Hargreaves hungers for holding role

Road to Euro 2004: Bayern boy knows Neville is favourite as England pivot but he is frustrated by the bit-part days
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The Independent Football

For the England player from Rocky Mountains country, international football has been a rocky road; and there is likely to be one more nasty bump before the end of the current, interminable campaign. Although Owen Hargreaves would love to start Wednesday's game against Slovakia down by the Riverside, the indications are that Phil Neville, the man in possession of the anchor role in midfield, has done enough to keep it and consign Bayern Munich's representative to the frustrations of the bench.

When he left it, to take part in the second half of last week's hotchpotch of a match with Serbia and Montenegro, Hargreaves hoped that he would be slotted into his favourite position as Neville's replacement. Instead, he was shunted out on to the right, and the Manchester United man took advantage of an extended opportunity to impress in the role normally filled for club and country by the injured Nicky Butt.

Hargreaves, a fish out of water when forced to make his international debut two years ago on the left of midfield, earned some plus marks this time with his strong running and shooting, but is desperate for a proper chance to become a specialist.

"I need to find my best position and stick to it, and my best position is central midfield," he insisted later. "I get used in so many positions when people need help, but for the future my goal is to be not a jack of all trades but a master of one. I'd relish the chance to play the holding role on Wednesday because that's the role I do best, getting stuck in, then laying the ball off."

A sense of frustration is increased by the knowledge that the position was his when it mattered most, at the start of the World Cup finals last summer. Chosen for the opening two matches, against Sweden and Argentina, he was injured early in the second one, paving the way for Trevor Sinclair to add a different dimension to England's attacking options.

Since then Hargreaves has again been only a bit-part player, with four second-half substitutions, one of them at right-back and another, in Slovakia, for barely a couple of minutes. But he is philosophical about the setback in Sapporo: "It couldn't be more disappointing, when you get the biggest high of your life, then 20 minutes later you get the biggest low. It was a shame. Everything had gone great up until then and it was a dream come true. But it obviously wasn't meant to be. So you have to say, 'OK, it didn't work out', and set a new target. The next step is to get one position for Bayern and England, not eight positions."

His attitude - and hybrid North American/North Walian accent - stem from an interesting cultural mix, inherited from a Lancashire father and Welsh mother, refined by birth and boyhood in Calgary, Alberta, and then stardom in Munich. Bayern were put on to him before any British club because of the presence in Canada of Thomas Niendorf, once a coach with the discredited East German security forces club Dynamo Berlin; Niendorf spotted potential in the 16-year-old playing for Calgary Foothills and arranged a trial that resulted in the teenager beginning a new life in a foreign land. A senior debut alongside Diego Maradona in Lothar Matthäus's testimonial match followed, and at the age of 20 came starring roles in the Champions' League semi-final and final against Real Madrid and Valencia respectively.

Selected in the squad for a competitive Wales Under-21 match (which would have committed him to the land of his mother), Hargreaves withdrew and opted for England, representing their Under-21s in November 2000 and the senior side against Holland at White Hart Lane as a European Cup winner nine months later. If that appearance was unsuccessful, he derived infinitely greater enjoyment from the next one: 12 minutes as a substitute in the 5-1 victory over Germany in Bayern's Olympic Stadium.

Up until the World Cup, versatility had seemed a boon; now he is beginning to wonder whether it might be a curse. Ottmar Hitzfeld, Bayern's coach, discouraged any fancy notions of being a playmaker, but has used him at right-back as well as all over midfield. Sven Goran Eriksson followed suit until admitting last week: "He is a very versatile player. That can be an advantage when you are young, it helps the learning process, although eventually it can work against you. There comes a time when it is better you have an established position. As far as I'm concerned, for the future, his best position will be in the centre of midfield."

Forty-eight hours later, he was selected on the right, until Neville went off in the dying minutes - by which time it was almost impossible to decipher who was playing where. What was clear was that Eriksson has at last become convinced that a diamond formation is the best way to organise his midfield in the absence of David Beckham and a convincing wide-left performer. "I think it's best for our squad," Hargreaves agreed, "because we don't have a proper left-midfielder. If you can vary it and put Stevie Gerrard out there [during a game] or Scholesy or Nicky Butt or myself, I think that's great. We can all fill that role. I think that'll be the future of the England midfield."

We have seen the future, and it is diamond-shaped. But whether Owen Hargreaves can become a jewel in it may not be resolved for a while yet.