Sportsnet magazine: Rebuilding Hargreaves

The shot dipped, swerved and sliced to perfection, hurtling 25 yards to find a square of net in the top corner that the diving goalkeeper’s outstretched glove couldn’t cover. The home crowd rose in frenzied celebration. But the goal scorer simply jogged away, eyes closed, hand covering his smiling mouth in disbelief. He turned and lowered his head in gratitude. This wasn’t merely a goal, it was the end of a three-year nightmare.

It had been 1,252 days since Owen Hargreaves, once considered the best midfielder in England, had scored. The hellish time in between was filled with injuries, failed comebacks and, finally, the humiliation of being cast off byManchester United. His once-glittering career seemed doomed. But on this innocuous afternoon in Manchester, during an expected Carling Cup walkover, a long-range goal announced his return, turning this once agonizingly frail star into the most unlikely comeback story.

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The architect of Hargreaves’s revival is Alex McKechnie. With his white hair, confident gait and Johnny Cash fashion sense, the Glasgow native comes across as a guy who spends his time restoring expensive automobiles, which isn’t that far off. In fact, McKechnie has carved a niche restoring high-priced athletes. The all-star physiotherapist and director of sports science for the Toronto Raptors is a resurrector of careers: Shaq, Steve Nash and Jimmy Connors all swear by him.

In fact, it was this grapevine of injured athletes — in this case, former NHLer Paul Kariya — who referred Hargreaves to McKechnie. At that point, chronic tendonitis in his knees had all but scuttled the career of the best Canadian-born soccer player ever. “The problem was his sustainability,” McKechnie says, “his skill was never in question.”

By the time he was named England Player of the Year after the 2006 World Cup, the holding midfielder was widely recognized as the world’s best at his position. Canadian national team captain Kevin McKenna lauded him as the only player capable of marking Lionel Messi. His reputation was so stout, in fact, that following the 2006 World Cup, and with a hatful of German silverware to his credit — including four Bundesliga titles, three German cups and a Champions League crown — Hargreaves caught the eye of mighty Manchester United. It cost the club £17 million to buy him from Bayern Munich in 2007, but they got a lot more than they bargained for: a player with a host of hidden fragilities.

Hargreaves traces his injury troubles to a broken fibula suffered while playing a match for Munich in September 2006. While the bone healed, his muscles wasted away, and a quick return to the pitch strained the tendons in his knees. During training in early 2007, he says, his knee just popped. “Eventually there is a breakdown point,” says McKechnie. “It’s kind of like the water pipe at home that bursts. It was fine yesterday, but it burst today.”

Hargreaves played through the pain in his first year with United, winning Premiership and Champions League titles. But his condition worsened, and surgeries became necessary in December 2008 and January 2009 to repair the patellar tendons in both knees. His surgeon, world-renowned orthopedist Richard Steadman, said the tendons were the worst he’d seen in 35 years. In four seasons with United, Hargreaves made just 39 appearances. He seemed to spend as much time with Steadman in Vail, Colo., as he did with his team in Manchester, turning Hargreaves from a player with so much to give, into a man with nothing to lose. It was as if, Hargreaves says, he was made of “f—ing glass.”

A first comeback ended minutes into a Premier League match against Wolverhampton in November 2010, when a hamstring tear left him limping; a second was called off by a dislocated shoulder. Hargreaves had played just six minutes since 2008. Eventually the years of inactivity and false starts became too much. United stopped trying to salvage its investment and did not offer Hargreaves a contract after the 2010–11 season. He offered to play for free, but manager Sir Alex Ferguson chose to move on. At 30, Hargreaves was left without a future.

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When three million people click on a YouTube video of a grown man in bike shorts, the subject usually lies low for a while. Not Hargreaves, who posted a series of now-infamous videos of himself, clad in spandex, hitting the gym and running sprint drills on the training ground. “That was entirely his idea,” McKechnie says of the videos, which he filmed in Vancouver this summer. “The basis was to review his training.”

The videos were intended for a physio in Europe (they were too big to email), but elicited snickers across the soccer world. For Hargreaves, the shame wasn’t in millions seeing him try to work his way back into soccer; it was that he’d been out of the game in the first place. “What he expected was to be able to leave the game under his terms,” McKechnie says.

When Hargreaves met McKechnie, he wasn’t anywhere near match fitness. “When I first saw Owen, he had already gone through fairly extensive rehab,” McKechnie says. “What was missing was the closing component. The marriage of rehab and performance training.”

So McKechnie — who, with his stocky frame and an energy that belies his age, looks more like a Las Vegas pit boss than a physiotherapist — introduced Hargreaves to his Core X system, an elastic device that links an athlete’s wrists and thighs together. It sounds awkward, but helps stabilize and hold one’s posture during specially tailored workouts.

Hargreaves relearned how to move, building core strength, balance and a new “neutral posture” for his body. It took months. “It is easy to walk away,” McKechnie says. “For Owen, retirement was never really an option.”

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While hanging up his cleats for good was never in the cards, few predicted Hargreaves’s move to City. With few options, the next step seemed to be Major League Soccer — the Vancouver Whitecaps were interested — or a small club with limited funds looking for a name to sell shirts and play mentor. The idea of joining Manchester City was absurd: broken-down players don’t wash up with the world’s richest club. But in Hargreaves, City manager Roberto Mancini saw not only a top player available for free, but a chance to take a jab at his team’s fiercest rival.

Hargreaves signed a pay-as-you-play deal in August, becoming one of very few players to cross Manchester from one club to the other. To hardcore fans, such a defection is unthinkable. “It’s crazy to cross lines,” says Toronto FC defender — and Manchester native — Richard Eckersley, who began his career at United. “It’s part of the rivalry; you just don’t do it.”

Crossing lines is old hat to Hargreaves. Choosing to represent England back in 2000 earned him the enmity of supporters of the Canadian national team he abandoned. And he’s proving more than happy to set off old mates. Fresh off his first game, he stirred the pot by accusing his former team of treating him like a “guinea pig” during his injury-plagued United career.

Hargreaves aside, the Manchester rivalry is reaching a new fervour. United is the traditional powerhouse, but mega-rich City has built and bought a star-studded team to match, earning a nickname from Ferguson in the process: the “noisy neighbours.” Both are title contenders. It will all come to a head on Oct. 23 in the Manchester derby, a match Hargreaves could feature in. His debut for City in the Carling Cup — and the goal that punctuated it — has brought England’s one-time best player back to the big stage. And, if you ask McKechnie, Hargreaves is back for good. “I have no doubt that Owen Hargreaves will succeed again,” he says.

Stepping onto the pitch at Old Trafford would be the perfect next chapter in this improbable comeback. Manchester United was the home of Hargreaves’s injury nightmare; returning there with City could make it the site of his salvation.

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