Two Ballon d’Ors and the Bundesliga: Kevin Keegan’s genius at HSV

Two Ballon d’Ors and the Bundesliga: Kevin Keegan’s genius at HSV

On 25 May 1977, Kevin Keegan helped Liverpool cap off a historic season that culminated in the club’s first-ever European Cup, with an English league title to boot. A 26-year-old Keegan, and indeed Liverpool, were at the peak of their powers. Yet the 3-1 victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach was to be Keegan’s last for the Reds. He’d long since agreed a deal with chairman John Smith that the 1976/77 campaign would be his last.

Three league titles, two UEFA Cups, an FA Cup and a European Cup; Keegan had won it all in six years at Liverpool, but it was his time to go. He was driven by new challenges and the idea of stepping out of his comfort zone; his trendsetting 1970s perm and top 40 smash hit ‘Head Over Heels In Love’ attest to that.

After 323 appearances and 100 goals, Keegan waved goodbye to Anfield. Curiously, he traded a European double-winning side for a German outfit who had failed to finish higher than sixth place in its league for over two decades. A new, undeniably unique challenge waited.

HSV sampled its first taste of European success two months prior to Keegan’s arrival, in a 2-0 European Cup Winners’ Cup victory over Anderlecht. Japanese manufacturing superpower Hitachi invested heavily in HSV, bolstering the club’s spending power and enabling Keegan’s salary to soar to £100,000 a year. With endorsement deals included, it was reported that he was earning close to £250,000.

HSV’s business manager, Dr Peter Krohn, hailed the incoming Keegan as a messiah, which didn’t bode well in a dressing room filled largely with German players. The Yorkshireman’s services were secured for £500,000; pocket change in the modern game but an English record fee, and almost twice the German record, at the time.

German rules at the time dictated that clubs could have a maximum of two foreign players and Yugoslavian captain Ivan Buljan had also arrived that summer. And so it was Horst Blankenburg, a three-time European Cup winner with Ajax and popular dressing room figure, who was sacrificed at the expense of the new arrivals. Naturally, the players pointed the finger at the club’s new top earner.

Keegan signed for Hamburg as the highest-paid player in the history of the league and consequently his wages became a source of envy for his new teammates. Rudi Gutendorf replaced Kuno Kloetzer as head coach, which was another unpopular decision among the players. Money was flying around HSV and the club was changing fast. Entering a frosty dressing room, Keegan recalled the first six months in Hamburg as nightmarish.

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“In my first training session I can remember feeling deflated that I saw so little of the ball. If I made a run, it was amazing how many times the pass did not come. If I shouted for the ball, I lost count of the number of times the player in possession went the other way,” Keegan wrote in his 2018 autobiography, My Life in Football. “I was ostracised and marginalised from the start and, of course, I did not have the language skills to do a great deal about it. It was not something I had ever experienced before.”

Life off the pitch wasn’t a walk in the park either, as Keegan’s wife Jean and two Old English sheepdogs were squeezed into a 19th-floor hotel room in the middle of the city. They quickly grew sick of the hotel and bought a bungalow in a suburb called Itzstedt, which allowed them time away from the hectic city life and enabled Keegan to concentrate fully on his football.

Keegan was determined to prove his worth to the players and the fans. His first game was a friendly against Barcelona and he found the net in a 6-0 rout. He then scored again in a 3-2 win against Liverpool, in a fixture that was arranged as part of the transfer. More memorable, though, was his former teammates’ reactions to Keegan’s new perm; a hairstyle he began to favour after his final game in red.

The team got off to a lousy start as Hamburg slumped to a 5-2 loss against Duisburg in Keegan’s competitive debut. Then came a 7-1 European Super Cup hiding at Anfield, with Terry McDermott scoring a hat-trick and Keegan’s replacement Kenny Dalglish hammering the final nail into the coffin. He received a warm reception at the start of the fixture but the Kop later twisted the knife in Keegan’s wound, chanting “you should have stayed at Anfield” and “we all agree, Dalglish is better than Keegan.”

The HSV hierarchy wasn’t operating much better. A mutiny began brewing in the dressing room as the players disliked the whirlwind changes taking place at the club. Player power won as both Gutendorf and Dr Krohn were run out of the club by October. The club was shrouded in tension.

Similarly, Keegan’s frustrations were building like a thunderstorm, and his tensions were unleashed in a friendly against VfB Lubeck during the Bundesliga winter break. Keegan’s marker Erhard Preuss was tasked with keeping him quiet. After one too many fouls, the Yorkshireman levelled the German with a punch forged in former British heavyweight champion Bruce Woodcock’s Doncaster gym. Keegan headed for the dressing room before Preuss’ head had even hit the grass. 

Keegan was slapped with an eight-week ban, which turned out to be the unlikely catalyst that changed his fortunes in Germany. HSV spiralled into a nosedive that included a 3-0 home defeat to Fortuna Dusseldorf and a 6-1 mauling at Cologne. The HSV players began seeing “the little Englander” as an ally rather than an enemy, and were soon itching to get him back on the field. 

After a call with his old coach Bill Shankly, Keegan was reinvigorated and determined to turn things around. Keegan and the other players both improved their efforts to integrate him into the squad. Although HSV finished sixth in the Bundesliga, Keegan was back playing his best football and bagged 12 goals en route to becoming the third English player to win the Ballon d’Or in 1978.

When former West Germany Günter Netzer international replaced Dr Krohn and Yugoslavian disciplinarian Branko Zebec was hired as the new head coach, HSV took it up a notch. Implementing twice-daily training sessions, Zebec worked the players to the bone.

Keegan, 27 at the time, recalled this period as the strongest and fittest of his career. “I had never trained so hard in my life, not even under Jack Brownsword at Scunthorpe, but Zebec decided the team needed toughening up,” Keegan wrote in his autobiography. “But there was a method to the madness. After a while, those punishing sessions became second nature, and we started putting our extra stamina to use.”

In Keegan’s second season at HSV, the team blew the opposition out of the water, particularly in the last 20 minutes of games when their superior fitness kicked in. HSV stormed into pole position and did not relinquish their hold. Keegan bagged 17 league goals and, along with Felix Magath, Horst Hrubesch and Manny Kaltz, helped the club to its first league title since 1960. Keegan was thusly adorned in Hamburg and became the only English player to win the Ballon d’Or twice, retaining the award for his efforts in 1979. 

In 1979/80, Keegan’s third and final season at HSV, the club narrowly missed out on a European Cup. HSV battered Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Peter Shilton made a string of fine saves to keep HSV at bay. John Robertson snuck a bobbling shot over the line to clinch a 1-0 win. It wasn’t meant to be. Forest brought home their second European Cup and Bayern Munich beat HSV to the Bundesliga title.

“What the people who criticized me didn’t realise was the more I heard I was going to fail, the more determined I was to make a decent fist of it,” Keegan recalled. “The more I was told I would not last as long as Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law et al, the more it motivated me. Ultimately, I bucked a trend that Englishmen did not have a good reputation when it came to laying abroad, and probably still don’t. That might not have warranted a medal of any description, but it was something that always made me proud.”

Keegan was fuelled by domestic criticism and colleagues who expected his German adventure to flop. He never shied away from a challenge and took risks by stepping out of his comfort zone. He was a highly self-motivated individual and one of the best players to grace England, and indeed Germany.

After back-to-back Ballon d’Ors, Italian giants Juventus chased his signature but Italy presented a nervy excursion with Keegan’s celebrity status, and he had a newborn baby to care for. He instead chose to take his family and his achievements back home again, where a new challenge awaited at Southampton.

By Alan Condon @alan_condon

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