In Rome, in the early hours of 26 May 1977, a stripped-to-the-waist Kevin Keegan celebrated Liverpool’s maiden European Cup win by singing the old sailors’ shanty The Leaving of Liverpool. And yet the sight of him doing so during the after-match banquet must have briefly dampened spirits.
Twelve months earlier, Keegan had reached a compromise with club chairman John Smith that the campaign would be his last at Anfield and that the club would sell him for £500,000 (just under £3 million in today’s money) and no more. World Soccer magazine reported that Bayern Munich called the fee ‘ridiculous’ and that the figure also ended Borussia Monchengladbach’s interest. Barcelona and Real Madrid were also said to be admirers of Keegan but neither submitted an offer.
Instead his destination was Hamburger SV, an ambitious club from the second largest city in Germany and one of the founder members of the Bundesliga in 1963 (a few months after The Beatles had ended their playing stint in the city). HSV were hoping to build on three top-six finishes in the league and their European Cup Winners Cup final triumph over Anderlecht a fortnight before Liverpool’s glorious night in Rome.
A fresh challenge was part of Keegan’s reason for leaving England – and that’s exactly what he found when he arrived at the Volksparkstadion. German entrepreneur Dr Peter Krohn was running the club and wanted to increase their profile.
One writer on the website BundesligaFanatic recalls: ‘Krohn was among the first in German football to realise that good, clever and innovative marketing could lead to higher profits. Spectacular events during training sessions, tournaments during the summer break, and selling ad-space on the jersey were among the moves that transformed [Hamburger’s] deficit into a surplus. Krohn lured the fans into the stadium by letting them vote on the club’s transfer policy. Players were bought according to the fans’ vote. Being a business-savvy man, Krohn made tickets more expensive in order to follow the fans’ wishes’.
The players were also persuaded to wear pink jerseys – to encourage more women to go to HSV games! But when Krohn revealed how much 26-year-old Keegan was earning – reportedly £100,000 a year – it immediately created dressing-room tension.
Having won the Cup Winners Cup a few weeks previously, the team felt they didn’t need any new signings. That success had come under popular coach Kuno Klotzer, who was replaced by new man Rudi Gutendorf with Krohn declaring: “I have complete confidence in him and between us we shall lead Hamburg to new glories.”
Speaking to the BBC in 2013 the vastly experienced Gutendorf recalled, “The Hamburger players came to my room and said: ‘We don’t like this English guy. We won the cup and we don’t need him and we don’t like him. If you put this little English guy in, we don’t want to work with you’.
“But I wanted to make a very big team like Bayern Munich and with Keegan it was possible. I’m sure today that the players made sabotage against me. The first game of the season we lost 5-2 and I saw that my players didn’t like to win.”
As if club politics weren’t difficult enough, Kevin and his wife Jean spent their early weeks living on the 19th floor of a hotel along with their sheepdogs. ‘There wasn’t even a balcony for the dogs to get some fresh air,’ Keegan wrote in his autobiography, ‘and the other problems this situation created I will leave to your imagination’.
HSV made a poor start to the new 1977/78 season and in the space of a few October days Krohn and Gutendorf both departed. Turkish-born assistant coach Ozcan Arkoc, formerly the team’s goalkeeper, took charge yet there was no sudden upturn in Keegan’s fortunes – not least when he was reunited with his old pals for a two-legged European Super Cup final.
A 1-1 draw with Liverpool in Germany was followed by a thumping 6-0 defeat back at Anfield, with Terry McDermott grabbing a hat-trick and the Kop chanting ‘We all agree – Dalglish is better than Keegan’ and ‘You should have stayed at Anfield’.
The Bundesliga’s winter break didn’t provide any solace. A friendly against VfB Lubeck – a side from a neighbouring port-city in northern Germany – saw him sent off for punching a defender. The result was a fine, a ban and, as etiquette dictated, Keegan had to return to Lubeck and apologise to their fans.
