When Manchester United paid Bayern Munich £17 million for Owen Hargreaves last summer, after winning the Premier League but being taken apart by Milan's midfield in the Champions' League semi-finals, the intention seemed clear. As Hargreaves put it in his Welsh-Canadian twang before the season began: "Every player brings his qualities and mine are in the defensive midfield area. Hopefully I can win some tackles and protect the back four to ensure we keep a clean sheet and get the ball to the fantastic offensive players we have."
But the best-laid schemes of managers and men... Niggling injuries and then the outstanding form of Michael Carrick meant that Hargreaves has started fewer than half of United's 55 games, appearing in the two most important ones out of position at right-back and almost certainly requiring injuries to others in order to play a full part in the season-defining matches against Wigan today and Chelsea on Wednesday week.
Only once has he begun even three successive games, which was back in late summer alongside Carrick in what had seemed the natural partnership in the centre of midfield; and after four games in a row on the bench, Sir Alex Ferguson was forced to deny rumours that he was being punished for poor timekeeping. Yet, given brief periods free from knee and thigh strains, England's Player of the Year for 2006 has shown his real value.
He was man of the match in the 1-0 victory at Liverpool in December and scored superb free-kicks against Fulham and Arsenal, the latter winning two points without which United would be outsiders going into today's League finale. There was an impressive effort when unexpectedly used as a central attacking player against Roma, and more recently came two solid performances in the semi-final against Barcelona at full-back.
If that was a position Hargreaves thought he had left behind at Bayern, he is not going to complain. "United bought me to play midfield but we've been a bit unlucky, we've had some injuries," he said. "I've played in a lot of positions in my career, everywhere you could think of, but I just want to contribute and be a part of the team. It's a bigger picture than just me and if we can be successful I'll be very happy. If it's going to frustrate you playing out of position in a Champions' League semi-final, then you shouldn't be here."
Adaptability was a quality evident in Hargreaves from a young age, notably when he arrived in Munich from his nat-ive Canada as a 16-year-old speaking no German. Though "a little homesick", he plugged away at football and the language and made his big breakthrough aged 20, winning the Bundesliga and Champions' League in the same season after excelling in a semi-final against Real Madrid.
He was snapped up for England Under-21s that same season by Howard Wilkinson and made his senior debut, looking a little uncomfortable, in left midfield in August 2001. Not until the 2006 World Cup, as one of England's few successes, did he become accepted by supporters who once booed his entrance as a substitute – at Old Trafford.
Now, after the desperate disappointment of missing out on the European Championship finals, huge compensation is possible. "It's easy at this level to start the season and say we want to reach the Champions' League final and we want to win the Premier League, but it's difficult, there are top teams [in opposition]," he said. "It will be a massive game at Wigan but hopefully we can do the business in the League, we're in a good position. Then we can concentrate on the Champions' League final."
Unlike some of United's younger recruits, he has abundant experience of facing up to the sharp end of the season after winning four German League titles, three domestic Cups and the Champions' League. Bayern were reluctant to let him leave but, as with Michael Ballack's move to Chelsea, were forced to acknowledge the pull of the Premier League.
"I wouldn't have come here if I didn't think we would win things. I knew we'd win things. Bayern is a massive club, I played in the Champions' League quarter-finals every year for probably six years, but I knew this was one club that was a step up. It's not just the ability of the squad but the positive energy within it, the coaches and the staff. Everybody plays together and I think we play the right way."
The boy from the Rocky Mountains may have found his first season less smooth than imagined but he will be there at the finish when required, desperate to scale twin peaks.Reuse content