It is apt that Owen Hargreaves didn’t set foot in England until 2001, at the age of 20. By the time the midfielder emigrated he had waited seven years of his professional career to affiliate himself with a club from the adopted nation he represented at International level.
Due to his lack of exposure prior to arriving on these shorelines, and the catastrophic injury record that persisted while on ‘home soil’, Hargreaves marvellous tactical nous was never likely to, and almost certainly never will be, appreciated to the extent it deserves.
Eighteen years on from Hargreaves international education, other British prospects are searching for the same development process. Hargreaves is a truly unique case relative to the typical England international, and his unconventional schooling produced a distinctive intellect that set him apart from his peers.
For starters his idol’s growing up were Basketball legend Michael Jordan, mimicking his number 23 jersey at Bayern Munich, as well as Deion Sanders who simultaneously played professional American Football and Baseball. To add to this, Hargreaves didn’t even play football with any professional intentions until the age of 15.
As opposed to being forced to hone his skills in one particular discipline, while also being forbidden to play for any side except his youth academy such as the prospects of today, Hargreaves had the benefit of enjoying basketball, ice hockey and American football. This open-minded approach forged his transition to becoming a professional, as after being opportunistically scouted by Bayern Munich the teenager swapped Calgary Canada for Germany’s football mad mecca.
A tutelage in Säbener Straße, Bayern’s illustrious training facility, is a luxury few foreign players are afforded. Yet, Hargreaves was intelligent enough to learn the language and maximise his opportunity promptly. After impressing en route to an Under-19 German Cup final loss, the Englishman slipped into the Bavarians’ first team under the radar of most back home.
What had previously been a gentle introduction, rapidly adjusted to a meteoric rise, as Bayern reached the Semi-Final of the Champions League towards the latter stages of Hargreaves debut 2000/01 season. Their commanding general and captain Stefan Effenberg received a suspension against reigning champions Real Madrid ruling him out of the decisive second leg.
Bayern manager Omar Hitzfeld had seen enough from Hargreaves to let the 20-year-old take the plunge. A prominent role in thwarting Madrid’s devastating attacking options including Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos and Raul, led Hitzfeld to admit after proceedings “I threw him in at the deep end, and he swam freely”.
In fact, Der General had seen enough promise in that performance against the Galactico’s to omit Effenberg from his side for the critical run in of the Bundesliga campaign. In just 90 minutes Hargreaves had achieved the unthinkable and displaced Bayern Munich’s captain.
The responsibility instilled upon Hargreaves was vindicated by virtue of his performances leading Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga title, pipping Schalke 04 by a single point on the final day.
What was to follow would have been inconceivable just months prior, but Hargreaves forced his way into the starting eleven for the Champions League final, this time alongside mentor Effenberg.
Just like Bayern, opponents Valencia harboured a vendetta of their own; in the previous year’s final the Spanish side were mercilessly slaughtered by La Liga compatriots Real Madrid. This time out though Valencia could field their mercurial new playmaker Pablo Aimar, and it was Hargreaves responsibility to mark him.
The Bayern prodigy completed his task with such ruthless efficiency that Aimar was subject to a half time substitution, his replacement David Albelda scarcely fared better. Despite Hargreaves best efforts Valencia did enter the break a goal ahead, courtesy of Gaizka Mendieta converting a third-minute penalty.
Five minutes into the second half Effenberg redeemed himself, having initially missed a penalty just minutes after Valencia scored theirs. At the second time of asking and once more from the penalty spot, Effenberg converted to leave the tie at one apiece. That’s how it remained for the next 70 minutes.
Oliver Kahn was a colossus in the Bayern Munich net, determined to erase the memory of ’99 the German international proved to be the deciding factor in the subsequent penalty shoot-out. Kahn cemented the return of Europe’s premier competition to Bavaria for the first time in a quarter of a century.
The following six seasons would bring copious levels of domestic success including three more Bundesliga titles and a further three DFB-Pokals. Though sadly on the continent Bayern failed to replicate their earlier 2001 triumph and didn’t progress beyond the Quarter-final stage of the Champions League.
Having been selected for the 2002 World Cup squad, Hargreaves had a negligible impact in Japan and Korea. Though by the time 2006’s edition of the showpiece event arrived he had acquired 30 caps and just as importantly a genuine understanding of the host countries identity. Faith from Sven-Goran Erikkson amidst fan and media disapproval of the midfielder was justified, leading the German resident to receive the Man of the Match award as a consolation when England exited against Portugal in the quarter-final.
It’s plausible as with so many other players at the time nobody saw the best of Hargreaves when he adorned the England jersey. Throughout that era, the ‘golden generation’ tag weighed most players down as much as the mass of the metal itself. But upon receiving the England Player of the Year award for 2006, he silenced many of his critics, at least temporarily.
Hunger for a taste of the English game, coupled with a fourth-placed Bundesliga finish, meaning Bayern would compete in the less prestigious UEFA Cup the following campaign, was enough to see Hargreaves force a move to the English football powerhouse of the era, Manchester United.
Alex Ferguson had been an admirer for some time, perhaps anticipating Paul Scholes’ combative best was behind him. Nevertheless, the pair regularly started alongside each other along with Michael Carrick in a fluid midfield that would shift from a 4-4-2 in defence to a 4-3-3 in attack, as Cristiano Ronaldo impaled defences with surging runs from deep, Hargreaves tucked in from the right to provide cover. Carrick, Scholes and Hargreaves complemented each other exquisitely in the centre of the pitch, and the trio expressed an air of confidence in possession that only, Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets have eclipsed since.
Ronaldo’s frankly absurd output of 42 goals in the 2007/08 campaign was made possible because of Hargreaves tactical elasticity; he gave the Portuguese winger licence to roam forward and glossed over any defensive indiscipline. United had the Premier League title all but wrapped up by March and were able to concentrate on securing a historic double.
For two hours on the evening of May 21st 2008, Hargreaves displayed a tactical dexterity possibly never seen previously by an Englishman in a European final; though mostly this went unnoticed as onlookers gaze was fixated on Ronaldo commanding the opposite flank.
To complement a stellar display, Hargreaves converted United’s fourth penalty in the shoot-out, after Ronaldo had missed Manchester United’s prior effort thus applying copious amounts of pressure to his teammate.
Since the Champions League’s inception, no Englishman has won the trophy more than Hargreaves two, and all others on equal footing have achieved both victories with the same club. Proof he wasn’t out of place amongst the elite.
Conversely what followed can only be described as a catastrophic fall from grace. Just as it appeared Hargreaves would enter his prime, four injury-ravaged seasons produced just nine appearances in all competitions. It was sickening to watch him be withdrawn less than five minutes into his return after a two-year absence that followed missing 113 matches in 20 months sidelined.
In typical fashion, Ferguson failed to exhibit any empathy when he lamented Hargreaves in his autobiography, categorising him amongst a group of his “most disappointing signings”. Perhaps the Scot was understandably frustrated at having missed out on what most English audiences had been too ignorant to observe. A subtle player widely disparaged due to playing further afield domestically, who possessed the physique to recover possession as well as a sublime range of passing and vision to transition the ball forwards.
Hargreaves suffered a similar fate to that of fellow Manchester United teammate Michael Carrick in that his influence progressing play could be easily overlooked due to its effortless nature. While Carrick’s perceived value increased towards the latter stages of his tenure, Hargreaves was robbed of his. The pair’s short passes didn’t scream like a raking 30 yard through ball does; instead, they sang as part of a supreme attacking symphony, a stark contrast to other midfielders attention-grabbing solo performances. The alloy of industry and creativity Hargreaves epitomised has not been replicated by an Englishman since.