Few things can be more devastating to a footballer than to have their career curtailed by injury, but that seems to be the direction in which Owen Hargreaves is heading since Manchester City announced that the one-year pay-as-you-play contract he signed last summer would not be renewed. The former England international's struggles with various leg injuries have been torturous, as he made one comeback after another, only to last just a few minutes before breaking down again.
This latest setback will no doubt give Hargreaves food for thought as to whether to attempt another comeback; he is now the wrong side of 30, and he had already been considering retirement before joining City back in August. His first season at Manchester United was his most productive for the Red Devils, playing 34 times and scoring a penalty in the Champions League final against Chelsea as United secured the European double, but by his own admission, he was only playing at "50 or 60%" fitness throughout the year.
Unfortunately, the attempts to get him back to 100% fitness effectively resulted in him being reduced to 0% fitness, as he was in and out of the game sporadically for the next three years with no definite comeback date. He only made three appearances at the start of the 2008-09 season before being sent to knee injury specialist Dr Richard Steadman in an attempt to cure the tendinitis problem he was suffering in both his knees.
He underwent surgery on the right knee in November 2008 and the left knee in January 2009. Both surgeries were reported as being successful, but Hargreaves' recovery turned out to be a problem. His continued absence meant that he lost his place in central midfield to a combination of Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher and Scholes, casting doubt on whether he would ever return to professional football.
As it turned out, he did eventually make a comeback... twice. The first time around, he only made a short cameo at the end of United's penultimate game of the 2009-10 season against Sunderland, when the league was already effectively lost to Chelsea. He made his first start for two years in November 2010, when he was selected to play against Wolves, but lasted only five minutes before breaking down with a heart-breaking hamstring injury that Sir Alex Ferguson put down to the anxiety that Hargreaves may have been feeling over his long-awaited return.
Hargreaves did not recover sufficiently from his injured hamstring for Manchester United's liking, and he was allowed to leave the club when his contract expired last summer. After that, he took the opportunity to criticise his former employers for basically treating him like a lab rat, using him as a guinea pig for new treatments.
In an attempt to prove his fitness, Hargreaves released a series of - frankly - hilarious YouTube videos of himself in training, both in the gym and on the football pitch. One might have expected him to just call it a day, given his track record, but the videos apparently piqued the interest of Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion. However, neither club was able to reach an agreement with the player.
The biggest surprise of all was still to come, though, as Manchester City offered Hargreaves a one-year contract. On the face of it, it looked like a massive middle finger to Manchester United, as if to say "you couldn't get him fit, now watch us do it". He looked to have proved his new employers right just 16 minutes into his debut for the club, scoring the first in a 2-0 win over Birmingham City in the League Cup. However, he only made one more start for City, and only one appearance in the Premier League before his release.
It truly has been a tragic end for the former England player of the year, whose exploits at the 2006 World Cup earned him such admiration. England has not produced a tigerish, versatile midfielder of his ilk for a long time, and is unlikely to do so for an equally protracted period, so Hargreaves' loss will surely be felt by English football.
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