Owen Hargreaves relieved after comeback match

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The Independent Football

Owen Hargreaves has admitted the thought of pulling his boots back on after virtually three years on the sidelines was "frightening".

Hargreaves made a dream debut for Manchester City last night, scoring the opener, then coming through almost an hour unscathed as Roberto Mancini's men recorded a 2-0 Carling Cup win over holders Birmingham at the Etihad Stadium.

To the 30-year-old, the feeling of satisfaction almost compared to his two Champions League final wins, the second of which, for Manchester United, marked the start of a gloomy period from which few felt Hargreaves would ever return.

Already troubled by a tendinitis problem in his knees that dated back to his Bayern Munich days, Hargreaves felt the injury had got significantly worse that summer.

Although he played three times the following season, after a draw at Chelsea in September 2008, he felt it was impossible to continue.

He headed out to Colorado for extensive surgery on both knees, under the guidance of Dr Richard Steadman, that initially appeared likely to rule him out for a full year, only for his comeback plans to be repeatedly interrupted by other ailments.

Aside from 45 minutes in a reserve game, an appearance at Sunderland in 2010 that could be measured in seconds, and a surprise outing against Wolves last season that officially came to an end after 10 minutes but in actual fact had been halted in half that time as he limped off with a pulled hamstring, Hargreaves' career has been on hold.

Against that backdrop, it is hardly a surprise Hargreaves approached last night's game with such trepidation.

"It has been three years and four months," he said. "That is frightening in itself.

"I am not surprised how quickly I was in contention. There was a bit of a misconception and I don't think people would believe me if I said everything that went on.

"I would never have anticipated all these setbacks in my worst nightmare.

"You are left to pick up the pieces. That has been the biggest obstacle.

"It was a pretty humbling experience but I knew this day would come.

"Hopefully I will learn from it and make some changes and look forward to the future."

When Hargreaves was posting a video on YouTube showing himself being pushed through a bizarre exercise routine that at one point had him tied to a running machine, it appeared like the last act of a desperate man.

Instead, it triggered interest, first from West Brom manager Roy Hodgson, then Roberto Mancini, who needed midfield reinforcements and the day before the deadline closed, took a punt on a player Sir Alex Ferguson had deemed not reliable enough to offer another contract to.

"I just needed to be pointed in the right direction," he said.

"The staff have done a terrific job of making sure everything was sorted. I did a lot of hard work this summer as well.

"I just need a bit more time to get used to the tempo. It is more dynamic when you are training with the group rather than on your own.

"So far it has been a great progression."

If Hargreaves was confident about his body's ability to stand up to the strain of facing an admittedly limited Birmingham outfit, his goal was something else.

Snapping up a loose ball 25 yards out, the former Bayern Munich man rasped a shot past Colin Doyle which flew straight into the top corner.

"I don't score a ton of goals because I play a bit deeper in midfield," said Hargreaves, who found the net only twice during his entire time at United.

"But when I do score they tend to be decent ones because they are from a distance."

As Hargreaves departed to a standing ovation, the mind immediately fast-forwarded to the potential for a delicious return to Old Trafford on October 23 for a derby already hyped up due to the two Manchester clubs' present status as first and second in the table.

However, Mancini is acutely aware of the need to be 'calm' about Hargreaves' progress, which will not include a trip to Bayern next week because he was not registered as part of City's 25-man Champions League squad.

It was Mancini who mentioned England though and whilst it is very early days, Fabio Capello is bound to note the progress of a player who, even at 75% of his best form, would be an invaluable addition to his Three Lions plans.

"I have proved in the past I can do a lot of things," said Hargreaves of his three-week stint at City.

"We have a very talented group here. I will help any way I can."