LONDON - It was surely a night for unsullied celebration when 30-year-old Owen Hargreaves, Calgary-bred and groomed for the upper levels of international football by Bayern Munich, not only returned from years of painful exile at Manchester United but also scored a superb goal for his new club.
That this organization happened to be United’s fiercest rivals — Manchester City — added a touch of piquancy, certainly, but it seemed no reason for another outbreak of civic, if not civil, war.
That idea collapsed, however, when in the first flush of his triumph Hargreaves accused United of ill-advised medical treatment and a certain callousness over three years of inaction which brought to an end seven years of the high achievement, which included Champions League winners medals with Bayern and United and a starring role in England’s otherwise undistinguished 2006 World Cup campaign.
City and just possibly England coach Fabio 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’ remarkable return to the game this week.
First on a self-advertising YouTube slot, then out on the training field to clinch a contract with City, Hargreaves has offered a passable version of Lazarus picking up his bed and walking at a rather impressive clip.
So why the muted celebration? What is the charge against the hero of the hour?
It is that 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 un-upholstered 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 by United, which has so far not been forthcoming, it is certainly hard to nail the modern club — as opposed to an older one steeped in romance and glory — as the creators of a football bone-yard.
Roy Keane, arguably the most influential player of era of Sir Alex Ferguson, 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 re-announced himself so impressively?
For the old guys — including European and World Cup hero 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 cost of a 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 £30 million. One, also, which cost United approximately $700,000 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.
Now Hargreaves’ many admirers can only hope that in what is left of his playing 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,” the great manager 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 soccer was this week ready to hand him a martyr’s crown.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in London.