What happens when you have accomplished pretty much everything in your domestic league, and on the continent as well? You’ve just rocketed to fame from a small lower division side, and within six years conquered Europe. You’ve not even hit your prime years yet.
The 1976/77 season was a great one for Liverpool, sailing towards a treble that would include the league championship, league cup, and eventually the European Cup. It would’ve been even better, but they lost the FA Cup final to arch-rivals Manchester United. At the heart of this incredible team, and the trophies that they won, was midfielder-turned-striker Kevin Keegan. The man recognised instantly for his wavy perm was the driving force, the engine behind their success.
However, despite their success, and even before they won any silverware that year, Keegan announced that he would be looking for new employers in the coming summer, suggesting that playing abroad would be his ideal choice, a new challenge. This, of course, sent waves across Europe and top clubs were now on high alert. Just where exactly would be the ideal fit: Spain, Italy, France, or Germany?
In the four days between losing the FA Cup, to bagging Europe’s biggest prize, a fee of £500,000 was agreed for Keegan to leave Anfield to go to Bundesliga outfit Hamburg SV. The team based in the north wasn’t one of the powerhouses, its most successful period coming in the late 1950’s to mid-60’s, where they won the title once and finished runners-up twice. The arrival of Keegan was a shot in the arm to the team, or at least it was meant to be. The man responsible for bringing in Keegan, Dr. Peter Krohn, heralded his new signing as the saviour of Hamburg. This caused an instant rift amongst the team, a singling out of one player disrupted the harmony. No matter how good this new player was, he was the outsider having to prove himself.
The settling in period was hard on Keegan and his wife Jean. Learning the language wasn’t an issue. He knew that it was essential to win over his new teammates and the media, so like his football he went into that head first. At this time there were restrictions on foreign players in a side and the number was two. Keegan was replacing the well-liked Dutchman Horst Blankenburg, another obstacle to jump. The other newcomer was Yugoslavia captain Ivan Buljan, who didn’t speak any English but also went headlong into his German dictionary. At first, the two were staying in a hotel, but this wasn’t suitable, the long days where Jean would be alone while her husband was out training and fulfilling media duties were a grind. They soon found a small place to stay, away from the bustle of the city. Knowing they were there for the long haul the pair eventually found a bungalow so homely it could’ve been back in England.
In preparation for the 1977/78 season, Hamburg had also hired a new coach: Rudi Gutendorf. His methods didn’t sit well with the majority of players and soon there was a revolt. Keegan’s dream move could’ve been over before it started but after some talks, it was the coach and Dr Krohn that were pushed through the exit door. Breathing a sigh of relief, Keegan started doing what he knew best, playing football and scoring goals.
Preseason matches included a 6-0 win over Barcelona and, part of the transfer deal, a 3-2 victory over former employers Liverpool. A goal in each game helped Keegan start to win over the Hamburg people. Gunther Netzer came in to help coach the side, and although his official title was general manager his input helped steady the ship. Hamburg finished 10th, and Keegan’s form remained inspired as he scored 12 goals in 33 games and scooped the European Player of the Year award, one that he narrowly missed out on the previous year despite winning more honours. However, due to being a “foreigner” he was excluded from contention in the German Player of the Year award.
The Hamburg fans had taken to Keegan quickly, the media influence early on meant he had a head start on other players that would come in. His no-nonsense combative style of play was soon rewarded with a new nickname, although Keegan himself had no idea how it really came about. “Mighty Mouse” was the name given, and it would stick with him for the rest of his career. His small, powerful frame and elusiveness were likened to the cartoon superhero, and his on-field heroics were now starting to pay off.
1978/79 was to be one of Keegan’s finest campaigns. Netzer could see the potential of building the side around the Englishman, and if he could bring in players with similar experience and style they could soon be winners. In came the irrepressible Horst Hrubesch, the striker was prolific whilst at Rot-Weiss Essen, and he would be the perfect foil Keegan up front. By the season’s end, they had scored 30 goals between them. Netzer also made former Yugoslavian international Branko Zebec coach, and his tough disciplinarian approach had the dressing room split.
This time the split was during training as the fitter players separated away from the rest of the group as they did countless laps of the pitches, the weaker were made to do more, and more. In the end Hamburg had the fittest team in the Bundesliga. His methods may have been extreme to some – in fact before Keegan left Hamburg he cited the training regime as one of the reasons for going – but Zebec got results.
Big wins in the opening half of the campaign, including ones against Borussia Monchengladbach, FC Koln, Hertha, and Dortmund, put Hamburg in a good position for a title push. Keegan and Hrubesch hit their best form, along with Felix Magath, and Hamburg went three months unbeaten to claim their first title in 19 years. The run ended in the final round of games against Bayern Munich, but the title was won by a single point in the end from VfB Stuttgart. It was with a hint of irony that Keegan’s hit single Head Over Heels in Love was released the day Hamburg celebrated their title. The German league had fallen for him, as had Europe as he was named the continents best player for the second year running.
With his two-year contract up, Keegan had many options. Two-time European Footballer of the Year, an integral part of the new German champions, he was one of, if not the hottest property in European football. Glamourous sides such as Real Madrid and Juventus were in the hunt, and there was an audacious bid from The Washington Diplomats in the United States. The move failed to materialise when Netzer discovered a last-minute rule change that if Keegan played on the release of his contract for four months in the NASL he would be excluded from the European Cup until the semi-final stage. In the end, he decided to take the option of one more year in Hamburg. “We had the makings of a very good side and had we added to the team in the right positions it would have been an outstanding one.” wrote Keegan in his 1997 autobiography.
Hamburg couldn’t retain their league title, losing out by a couple of points to Bayern Munich, the disappointment doubled as they couldn’t quite get their hands on the biggest prize in Europe. They had sailed through the early rounds, and into the semi-finals where they faced Real Madrid. They had everything to do after a 2-0 loss in Spain, the only option they had was to go for it in the return leg. After 20 minutes it was 2-0, and at the break an amazing 4-1. By the end 5-1, and a 5-3 win on aggregate. Keegan was now on the threshold of another European title, and only the English would stand in his way.
Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest – a well drilled and disciplined side – were defending champions of Europe. Hamburg and Keegan huffed and puffed but couldn’t break down their resilient defence. In the end, a single goal midway through the first half meant Keegan’s time in Germany ended in defeat. Not the script he would’ve written, but he would be the first to admit that football is sometimes not always the way you’d like it to be.
Kevin Keegan was brought to Hamburg to save the club. He did a very fine job in doing that and more. They were now sitting at the top table amongst Germany’s elite, and even got their feet under the more lavish table of Europe’s finest. He ended his time having scored 32 goals in 90 games and left an indelible mark amongst all that played alongside him and witnessed his time in Germany.