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“The mongrel who made it to Crufts” was how Kevin Keegan once described his two European Footballer of the Year awards in 1978 and 79, but although Keegan did not consider himself to have the same natural ability as some of the names who had won the coveted prize previously, he was as the seventies ended and a new decade began, possibly the biggest footballing name on the planet. Already a star in his own right, when England captain Keegan moved to West Germany in 1977 he took his career to the next level. After an inconspicuous start, Keegan soon set the Bundesliga alight and followed around the country by his band of adoring supporters, he became not just a superstar on the field but also a big-time celebrity off it.
Fresh from winning the European Cup with Liverpool, Kevin Keegan was on the move. Keegan had insisted on having a £500,000 release clause in his contract and as the 1976-77 season got underway talk was it would be his last with the Reds. Rumour had it, Juventus were apparently interested, Barcelona and Real Madrid too. There was also keen interest from West Germany with the likes of Bayern München and Borussia Mönchengladbach supposedly keen on signing the number one forward in England. But as Keegan entered the pitch when the 1977-78 season got underway he was actually wearing the colours of Hamburger SV (HSV).
In the previous season, HSV won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, but entrepreneur Dr Peter Krohn who was running the Hitachi electronics backed club had ideas that were much grander and wanted the Hamburg based club to become in the number one team in West Germany. Popular coach Kuno Klotzer was out the door and Rudi Gutendorf was brought in to replace him, whilst along with Gutendorf, Keegan was also brought into the club. He was signed for a British record transfer fee and was reportedly the highest-paid player in Germany.
Aside from the usual struggles when moving abroad, such as learning the language and local customs, Keegan also had other more difficult problems at his new club. Although things would get better and eventually he’d be a massive hit in Germany, to begin with, life was tough for Keegan. The HSV squad did not initially take to Keegan, and Gutendorf would later claim that a large group of players advised him they did not want to play with “this Englishman”. Keegan’s performances to begin with were at best average.
In Keegan’s first league game for HSV, they suffered a 5-2 home defeat against MSV Duisburg at the clubs Volksparkstadion ground, whilst Keegan scored his first goal for his new club in a 3-1 win at home to 1. FC Kaiserslautern at the end of August. An overall fairly poor start to the season saw the club got rid of manager Gutendorf in October and replaced him with ex-player Ozcan Arkoc, a Turkish former goalkeeper, and for Keegan especially things only got worse when in November HSV faced Liverpool in the European Super Cup.
In those days the Super Cup was a two-legged affair and after a 1-1 draw in Hamburg, HSV were hammered 6-0 away at Anfield. Terry McDermott scored a hat-trick and the Kop chanted ‘We all agree – Dalglish is better than Keegan’ and ‘You should have stayed at Anfield’. It had at best been a tough start for Keegan at his new club, in fact, he would later describe the first six months as a “nightmare”.
Come the winter break Keegan had only scored four league goals, and in a winter-friendly, he punched an opponent, something that resulted in not just a sending off but also a 9 game suspension. By the end of the season, the club had finished tenth and Keegan had scored 12 goals in 33 league and cup appearances. Keegan’s first season in West Germany had not been one of his greatest but it was certainly not a disaster either as the players slowly began to see him as an asset and changed their negative attitude towards him. In his second campaign, things would only get better, much better.
New General manager Gunter Netzer appointed Branko Zebec as head coach for the 1978-79 season. Zebec installed a strict training regime that Keegan claims was the toughest he’d ever experienced in his career. In the opening match of the 1978-79 season, HSV beat Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-0 at home. Mönchengladbach had been Bundesliga champions 3 of the previous 4 seasons, only missing out on goal difference in the last campaign, and in the previous meeting between the two sides, HSV had lost 6-2 making their win all the more impressive. HSV found themselves just one point behind leaders Kaiserslautern going into the winter break and although Keegan’s first goal of the campaign did not come until Round 12 when he scored in a 5-0 demolition of Borussia Dortmund, he scored twice against Schalke 04 in mid-November and a hat-trick against Armenia Bielefeld in December.
Whilst the team were beginning to come together and perform well on the pitch, there was also individual success for Keegan when at the end of December he was voted European Footballer of the Year, winning the coveted Ballon d’Or trophy. The previous season he’d finished second behind Allan Simonsen. The players and the fans were certainly now behind the new European Footballer of the Year, though to be fair most supporters had been from day one and had soon nicknamed him ‘Mighty Mouse’ after a famous cartoon character from that era. Keegan was loved by the clubs supporters and mobbed wherever he went, and when in one interview discussing life in Germany said he missed his favourite British breakfast cereals that he could not find in Germany, he was inundated with packages from fans that included boxes of his favoured cereals and lists of local suppliers. Whilst fans helped Keegan feel most welcome, Keegan himself was also trying hard to integrate into the local community and was becoming more fluent in the German language, something he had been working hard to master.
HSV failed to win any of their first three games after the winter break but then beat Hertha BSC 3-1 with Keegan scoring twice. This was the first match of a thirteen match unbeaten run. In April Keegan was on the scoresheet again as league leaders Kaiserslautern were beaten 3-1, this left HSV third in the table with a game in hand. HSV soon found themselves up to second when Kaiserslautern started to drop points and fell to third.
