Football is full of what-if stories, and nobody encapsulates that quite like former Manchester United and England midfielder Owen Hargreaves.
Hargreaves had risen to prominence with Bayern Munich and captured the attention of the watching world during their successful 2000-01 Champions League campaign.
However, it wasn’t until the 2006 World Cup that he really endeared himself to the England supporters – and caught the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Ferguson had to wait, though, and did not get his man until the summer of 2007 for a reported fee of £17million.
“A lot of teams came in for me, pretty much everyone,” Hargreaves told BT Sport. “I was only ever leaving Bayern Munich for Man United and I remember Sir Alex said to me, ‘One of the reasons I signed you, is to help us win the Champions League, I think you can help us do that.’
“And I said ‘that’s why I’m here boss’.”
Hoping Hargreaves was the man to fill the gaping void left by Roy Keane in the middle of the park, United fans had high expectations for their new signing.
And he hit the ground running at Old Trafford, imposing himself against his opponents and playing an integral role at the heart of Ferguson’s United.
His all-action performances saw him quickly become a fan favourite, working tirelessly like a ball of energy while also adding dynamism and drive to the United side.
Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo stole the spotlight when United won the league in 2008, but Hargreaves’ contribution shouldn’t be overlooked as he allowed them to wreak havoc in the final third.
He also had a special free-kick in his locker and even had the confidence to take a set-piece off Ronaldo before scoring a famous winner against Arsenal.
What a free-kick this was from Owen Hargreaves! Criminally underrated player. Injuries completely ruined his career. Very sad. 🙌🇾🇪 pic.twitter.com/zJC2Hixoyz
— Devils of United 🔰 (@DevilsOfUnited) December 17, 2019
Hargreaves went on to play a key role in the Champions League run too, playing all 120 minutes of the 2008 final against Chelsea in Moscow.
In the shootout, his time in Germany clearly paid off as he kept his composure to fire the perfect penalty past Petr Cech and help United win their third European Cup.
Hargreaves had only been at the club for a year, but he’d become the missing piece in United’s jigsaw and had already fulfilled his promise to Ferguson.
And at 27 years of age, Hargreaves should’ve had his best years ahead of him. But that season proved to be as good as it got for him at Old Trafford.
Despite making 34 appearances for United in all competitions during 2007-08, Hargreaves underwent treatment on a recurring knee issue ahead of the following season.
He was eventually diagnosed with an extreme form of tendinitis leading to major surgery which the midfielder never really recovered from.
Hargreaves’ first-team appearances for United soon became a collector’s item, and he spent most of the next three years watching on from the stands.
In fact, between the 2008 Champions League final and October 2010, he only managed 177 minutes in four appearances for United.
There is no doubting that Hargreaves had the talent to be one of the best midfielders in the world, but his body derailed his career and cruelly prevented him from fulfilling that potential.
Owen Hargreaves on his injuries was gripping #PLTonight viewing…
"At home, I couldn't go up the stairs because I couldn't get back down." 😧
He looked back at the problems that ended his career…pic.twitter.com/qWmVjVVe8Q
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) December 30, 2018
Ferguson could no longer rely on the injury-plagued star, yet United were still reluctant to give up on him due to his obvious talents.
And just when people had started to give up all hope of Hargreaves returning to action, he made a much-anticipated comeback against Wolves in November 2010.
Just five minutes in, he was handed another crushing setback, substituted after suffering a torn hamstring. By this point it was as if the midfielder was made out of glass that would shatter at the slightest touch.
United’s gamble had completely backfired and their patience had finally run out. That five-minute cameo turned out to be Hargreaves’ final appearance for the club.
Hargreaves’ time at United reached a bitter and acrimonious end as he criticised their medical staff after his contract expired in 2011.
“I’ve had to be a guinea pig for a lot of these treatments,” he told The Guardian in 2011. “But when you’re left to try to make something of a difficult situation, it’s not really an option to say, ‘Let’s sit it out and rest for six months.’
“We treated it and it got significantly worse through the injections. That obviously had a huge impact. Basically, I was left to pick up the pieces, which was incredibly frustrating.”
Hargreaves tried to convince potential new employers of his fitness by uploading YouTube videos that showed him working hard in the gym.
Surprisingly, it seemed to do the trick as Manchester City took a punt on Hargreaves and offered him a one-year contract.
He scored on his City debut in a League Cup match and looked set to finally get his career back on track at the Etihad, but it proved to be another false dawn.
Ultimately failing to ever regain full fitness, Hargreaves would make just three more appearances for City before retiring at the age of 31, although his career had essentially ended four years earlier.
He is now renowned for his injury problems rather than his actual footballing ability and it’s easy to look back on Hargreaves’ career as a tragic tale and wonder what could have been.
But at Bayern Munich and Manchester United, he won it all. He should be remembered not for what he didn’t do but as the world-class talent he undoubtedly was before injuries took their toll.