While England's draw in Amsterdam lifted the national team off their knees, arguably the most promising development for Steve McClaren was the news, from here, that Owen Hargreaves will soon resume training.
Six months ago this would have been of incidental importance to any England coach but the worst injury of Hargreaves' career has also been the most ill-timed for he had finally made the breakthrough at international level. A sterling performance against Portugal during England's World Cup elimination saw the man once derided by Gary Lineker on BBC television hailed by the supporters. That good impression was cemented in McClaren's early successes and England's subsequent stumbles in their Euro 2008 qualifying group when they drew with Macedonia and lost to Croatia in his absence have only served to emphasise his importance.
"It's getting better, and there is progress every day," said Hargreaves of the broken leg he suffered playing for Bayern Munich against Arminia Bielefeld on 16 September. "I'm on schedule. I should be able to join training next week. I just have to be patient and listen to my body."
Bayern have missed Hargreaves: they lie fourth in a Bundesliga they usually dominate." So have England. "Football is very difficult nowadays," Hargreaves said. "Even the small teams are strong. In the draw at home [to Macedonia] we played OK but not great and we got a draw. For England at home that is obviously not enough. We wanted to improve in Croatia but we didn't. It is a difficult team to play against and we did not play well enough to win.
"But I'm not really worried [about qualifying]. On the way there are always some bumps. That is normal. Those are the games you learn the most from. You learn from the things you did wrong. We are on the right path and we will be OK in the end. It is like the coach said: 'It is not about where you are at the moment. It was about where you are at the end'. That is true. And at the end of the qualifying we have always been in the right position and I am sure that will be the case this time. We are the strongest team in the group."
Hargreaves was supportive of McClaren, insisting: "I really think he is the right trainer for us. He knows the squad very well and he spends a lot of time on tactics and formations. That is what I think his strengths are.
"In the future you will see a very strong English team coached by him. It is always very difficult with England. There is always so much potential and so far I don't think we have fulfilled it. We made it to the quarter-finals [of the World Cup] but with the team we have you would expect more. Hopefully, in the near future we'll accomplish more."
While Hargreaves' injury kept him out of Wednesday's match he should be playing again by the time the transfer window opens. This will renew speculation about a move to Manchester United despite the claim, by Bayern's general manager, Uli Hoeness, that German tax laws would make it uneconomic to sell him. "The most important thing for me is to get healthy," he said when asked about the possibility. I just want to focus all my energy on rehab and getting fit."
But then he added: "If I play in the same way as before my injury happened I think everything will take care of itself but obviously Manchester is a wonderful team. They have a great potential with so many talented players. They started very well in the Premier League and they've done very well in the Champions' League so they are a team every player would love to play for, especially with me playing for England and my family being from England."
Hargreaves has spent much of his recuperation lifting weights in Bayern's medical department to maintain his upper body strength. One diversion on the lonely road back has been a visit from his brother, Neill, but another was denied him by his reliance on crutches. Born and raised in Calgary, Canada, Hargreaves has developed a few character traits that are not typically British - and it's not just the ability to score a penalty in a shoot-out. Part of that Canadian influence is also his love of basketball. He checks the scores every day and even writes his own basketball blog on nba.com. Through Steve Nash, a Canadian who is hugely successful in the NBA, he has come to support the Phoenix Suns. Last month the point guard, who came over to watch Hargreaves in the World Cup this summer, invited his good friend to "hang out" with him and the Suns during the NBA's tour of Europe. The crutches and cast pinned Hargreaves to his home in Munich.
Hargreaves hopes to return to McClaren's team for the friendly with Spain in February. McClaren has already told Hargreaves he will come to Germany to watch him play as soon as he resumes for Bayern. He should be warmly received, but he is taking nothing for granted.
"In football you are only as good as your last game. If you don't play well in the next game people jump on you. That is the way it is. Look at Ronaldinho. People are criticising him and he is the best football player in the world."
The savvy Hargreaves added: "It is important not to think about this too much. It is important to believe in yourself. I found that out before the World Cup when the fans booed me. It taught me a lot about myself as a player and a person. It helped me. It was tough and at the time I wished I would not have to go through it but it made me stronger.
"But in football if you ever think you've made the breakthrough, that is the point where it might go downhill. So I try not to think like that."Reuse content