As featured on Guardian Sport

In August 1960, a promising but amateurish youth band travelled to Hamburg in the back of an Austin minivan. They had come to seek fortune in the vibrant underground music scene emerging from the city’s crumbling docklands. It was hard work for these young men in the viceland of the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s bristling red-light district.

They gigged almost every night, hostage to the whims of their employers: “Mach schau…mach schau (make a show),” was the mantra dictated to them by the owner of the Kaiserkeller, one of the nightclubs in which they played. And though at first they earned little and slept in a dingy room beside the ladies’ toilets of the Bambi Kino, a seedy movie theatre, they would go on to become megastars.

The band’s name was, of course, the Beatles, and they had come to Hamburg from another great seafaring town, Liverpool. Seventeen years later, with the group dissolved and Beatlemania just opened on Broadway, a footballer named Kevin Keegan made the exact same trip, albeit in rather more glamorous circumstances.

Like the Beatles, he came in search of a fortune. John, Paul, George, Stuart and Pete had swapped Mersey for Elbe to take advantage of the higher pay in Hamburg and it was no different for Keegan. While playing for Liverpool, his reported annual salary was £12,000. At Hamburger Sport-Verein, whom he joined in 1977, he would earn £250,000 a year after endorsement deals.

Even in those pre-Bosman days, Keegan knew his value. He had insisted on a £500,000 release clause in his Liverpool contract, encouraging suitors to offer a larger wage packet given the relatively reduced transfer fee. Well before the 1976-77 season began, his intention to leave Anfield was clear. Liverpool’s chairman at the time, Sir John Smith, did not stand in his way.

“Selfish and self-centred are perhaps not the right words,” opined Bob Harris, one of Keegan’s many biographers. “But he was very much his own man. He knew what he wanted to do and how he was going to do it and would fight for that.”

By the closing stages of that campaign, the only unresolved matter was where he would end up. There had been rumours of several European giants showing interest. “But the glamorous clubs of Spain did not see him as an exotic enough talent, while the technicians of Italy were undecided,” explains Ian Ridley in his 2008 biography of Keegan.

With the continent’s flashiest sides dithering, up stepped HSV. The German club was swimming in cash thanks to significant investment from Japanese manufacturing kingpins Hitachi, and the person spending it was general manager Dr Peter Krohn. It was Krohn’s decision to pursue Keegan and he was willing to reach deep into the club’s coffers.

For Keegan, a footballer not shy of putting his own interests first, it was a simple equation: HSV wanted him and could afford to give him what he asked for, so he accepted their offer. He was keen to capitalise on every opportunity presented to him, and the deal tabled by Krohn allowed him significant room to manoeuvre when it came to the additional revenue to be made by commercialising his image. In that regard, Keegan was a pioneer.

“He had the first ‘face deal’ with his club, giving a degree of image rights control,” writes Barney Ronay in The Manager. “He put his name to everything from the freshly launched and moribund Patrick boots, to a frightening and didactic TV road safety campaign.” But, for all his newfound material wealth, Keegan’s first few months in West Germany would prove difficult.

“Going to Germany, it was a tough one,” said Keegan in a recent interview. “Five or six years at Liverpool and I’d run my race there. I just fancied a challenge, and Germany was my challenge.” For a young man accustomed to the smoky cosiness of Anfield’s Boot Room, the unfamiliar atmosphere of Hamburg and HSV would take some getting used to.

To start with, his first home in Germany, an ugly hotel room on the outskirts of the city, was certainly not as bad as the Bambi Kino had been for The Beatles, but was marginalising nonetheless. Only when he had moved into a farmhouse outside the city did Keegan begin to settle.

On top of that, he faced isolation from his new team-mates. The squad he came into was a strong one, proud of its success up to that point and wary of this funny-looking newcomer. It was also a group destabilised after the departure of popular coach Kuno Klotzer.

