‘In Bayern training, we would go to war with each other’ - Owen Hargreaves relives his journey to becoming Britain’s Bundesliga conquerer

Former England international Hargreaves gave BT Sport an exclusive interview ahead of the Bundesliga’s return this weekend, remembering a trophy-laden decade playing for German giants Bayern Munich.

Published: 15 May 2020 - 3.39pm

Owen Hargreaves won 10 trophies during a decade spent playing with German giants Bayern Munich

“It was a bit of a coincidence really,” Hargreaves begins.

How else would a teenager from Calgary, Canada, end up being spotted by one of Germany’s top clubs?

Profile

  • Born in Calgary, Canada on 20 January 1981
  • Speaks fluent German
  • His father, Colin, played for Bolton Wanderers' youth academy
  • Made 210 appearances for Bayern Munich, scoring 10 goals
  • Moved to Manchester United for £17m in 2007, playing 39 times
  • Joined Manchester City in 2011 but made only one league appearance
  • Retired in 2012 aged just 31

“I was playing for my neighbourhood team and the guy who saw me playing, Thomas Niendorf, was German, so his contacts were in Germany naturally.

“Thomas called Bayern Munich’s youth team coach and set up a trial. I don’t think they had ever had someone come that far for a trial. They were all talking to me about ice hockey, they didn’t know why I was playing football – or soccer, as we called it in Canada. But for me, it was just an opportunity to play football every day which I didn’t have in Canada.

“Once they figured out I wasn’t a hockey player, they decided to keep me and that was the start of my journey.”

Over the course of the next decade, Hargreaves would become a vital cog in a ruthless Bavarian machine that swept four Bundesliga titles, three League cups and a Champions League trophy.

Not bad for a player who, by his own admission, didn’t even know who Bayern Munich were when he joined the club’s fabled youth academy as a 16-year-old.

Speaking exclusively to BT Sport ahead of the German league’s eagerly-anticipated resumption this weekend, Hargreaves described his first experience of a Bundesliga match day.

“I would have been in the Bayern youth team,” the 39-year-old said.

“At times we were ball boys as well. I lived on the training ground and I got to see the first team play there so it was weird to go and watch the first team in their games but they inspired me to want to be on that football pitch.

Owen Hargreaves tackling Luis Figo
Hargreaves battles Luis Figo during his first season in the Champions League in 2001

“The old Olympic stadium was so iconic, I just loved it. It was so big and it had this gothic feel to it. Watching 73,000 fans pile in there and being a part of the crowd when you’re 15 years old dreaming of being on that pitch one day, it was a dream and it inspired me to get out there and be a part of that first team.”

Progressing through the youth ranks, Hargreaves caught the eye of legendary club manager Omar Hitzfeld who challenged the mild-mannered young prodigy to make a name for himself by being more aggressive.

“Everybody in Germany was tough,” Hargreaves continued.

“In training we used to go to war with each other almost. We always played the starting XI against the subs. Hitzfeld did that on purpose. If you weren’t in the starting XI, those training games on a Friday, they were like war. 

“If you didn't bring it every day at training, everybody came after you and that's how it was”
- Owen Hargreaves

“People would get kicked around and it was great before social media because we had fights all the time and you would have no idea. It wasn’t about lack of respect, it was just the competitiveness.

“Stefan Effenburg kicked me up and down the pitch every day but he would help me back up. After about six months he said, ‘you have earned the right, you’re going to be my successor’.

“That’s what it was in Germany, it was a tough school but it was a great school. If you didn’t bring it every day at training, everybody came after you and that’s how it was.

“When I came into the first team, I’d just started training with the seniors and Omar Hitzfeld pulled me aside. He said, ‘Owen, the only way this works is if they hate you. If they hate you, it means you’re training well. I can’t say anymore because I’m on the old boys side but if you ruffle a few feathers, you’re doing something well.’

“After that in training, I would be respectful off the pitch, but on the pitch I hunted everyone and that’s what helped me to develop as a player.”

