Monday 11 November 2019

Honest Hargreaves has earned his shot at redemption

Richard Sadlier

I was forced to retire from football in 2003, but did so with more than a lingering doubt as to whether I really did all I could to overcome the physical and mental anguish of the previous 18 months. I took the decision myself, but it was one I never accepted. I wondered whether things would have turned out better had my recovery been managed differently.

Owen Hargreaves said something refreshing but familiar to me last week. Refreshing because so few footballers talk so openly, and familiar because the conversation he had with reporters was one I've had with myself a thousand times.

I had a spell regretting my decisions and the quality of the advice I was given, but mostly I just resented being in that situation at all. Perfectly normal in one sense, but pointless all the same. Regrets, resentments and blame are part of any lengthy absence from playing, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily justified.

In 2005, I went to America for surgery which I hoped would allow me to make a return to full-time football. I was motivated by the desire to prove everyone wrong. The physios, specialists and surgeons had all agreed with my decision to retire. But my main goal was to prove myself wrong, as I had spent those two years convincing myself that I should have or could have done more. Financially, it was a considerable gamble, but in the end I got more than my money's worth.

Having been treated by the world's best hip surgeon in the most famous rehabilitation facility in professional sport, I finally learned the following: my decision to retire was correct, and I was wasting my time thinking there was anything which could have saved my career. It was over, and it was time to finally accept it.

At last, there would be no more finger-pointing. There would be no more self-criticism for not adhering to my rehab programme fully every step of the way. And just like Hargreaves said last week, I would no longer regret my inability to be more honest at crucial times along the way and admit things were worse than I claimed they were.

Referring to his appearance against Wolves at Old Trafford last season which lasted only five minutes, the explanation he gave to justify his decision to play was one I found very familiar. Despite knowing he had a muscular injury which prevented him from sprinting, he decided to start the game with the hope of lasting until half-time. Given all he had gone through to get to that point, it was the preferred option to pulling out altogether.

I often played down the pain I was feeling in order to take part in training, and I was dishonest with the medical staff and management on pretty much every game I was involved in during each comeback attempt. I was just desperate to play. As Hargreaves explained, having spent so long in isolation with the medical staff it is very difficult to admit you are not fully ready when the opportunity of a game finally arrives. Every player has experience of playing through pain, so you just convince yourself it's yet another case of doing the same.

I remember declaring myself fit and available for selection for a game against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park, despite not being able to walk my dogs that morning because of the pain in my hip. I didn't sprint once in the warm-up and was substituted well before half-time. I knew Chris Hughton and the late Noel O'Reilly -- Brian Kerr's assistants with the Ireland team at the time -- were due to be at the game and felt it was an opportunity I could not let pass. In hindsight, it was a ridiculous train of thought, but that was my logic at the time.

Hargreaves is not the only player to regret decisions he made and won't be the last to question whether the treatment he received gave him the best chance to recover. He wishes he did not agree to a course of injections on his knee because of the side-effects that came with them, but I'm sure mainly he just regrets they didn't work.

Footballers are often given the final choice as to which course of treatment to take, but with no expertise of any kind the best choice is generally to follow the advice of the medical staff. Even though the injections were ineffective, even damaging, the staff at Manchester United wouldn't have knowingly damaged him in any way.

The statement issued by United was predictable enough. They believed they gave the player the best of treatment throughout his lengthy period of recovery and are disappointed with the comments he made, but I didn't sense much resentment or blame in much of what Hargreaves said, despite how it was reported in places. I fully understand his frustration. Some viewed the interview he gave as merely a cheap swipe at his former club, but I thought it was a refreshingly frank account of what has been an incredibly difficult time.

There is, of course, one difference between my situation and Hargreaves'. The experience he gained during such a prolonged spell of heartache can be put to use in a way that I never had the chance. He still has the opportunity to prove so many people wrong on the field of play. Which for a footballer, is the only place that really counts.

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