‘We had a good chat’: Owen Hargreaves on challenging Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United’s Europa League final tactical surprise

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Owen Hargreaves was bought by Manchester United to win the Champions League and they did. Sir Alex Ferguson had a self-confessed obsession with winning the European Cup and he did. He hoisted it for a second time, with Hargreaves participating in the synchronised celebrations, in the Moscow rain.

Hargreaves, stricken by tendonitis, only played five more times for United after the 2008 final. The season write-offs ought to have safeguarded a Premier and Champions League double-winning legacy. Then Ferguson dipped his quill in vitriol.

“When I signed him, there was something about him I didn’t like,” Ferguson confessed in his 2013 book. He claimed Hargreaves had “no confidence in himself whatsoever. He didn’t show nearly enough determination to overcome his physical difficulties, for my liking. I saw him opt out for the easy choice too often in terms of training. He was one of the most disappointing signings of my career.” Ferguson dubbed the deal a ‘disaster’.

Of all the revelations in Ferguson’s second autobiography, his opinion of Hargreaves was one of the more sudden jolts. Poorer players (Bebe) and pitiful professionals (Anderson) evaded such scrutiny.

Following his release in 2011, Hargreaves said United treated him ‘like a guinea pig’. Ferguson was affronted by the criticism of his medical staff and Hargreaves had the temerity to join Manchester City. Little wonder Ferguson had a score to settle.

“I rang him, when I heard,” Hargreaves tells the Manchester Evening News. “I was surprised myself. My family were really surprised.

 

“To this day, I haven’t done a day of sport since. I can’t because of my knee. If you just forget the football side, my career changed from one day to the next and for a young man chasing a ball around all of his life, it was a pretty significant day. I haven’t been able to play sport like that since. To say it went the way I envisioned would be a lie.

“When I played again, I put my heart and soul into it but I knew after everything that happened with my knee I wasn’t able to play at that level and it disappointed me I wasn’t able to be there for my teammates, for him.

“I used to watch those finals [against Barcelona in 2009 and 2011) and think, ‘God, I could make a difference here’. And I’m sure he would have picked me but it happened.

 

“My only regret was I didn’ t communicate more about it, because my dad raised me not to complain and I always thought I’d get back and play and I never really did. And that is not something I ever thought and probably he never thought, either.

“So I wish I would have gone to him directly rather than gone through the doctors and the physios, I should have gone to him directly, because I spoke to him on the phone and said to him, ‘What would you have done if that was your son in that position?’

“We had a good chat about it. Obviously, it stays private. I was surprised by what he said. I don’t think it helps when you go and play for your rivals. Even though people think I went there to [spite], I didn’t. I bumped into David Platt in a restaurant in Alderley Edge, I didn’t have an agent, I did it all on my own. There were a lot of variables to it.

“But I guess he was disappointed in some things and me not playing as much as he would have hoped. I told him it upset me a lot more than it did him.”

Hargreaves shared a dressing room with Ferguson for Michael Carrick’s testimonial in 2017 for a reunion of the 2008 double winners. Hargreaves started against Lyon, Roma and Barcelona in United’s Champions League knockout run to the final and reels off the positions he played in: defensive midfield, right wing and right-back.

In the final, United’s set-up threw Chelsea. Hargreaves started on the right in a 4-4-2 formation and, in a duel that many predicted would be cagey, United ran amok, somehow returning to the dressing room level at 1-1.

Edwin van der Sar was the official man of the match for his decisive denial of Nicolas Anelka and Cristiano Ronaldo the blinkered fans’ choice. Objectively, Hargreaves was the standout consistent performer on the night and listed among the man of the match candidates in a nostalgic Uefa poll last week.

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