His debut followed shortly after; a 10-minute cameo as the final sub in a 4-1 victory against Hertha Berlin.

There would be no explosive introduction a la Wayne Rooney (Remember the name!) or any great fanfare – but after a taste of first team action, Hargreaves was hooked.

“It was a brilliant place to play, especially for a younger player like myself”
- Owen Hargreaves

“It was so long ago but I just remember being so honoured to be part of a football club like Bayern Munich, having come all the way from Canada to be playing in the first team. I just wanted to play the next one, I remember that.

“I wanted to train the next day and try and get more experience. I played in pre-season but playing your first official game… one of the boys said to me in the dressing room after ‘you’ll never forget the first proper game, congratulations’.

“That game whet my appetite to want more and it was very special, the first one is always the best one.

“The Bundesliga doesn’t get enough credit for its infrastructure, its fans. I don’t think I ever played in a game that wasn’t sold out. Everyone wanted to come and watch Bayern Munich, the biggest team with the star players. 

Owen Hargreaves and David Beckham
Hargreaves comes on to replace David Beckham during an England World Cup Qualifier in 2006

“The organisation was, and still is, just the best anywhere, the training grounds, everything is tip-top.

“It was a brilliant place to play, especially as a young player like myself or Christian Pulisic, to learn from the older players. The leadership that the German players have, the history, the tradition, everything there is just top and it was a privilege to play in the Bundesliga for so long.”

Hargreaves had made no secret of his desire to one day play in the Premier League and after a decade conquering Germany’s top division and beyond, the dream move finally arrived as he joined Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in 2007.

It took a fee of around £17m – and a year of protracted negotiations – to convince Bayern to let their midfield talisman leave but Hargreaves looks back on his time in Germany as the best years of his career.

“The only reason I left is that I wanted a sporting challenge,” he added.

“Everything about it, being there from 16 to 26, made me a man. The players that we had… every position we had a potential world class player. Oliver Khan, Bixente Lizarazu, Stefen Effenberg, Giovane Élber, Paolo Sergio, Michael Ballack, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philip Lahm, the list goes on. We had so many wonderful players.

“Bayern only sign the top players, the best players in their position in the Bundesliga so you could go through out whole team and it was full of the top stars.

“The highlight would have to be my first season when we won the Bundesliga with the last kick of the game against Schalke. It was one of the most crazy endings ever.

“Two weeks later, we won the Champions League against Valencia in Milan. I was super blessed to start my career that way but at Bayern if you don’t win more than one title every year, you start to hear from the club. Legends like Franz Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, they want you to keep improving and not living in the past but 2001 was a special year.”

Analysing the state of the league today, Hargreaves sees many similarities to the environment that allowed him to flourish as a young player.

With youth as the bedrock of many clubs’ recruitment philosophies, stars such as Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland, Kingsley Coman, Kai Havertz, Dayot Upamecano and Achraf Hakimi have become household names both in Germany and across Europe.

“The Bundesliga prides itself on playing young players all the time. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough and you’re seeing that all the time now which is great,” Hargreaves explained.

“The national team has improved dramatically from playing more players in the Bundesliga and they’re starting to do that now in the Premier League - especially at Chelsea. The Bundesliga did a great job in setting players up for the national team.”

With nine games exclusively live on BT Sport this weekend, all eyes will be on the German league for our first football six since February – and Hargreaves promises it won’t disappoint.

“It is just like watching the Premier League. Their infrastructure is amazing, there are plenty of goals - you might take time to get used to the German culture and all that but the Bundesliga is one of the top leagues.

“The players, fans, stadiums, everything is top. It’s a great league to watch, especially if you’re going to watch Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund but everybody gets the ball down and tries to play good football.

“The home team are always expected to have a go and attack even if they’re the underdogs, I think everyone will love it.”

Click here for more information on this weekend’s bumper crop of Bundesliga action, exclusively live on BT Sport.