Klotzer had led HSV to a Cup Winners’ Cup victory in 1977, but was ditched by Krohn in favour of the louche globetrotter Rudi Gutendorf. Artur Rotmil, writing for World Soccer that year, noted that “the players specifically asked the management not to break up the winning side, but to keep them together for next season. But now, not only is the team torn apart, not only did Klotzer leave, but with Gutendorf another ‘showman’ has appeared alongside the megalomaniac and flamboyant Dr Krohn.”

Like Gutendorf, Keegan was seen as Krohn’s man; a flash and expensive addition to an unpretentious, artisanal side. During those nervous early days, said Hunter Davies in 1999: “Players wouldn’t pass the ball to him, jealous of the salary Hamburg had to pay to get him from Liverpool. Then he’d been sent off in a friendly and was suspended for eight weeks.”

Keegan’s poor form on the pitch didn’t help his integration. A personal low point had been the European Super Cup final when Liverpool, led by his replacement Kenny Dalglish, destroyed HSV 7-1 on aggregate. By the half-way stage of the Bundesliga, his new team lay in 12th place and had already crashed out of the Cup Winners’ Cup. A dream move was beginning to seem more like a nightmare for the Yorkshireman.

But it would soon turn sweeter. Come the end of the 1977-78 season, Keegan’s form had turned around despite mixed results for HSV, who finished ninth in the Bundesliga. His performances improved to such an extent that he was awarded the Ballon d’Or later that year – absurdly, rules excluding foreigners meant he was not eligible to become German Player of the Year.

Things were also beginning to change for HSV. The loud Krohn was replaced by Gunter Netzer, a man Deutsche Welle described as “the classic playmaker with business sense”. Netzer was a footballing legend and a playboy with an entrepreneurial streak. He had become involved with HSV after offering to run the club’s magazine. Instead, Die Rothosen hired him as general manager.

“When he came, the great age of HSV began,” Felix Magath, a midfielder for the Hamburg side, would later remark. With Netzer at the helm, the sleeping giant of HSV truly awoke. Since the foundation of the Bundesliga in 1963, they had not won the title, their most recent win coming in 1960 when the championship was still decided as a tournament between the top two sides from each region. Nearly two decades without being national champions was hard on a club known as “The Dinosaur” for its long-standing prominence within German football.

To help rectify that, Netzer brought in the drunken Yugoslav disciplinarian, Branko Zebec, as head coach for the 1978-79 season. This duo would oversee the arrival of players of great calibre, such as Horst Hrubesch (the “Header-Beast”) and, later, a post-Cosmos Franz Beckenbauer. Together, they solidified the coaching and administrative side of things.

Seemingly the only problem Netzer couldn’t solve was the fans, for in the stands, an unsavoury element was beginning to make itself heard. The Aktionsfront Nationaler Sozialisten, a neo-Nazi group based in Hamburg, was founded the year Keegan came to Germany and almost immediately began to recruit among the disenchanted on the Volksparkstadion’s West Terrace. As a result of their presence, HSV came to represent the far-right of Hamburg, and pitched battles between the club’s fans and their left-wing counterparts were common.

Despite growing concerns off the pitch, the team was coming together under the rigid, systematic approach of Zebec. The addition of the target-man Hrubesch allowed Keegan to flourish – to some extent Hrubesch-Keegan was Toshack-Keegan revisited; Kleine und Große rather than Little and Large. With the imaginative Magath prompting behind these two, HSV now possessed one of the most lethal forward lines in the league.

Keegan’s second season in Hamburg started with a 3-0 demolition of Borussia Monchengladbach, at the time one of Europe’s best sides. Keegan missed a penalty but the win was an indicator of what was to come. Thrashings of defending champions Köln, as well as Hertha BSC, Schalke, Dortmund and Fortuna Düsseldorf would follow, and by the time HSV beat Bayern Munich 1-0 in December, their title credentials were clear.

In the New Year, Keegan cut loose. He was instrumental during the run-in, scoring 11 goals in the last 12 games of the season, combining wonderfully with Hrubesch and Magath. From 10 March to 9 June the team did not lose a match, almost three months undefeated. When they finally succumbed to Bayern in the final round of the season, HSV were already Bundesliga champions.

