November 6 2010. A disconsolate figure is led from the Old Trafford pitch four minutes into his long-anticipated return from an injury nightmare which has lasted in excess of two years. Alone in the home dressing room, he holds his head in his hands. Knowing that his career at Manchester United, and perhaps in professional football, is over, tears stream down his face. A period of recuperation even more strenuous than that which he had dedicated himself to over the previous 26 months would be required. Perhaps it would be futile. What team in their right mind would want to take a chance on someone whose body let them down so consistently?
On Wednesday night Owen Hargreaves made his return to the football pitch. This time was, he wearing the light blue of Manchester City. This time, he remained on the pitch for an hour before finally being replaced – a triumph in itself, considering the plan had been to remove him at half-time. This time, everything went to plan.
In fact, Hargreaves’ return to first-team action went beyond his wildest dreams. In the 17th minute of the Carling Cup third round tie with Birmingham, the former England international latched onto a loose ball with the snappishness which once defined him. The ball broke loose before rebounding back into his path. With unerring confidence, from all of 25 yards, it was dispatched into the bottom left corner. Hargreaves had a goal with which to symbolise his return. The relief was tangible.
The athleticism and aggression which won over previously sceptical England fans overnight at the 2006 World Cup, where he was unquestionably England’s player of the tournament, were evident in the heat of an often scrappy midfield battle. Any player capable of subverting the opinion of England’s notoriously judgemental fans, so often not for turning, had half a chance of overcoming even the most hellish of injury ordeals. Not even a video of him in action with his personal trainer, deliberately leaked on YouTube
What City have found is a player for whom money is no object. They have found a player whose determination to confound medical consensus and the concerns of fans translates perfectly onto the pitch. Perhaps more importantly, they have – at very little cost – found an England international rich in Champions League experience who is both willing to patiently, humbly wait for a chance to play regular football and capable of filling a position in which the squad looks otherwise relatively weak. In these extravagant times at the Etihad Stadium, those values embodied by Hargreaves might prove every bit as important as the insouciance of their attacking talent.
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