Ian Herbert: Hargreaves keeps feet on the ground after three years of frustration

The midfielder is refusing to get carried away with talk of an England return despite shining for City

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A rather regulation Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford, last November. Wolverhampton Wanderers are in town and it is only when the team sheet drops that his name appears out of the wild blue yonder. There, in the starting line-up is Owen Hargreaves, the individual who has vanished from Manchester United almost entirely, contributing one minute's football in the preceding 777 days. There had even not been a request for a medical update on him in the pre-match press conference.

A buzz of anticipation raced around the stadium. This was the talk of the stands. Though what 70,000 fans did not know – and what, as of today, we now do – is that the Owen Hargreaves warming up before their eyes was experiencing probably his most tortured moment in football. He simply did not feel right and did not know if he dare admit it.

"I had envisaged training for two years and coming back and it didn't look like that," was how Hargreaves related that moment, in a deserted Etihad Stadium corridor as the euphoria of his comeback subsided late on Wednesday night. The muscular difficulties he had been feeling, on the eve of the Wolves match, left him tentative even about the warm-up. "I was surprised it [my hamstring] didn't go in the warm-up to be completely honest," he recalled.

The dilemma he faced was of a kind they don't tend to cover in the pro's manual: whether to call it a day before the game has started, or take a risk that you can at least make it through the first half and show the world you exist. Hargreaves opted for the latter and though it is not clear how much he told United's coaching staff, they did, too. "I [decided] I wasn't going to sprint, which sounds comical," Hargreaves recalled. "I was just going to try and get through 45 minutes because that would have been a start." He lasted precisely four, before his hamstring went and he trudged disconsolately away to the dressing room where, he has recently disclosed, he wept. "It was a disaster," Sir Alex Ferguson concluded after the game.

The story reveals the levels of desperation Hargreaves was reduced to by the debilitating patellar tendonitis – triggered, it seems, by him returning too early after a broken leg sustained with Bayern Munich, when he had insufficient muscle bulk to protect the patella tendon on the outside of his knee joint. As weeks turned to months, there would be a bristle of irritation when the press asked Ferguson for a bulletin.

It is easy to understand why the prolotherapy treatment which Hargreaves now considers to have been wrong for him seemed so attractive in July 2008. The therapy which involves injecting a solution into the ligaments to stiffen and strengthen tissues, was experimental – that much was clear when Rio Ferdinand decided to embark upon a course of it, the following year. But Nemanja Vidic had tried it, so it offered hope.

Ferdinand underwent a six-week course of weekly injections and was warned of a side effect: that the ligaments can become set in the wrong position. "You have to do your training to make sure that your spine heals the right way," Ferdinand related last year. "They said to me to expect a couple of deferred problems along the way but they'll be minor." It was all to no avail. The failure of Hargreaves' treatment was compounded by the dislocated shoulder he sustained earlier this year in a game with the United youth players that effectively ended his career there.

Hargreaves, with his hair still wet from his post-match shower, was already delighting in the routines and companionship associated with actually playing late on Wednesday night. But the prolotherapy episode has been rankling for months. Hargreaves was made aware yesterday that his comments about his United treatment would be a significant story today and he was said to be "philosophical" about that. There was no attempt to recant. Ferguson is also said to be aware of the comments and will be offered the chance to respond at his press conference this morning.

It was the loneliness that had begun to sting most on the outside, said Hargreaves. "Basically, I was left to pick up the pieces [at United], which was incredibly frustrating," he said. "At times, I'd watch games and be jealous of the way people could move, as funny as that sounds. I wondered if I was going to be able, to be as sharp and things like that. It's great to be in a game again and around other people because I trained so much on my own, I got an allergy to being around people."

Though it was Hargreaves' two meaty challenges on Wednesday night which left those watching worrying for him, there need have been no cause for concern. "My injury was never really a tackling injury," he revealed. "It was more of a load and impact thing. Anyone who has ever had this tendon injury knows it's very sensitive to impact. It's not a tackling thing. I couldn't injure it if I tackled someone. It's more to do with loads, cuts and turns." A training match he was asked to undertake with City last week was very rigorous and he came through. Wednesday was effectively his second game in six days.

Hargreaves believes that long recovery times will become part of his life. "We're just going to have to manage it after the surgery I had," he said. "It's big surgery. We're just going to have to be smart. My function is very good but sadly, I'm not 18 anymore." But it is when Roberto Mancini's talk of England comebacks are put to the player that you realise that, for all that calm self-confidence, he still dare only take one day at a time. "It's nice to focus on all these things, but the last three years have taught me that you need to live in the moment," he concluded. "If football comes to me here, then great, I'll embrace it. But I've got to get that level back. There are no plans."

The pain game and the long road back for midfielder

May 2008 Hargreaves' first season at United ends well: he wins the Premier League, and scores a penalty in the Champions League final shoot-out, in which United beat Chelsea.

September 2008 Hargreaves started to feel pain in his knees in pre-season, but played three September matches. After the last one his knees hurt so much that he could not drive for three days.

October 2008 He is diagnosed with chronic patellar tendonitis, and knee expert Dr Richard Steadman says that he has "rarely seen a tendon look like that in my 35 years of working".

November 2008 Steadman operates on Hargreaves' right knee, and he is ruled out for the rest of the season. In January 2009, he performs a similar operation on Hargreaves' left knee.

September 2009 After nearly a year of rehabilitation in Colorado after surgery, Hargreaves is included in United's Champions League squad. Failing to make a recovery, he is removed in February.

May 2010 Finally, Hargreaves makes his first appearance since September 2008. He comes on as an 89th-minute substitute in a 1-0 Premier League away victory over Sunderland.

July 2010 Any hopes that 2010-11 would be much better than the previous two seasons hit as Hargreaves goes back to Dr Streadman during pre-season training for more attention for his knees.

November 2010 Hargreaves makes his first start for more than two years in a home league game against Wolves, but he tears his hamstring after just six minutes and is substituted.

March 2011 A shoulder injury in training effectively ends another Hargreaves season. Ferguson confirms in May that he would not be offered a new contract at Manchester United.