Keegan, who had been integral to the drive, had made himself a legend in Germany. He won the Ballon d’Or again that year and the HSV fans christened him Mächtig Maus (Mighty Mouse). The day of the Bayern defeat, his first single, Head Over Heels in Love, was released. Hamburg, it seemed, had fallen in love with Keegan, as it had with the young English musicians who had recorded their first single in the city all those years before.

The following year, HSV’s industrious attacking team was unleashed on Europe. They cruised through the early rounds against Valur and Dinamo Tbilisi before encountering a tougher opponent in Hajduk Split of Yugoslavia. Away goals got Hamburg through after a 3-2 defeat in Split had given them a scare.

In the semi-final awaited a Real Madrid side containing “Black Lightning”, the Englishman Laurie Cunningham. A 2-0 defeat at the Bernabéu left HSV reeling, but the loss merely served to set up one of this team’s hallmark performances. Given license to do so by Zebec, the German side took off the handbrake in the return leg. They played the match at full tilt, with only one thing in mind: scoring goals. Against a defence shielded by Vicente del Bosque, Keegan and HSV ran riot, swarming all over the Madrid outfit from the moment the game began. Less than 20 minutes had passed and the deficit had been erased through goals from Kaltz and Hrubesch.

With HSV still pouring forward, Cunningham pulled one back, but it was for nothing. The players walked off at half-time with the score reading HSV 4-1 Real Madrid. Full-time brought a 5-1 finish, a 5-3 aggregate win for HSV. That night, they had played “football from another planet”. It was, as described by Netzer: “the funniest and best thing I’ve ever seen from HSV.” The team he had sculpted would contest the 1980 European Cup final against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.

Central to it all was the little man from the north of England, a scampering dribbler with a bubble-perm taking on and beating Europe’s best. As much as anyone else, Keegan was the catalyst for HSV’s rise. Yet, in his typically forward-thinking way, he was already pondering the next step. As it had been for his Liverpool career back in 1977, the European Cup final would be a curtain call for Keegan at HSV.

By now his popularity was such that he was the face of BP as part of their sponsorship of HSV. It emerged that in order to confirm the BP deal he had turned down moves to several other clubs during contract renegotiations before the 1979-80 season, including HSV’s future opponents in the 1980 final. The rebuffed approach from Clough to Keegan during a joint stint as TV analysts, writes Ian Ridley, “came in the gents’ toilets at London Weekend Television”.

But, significantly, the same £500,000 release clause that had allowed Keegan to depart Liverpool had been inserted into his new HSV contract. Midway through the season, when it became clear he wanted out of Hamburg, the big clubs again came sniffing. Long before the European Cup final, it was announced that Keegan would not sign for Juventus (Keegan’s wife feared kidnap in Italy), Barcelona or Liverpool (who turned down the opportunity to re-sign him), but for Laurie McMenemy’s Southampton. Keegan, again, had surprised.

His swansong at HSV, the final against Forest, would not end in glory. Hamburg flooded forward once more in all-out attack, but they met a disciplined Forest side and Peter Shilton, who was in inspired form. Mächtig Maus did his best as always, scurrying everywhere on the pitch in search of victory, but it was Clough who had the last laugh.

“To the last, Keegan ran and ran, goaded and coaxed, but it was all to no avail for Hamburg”, was the summation of David Lacey in the Guardian the day after Forest’s 1-0 win.

With HSV finishing as runners-up in both European Cup and Bundesliga in 1980, the 1979 league title would be the last club medal Keegan would ever win as a player. He didn’t get the send-off his wonderful time at the club deserved but he remains one of Hamburg’s most beloved adopted sons. Like the floppy-haired musicians who thrilled the rainy old city in the sixties, Keegan made himself part of Hamburg folklore.

By Luke Ginnell. Follow @HeavyFirstTouch