Injury-plagued Hargreaves sets England target on City comeback


Click to follow
The Independent Football

It says a lot about the depths of despair Owen Hargreaves has dragged himself back from that his summer reading, as he rallied for a last shot at the Premier League, included a book about a triathlete who had used positive thinking to find a way back into competitive sport having been hit by a car while out on his bike.

Hargreaves will probably only really know what reserves of mental fortitude he can draw on during Manchester City's Carling Cup tie at home to Birmingham City tonight, a game which Roberto Mancini's coaching staff have earmarked 45 minutes of game time for the 30-year-old – three years to the day since the injury ravaged midfielder last completed 90 minutes in a competitive game.

But the signs have been promising. In the 22 days since he was signed on a one-year deal, Hargreaves has surprised Mancini's staff, who had been expecting him to need another month from now before being match-fit. Instead, Hargreaves has been ready for the physical challenge of competitive football for the last 10 days.

Since joining City, he has reported no pain in the knees which have wrecked his progress and he has not even required physio time – massages aside – since he came through a medical at the Etihad Stadium on 30 August. If he comes through tonight, Hargreaves could be on the bench at home to Everton on Saturday, with a series of practice matches then scheduled for him by the club's conditioning staff , to get him ready for his first league start after the international break on 8 October.

Yet even making it into contention to face Birmingham represents progress for Hargreaves, a £17m buy from Bayern Munich in May 2007, who appeared only 39 times in four years for United, with his last full outing the 1-1 draw at Chelsea on 21 September, 2008. After the many false starts on the road to recovery from crippling knee injuries – which began when a bad challenge during his Bayern career left him with a broken fibula in his left leg, a weakened limb which later proved susceptible to tendon damage in the left knee joint – he could not even make it through a training session with United's youngsters as his days at the club ran out. He dislocated his shoulder, a twist of fate which finally ended his Old Trafford career and left him seeking surgery in Vancouver this summer, in an attempt to be ready for the season.

Hargreaves has turned to every physician imaginable over the past three years, with faith healers and acupuncturists included on journeys to Sweden, Colorado and Vancouver. But it has been Alex McKechnie, the physiotherapist hired by the LA Lakers after saving Shaquille O'Neal's career, who has been instrumental in seeing Hargreaves to a strong enough physical state for City to take a gamble on him. McKechnie worked with him for nine weeks, leaving surgeon Richard Steadman – who operated on Hargreaves' knees – to conclude that they could take the impact of "jumping from the Eiffel Tower".

Hargreaves has not wanted to tempt fate. There has been no public presentation of the player, as is usual when a new signing arrives. But the mental fortitude is unmissable in an individual who is setting himself goals. "Yes, I've written down a few targets," he said. "I'll keep those to myself but I just want to get back and play football. That's what I've done for a long time but it's been taken away from me. I've missed it. All the times I've played for a team I think I've helped them to get better and I hope that will be true of my time here."

Tonight's match is also expected to see City's Kolo Touré cast back into the fray, seven months after his suspension for failing a drugs test. A strong City line-up should also feature Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli. But Hargreaves is the player will be of more than passing interest to Fabio Capello. The England manager wants to see Hargreaves back in his planning and the player, one of the few bright spots of the nation's 2006 World Cup campaign, admitted that remains an aspiration.

"I'm a competitive person," he said. "I like to set my targets high. I've never not succeeded in achieving something that I've set myself out to achieve – so yes. I've just got to take it step by step. I've just got to get back in training, consistently playing. It's a natural progression. If I do a great job here, then I will be in the England team probably again. So we'll take it step by step first."