Keegan scored his tenth of the season against Eintracht Braunschweig and number 11 came when HSV beat Duisburg. Defending champions 1. FC Köln now languishing in 9th position were next up and a stunning display from Keegan and the team saw Keegan score twice and HSV win 6-0. That win put HSV top of the table. Several matches later and HSV were two points clear with just two to play. Keegan had scored twice against Schalke on a day that their two nearest challengers both dropped points, he then scored against Eintracht Frankfurt to make it six goals in his last four games.
HSV travelled to relegation-threatened Armenia Bielefeld in their penultimate match and the 0-0 draw played out might on another day have seen the title race go to the wire, but defeats for rivals Kaiserslautern and Stuttgart saw HSV crowned champions for the first time in 19 years. Keegan had scored seventeen goals across the course of the season, that difficult start to life in Germany the previous season seemed a world away, and the European Footballer of the Year had proved why he was exactly that!
As mentioned, Keegan as a footballer was loved by his supporters in Germany, but he was also as big an icon off the pitch as he was a star on it. Keegan soon found himself appearing on tv chat shows, starring in tv commercials on road safety, putting his name to brands of football boots, and even releasing a hit pop single. When that title-winning season was over he turned his hand to the music business and that summer released a single called “Head Over Heels in Love”, written by Chris Norman and Peter Spencer it reached Number 31 over in the UK charts and as high as number 10 in Germany.
After winning the Bundesliga Keegan’s initial two-year contract with HSV was up but he agreed to sign on for another year, there had been offers to move elsewhere but for now, Keegan was staying put for in Germany. Before Keegan’s second season in Germany got underway he had spent the summer back in England working as a pundit giving his opinions on the World Cup in Argentina from ITV’s London TV studio. Working alongside Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough, Keegan claims he was asked if he fancied playing for Clough’s newly crowned English champions but turned down the offer feeling their personalities would clash if the pair worked together.
An excellent start to the 1979/80 season saw HSV top the table after four games and their good form continued throughout the first half of their Bundesliga campaign as they went into the winter break in second place with Keegan for the second successive year being voted European Footballer of the Year. Last season’s Bundesliga triumph also meant European Cup football for Keegan and HSV with Icelandic champions Valur defeated in the first round before a tie with Soviet side Dinamo Tbilisi.
Dinamo Tbilisi faced HSV having just beaten Keegan’s former club Liverpool in round one and in the first leg in Hamburg Keegan scored HSV’s second as they came from behind to win 3-1, he also scored in Tbilisi as HSV progressed 6-3 on aggregate. In the next round, HSV faced Yugoslavian side Hajduk Split and a 1-0 win at home came ahead of a second leg in Yugoslavia that saw HSV leading 2-1 before Hajduk scored twice late on to make it a nervy ending for the visitors who in the end held on to qualify for the next round thanks to the away goal rule. Next HSV would face Real Madrid in the semi-finals.
An excellent run of form saw HSV back top of the table before the semi-final clash, although fourteen goals and three wins in the run up to the first leg of the Real Madrid tie saw Keegan only score once. The first leg of the semi-final took place at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium and Carlos Santillana scored twice to give Real a crucial 2-0 lead to take to West Germany. HSV were really up against it now. HSV found themselves 2-0 up after 17 minutes in their semi final second leg but Real Madrid soon scored a vital away goal before HSV scored two more to take a 4-1 lead into the break. In the second half HSV held Real Madrid at bay and scored a fifth in the 90th minute, they had reached the European Cup final. A stunning turnaround after the first leg.
In the European Cup final, Keegan would face Forest and Clough who was aiming for a second successive European Cup final triumph. Back in the Bundesliga, there had been a 6-0 win for HSV over 1860 München where Felix Magath bagged a hat-trick and Keegan was also on the scoresheet. In the race for the title, however, FC Bayern were also firing on all cylinders and put seven past Werder Bremen. HSV won their next two but then out of the blue lost 3-1 at Bayer Leverkusen in their final match before heading off to play in the European Cup final.
That defeat against Leverkusen had handed FC Bayern advantage in the title race, and it was a title Bayern would go on to win a few games later when the league campaign ended and Keegan departed. As with Liverpool, at HSV Keegan also had a £500,000 release clause in his contract and in February of 1980 announced his intention leave when the season was over. ‘Welcome home Kevin!’ would be the headline in World Soccer magazine with his destination Southampton, but first, there was the matter of Nottingham Forest and another trip to the Bernabéu, the venue for the 1980 European Cup final.
For Keegan, the 25th European Cup final sadly did not end in glory. HSV’s attack came up against a disciplined Forest side, and it was Brain Clough’s men who came out on top. For all Keegan’s running, he was on the losing team as Forest ran out winners by one goal to nil.
With his German sojourn over, Keegan left Hamburg an even bigger superstar than the one who arrived from Liverpool three years earlier. Keegan would go on to have footballing success elsewhere as both a player and a manager, but never would he quite have the celebrity status that he did when he was European Footballer of the Year two seasons running at HSV, a period when he was as big a superstar off the pitch as he was on it. Many years later David Beckham became a global celebrity superstar in Madrid and then Los Angeles, but Kevin Keegan was ahead of his time in that respect. For a brief period, it almost felt like Kevin Keegan ruled the world!