second half of it by his managers.

About the author

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Jordan Florit

Jordan is an insatiable reader, as well as a writer. Books on Latin America, politics, psychology, sociology and psychology take up the space left on his shelf after those on football have had their pride of place. It is these topics that influence his writing, where he likes to skirt the main topic of football with culture, demography, and trends. His favourite author is British sports journalist Jonathan Wilson.

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