James Lawton: Hargreaves has no business playing the victim after making £15m for just 39 appearances

 

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The Independent Football

If you happened to be in San Siro on a sticky spring night 10 years ago there were no prizes to be had for identifying an outstanding young footballer.

Such were the certainties he paraded you could not have imagined that a decade on he would feel moved to recount with much bitterness his sense of grievance with Manchester United – a club who had invested huge quantities of money and time in the belief that he would re-emerge successfully from years of cruelly demoralising incapacity.

Owen Hargreaves, groomed by Bayern Munich, the richest and most sophisticated of German clubs and qualified for England, collected his Champions League winner's medal in Milan as he had done everything else in the victory over Valencia. He oozed assurance; at 20, plainly, he was a man among men.

Inevitably, the memory of that night, and all the promise it foretold, punctuated the long and frustrating battle against injury which bedevilled his career with United and England. Hargreaves was always, and may well be again on his resurrection with Manchester City, one of those players who accumulated respect quite relentlessly.

He was hardly flashy but he had something which persuaded Fabio Capello, that even amid the most desperate of his injury problems, Hargreaves offered the possibility that in his case patience was not so much a virtue as a potentially brilliant investment.

Certainly City, and just possibly Capello – though for some time it must remain one of football's longer shots – may yet draw substantial reward from showing some of the faith which suffused Hargreaves' return to the game this week with a spectacular goal against Birmingham City in a Carling Cup tie.

First on a self-advertising YouTube slot, then out on the field, Hargreaves has offered a passable version of Lazarus picking up his bed and walking at a rather impressive clip.

So why is the chorus of celebration, at least in this quarter, a little muted? It is certainly not because Hargreaves has done anything to dissipate the hugely favourable impression he created that night in San Siro with a performance so steely and mature it provoked warm praise from his captain Stefan Effenberg.

"Sometimes you see a young player and you know right away that he is a natural, that he understands precisely what he has to do," said the international veteran. "You could see that in Hargreaves tonight. For him, it was another game."

No, there has never been a hint of a betrayal of such standards and the consistency of Hargreaves' commitment was visible enough when he emerged as a new hero of the new City.

So what was the knock – what was the charge against the hero of the hour? It was that for some he may have been guilty of a certain gratuitous regurgitation of what seemed, if you had any sense of how many old pros are currently limping through life unupholstered by fantasy contracts that guaranteed their futures even if they never kicked a ball again, well, a degree of self-pity.

Failing some damning evidence of malicious neglect, which has so far not been forthcoming, it is certainly hard to nail the modern United – as opposed to an older one steeped in romance and glory – as the creators of a football boneyard.

Roy Keane, arguably the most influential player of the Ferguson era, was nursed for more than a season without any sure-fire guarantees of recovery. Paul Scholes was allowed plenty of time to battle through injuries and draw out the last of his talent. At 37, Ryan Giggs is maybe England's ultimate example of a great player being nursed over a long course.

It didn't happen for Hargreaves in that way – and no doubt it was a source of great pain, physically and emotionally as the days and the months and the seasons passed, but did this quite justify the sourness of his reflections on his old club when he reannounced himself so impressively at the Etihad Stadium?

For the old guys – including Nobby Stiles, who left Old Trafford after 14 years with shattered knees and a blunt refusal to grant him the free transfer that might have given him the deposit on a modest house – Hargreaves' complaints were certainly coming from another world.

A world in which the value of Hargreaves' contract over four years – and on which he played just six minutes in the final 33 months – was estimated at £15m. One, also, which cost United £384,615 for each of his 39 appearances.

Against such a background of financial security it is not so easy to see that Hargreaves was one of football's casualties as he fretted over all the lost opportunities to play the game that he wanted to be at the centre of his life. Of course, he had the most grievous of disappointments, but he also had the means to seek the most expensive of second opinions wherever they might be found, from Harley Street to the Mayo Clinic.

Now Hargreaves' many admirers can only hope that in the future he has no reason to complain of a lack of care by those who pay his rather generous wages. Others may believe that if he does feel such a need it will only be after a more vigorous search for a little perspective.

One source might be the reflections of the former Liverpool striker Ian St John, who in his waning days at Anfield was told that he was paying a heavy price for the weekly cortisone jabs he was given as a young player in Scotland. "The trouble is," Bill Shankly told him, "the doctor says you have the knees of a 60-year-old." St John, one of the great players of his age, was not yet 30.

That may not mean much to the slightly older Owen Hargreaves in 2011. However, it might just be a small reason why not everyone in football was yesterday ready to hand him a martyr's crown.

England's belief that all is well will not last for long

Zara Phillips was all smiles when she appeared for breakfast with her husband, England's World Cup vice-captain Mike Tindall, and you may say – certainly if you are part of an apparently overwhelming majority of England rugby fans – that this was happy confirmation of an unchallengeable fact.

It is that what happened in the Altitude bar after the first of two very poor performances by England in the tournament could have absolutely no adverse bearing on the team's preparation for this morning's collision with the No 18 ranked Romania.

This opinion was reinforced, rather comically in all the circumstances, when one of the coaches called for a supreme effort from the players – something to make worthwhile such sacrifices as leaving "your wives and girlfriends" back home.

England, unlike all their most serious rivals, are apparently serene in their belief that they have walked with perfect sweet reason the line between importing the Wags, late-night drinking and a once-in-a-lifetime effort to win the greatest prize they will ever have at their disposal.

They may be right – but then the moon may also be composed of blue cheese.

Gazidis misses the point over critics

It is a devilish combination of possibilities that might just leave Arsenal at the foot of the Premier League this weekend – and potentially the second worst gift of the week for Arsène Wenger.

Unquestionably, first place went to the bizarre vote of confidence issued by chief executive Ivan Gazidis. He ridiculed the fact that some people were portraying the great football man as an "idiot". This has, of course, never been the beginnings of the charge. The biggest fear among his many admirers is that he has been drawn too deeply into a policy that puts a "good business model" in front of the classic dynamics of any successful football club, the imperative to win and to make the important signings when they are needed.

Gazidis argues that Arsenal's embarrassing clatter into the transfer window at the eleventh hour was a measured strategy which resulted, overall, in a lowering of the average age of the club's enviable stock of talented players.

In a litany of mistakes, this absurd statement was maybe the most chilling.

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