One reason for some optimism though was the appointment as club general manager of Gunter Netzer, in place of Krohn. The 1974 World Cup-winning midfielder had played for Borussia Moenchengadbach against Liverpool in the 1973 UEFA Cup final before moving to Real Madrid, and under him HSV improved to finish sixth.
Keegan’s 12 goals and busy industry began to make him a popular figure on the terraces, with the supporters referring to him as ‘Mighty Mouse’ – this despite some of his team-mates still refusing to pass the ball to him.
During the summer of 1978 an unexpected opportunity to return to England materialised. While in London commentating alongside Brian Clough on World Cup games being beamed back from Argentina, he was asked by the Nottingham Forest boss if a move to the City Ground appealed. Keegan declined and headed back to Hamburg to find that Netzer had appointed Yugoslavian Branko Zebec as the new team manager.
A strict figure, Zebec got rid of those players whom he felt were poisoning the atmosphere and introduced a punishing training regime.
Keegan felt it limited his life to just playing, training and sleeping. But the result was a team in such good shape that it claimed the German title in 1978/79 by winning 21 of its 34 fixtures. Keegan was instrumental and named European player of the year for the second consecutive season.
At that point Keegan’s initial two-year contract was up. Real Madrid were again said to be interested in him along with Italian giants Juventus.
But it was American outfit the Washington Diplomats that came closest to acquiring his signature with a reported offer of £250,000 for a four-month season in the USA.
Netzer, keen not to lose his star, suggested a temporary move to the United States. With a Concorde flight ready to take Keegan across the Atlantic, it was pointed out that a spell in America would mean Kevin couldn’t play in the forthcoming European Cup until the semi-finals due to UEFA’s player registration rules.
One of the biggest incentives to stay with Hamburg was the chance to compete in the premier European tournament again, so Keegan stayed put – with a pay rise. He also became the face of club sponsor BP, appearing on TV as ‘Super Kev’, a hero who helped people to save energy. The Diplomats had to settle for their second choice, Johan Cruyff.
Despite his busy schedule Keegan famously, or perhaps infamously, found time to release a single entitled Head Over Heels In Love. Written by Chris Norman and Pete Spencer of English band Smokie, it was actually the brainchild of Keegan’s Yugoslav team-mate Ivan Buljan and his music-producer friends, and it went on to sell 220,000 copies in Germany while also reaching no29 in England.
The striker was offered royalties or a one-off fee of £20,000 for recording the track. Believing it wouldn’t sell, he settled for the latter option. It meant the Yugoslavs who put the deal together earned a fortune, one of them using his proceeds to buy a Porsche.
Having departed Anfield with a European Cup medal, Keegan’s aim was to do the same with Hamburg at the end of the 1979/80 campaign.
It looked likely after they eliminated a Dinamo Tbilisi side that had knocked out Liverpool and also defeated Hajduk Split to move in to the last four of the competition.
Then came a deflating 2-0 reversal against Real Madrid in the away leg of the semi-finals, with the final due to be played back at the Bernabeu in the Spanish capital. But at the Volksparkstadion in the return match Keegan and his colleagues destroyed Real Madrid to win 5-1. By the end the Spaniards were so exasperated that midfielder (and future coach) Vicente del Bosque was sent off for trying to punch Keegan.
Waiting in the final were Clough’s Forest, the holders; but a dull encounter ensued with a John Robertson strike settling it.
By then Keegan had made it known, somewhat surprisingly, that he was set to join Southampton. It had been rumoured again that he was going to Juventus, with Liverpool not minded to activate their buy-back option. The move to The Dell bizarrely materialised after Saints boss Lawrie McMenemy reportedly phoned Keegan to ask about a special type of light fitting that was only produced in Hamburg.
From there discussions progressed quickly and quietly – so quietly in fact that when Keegan was unveiled at a hotel just outside Southampton the journalists present were stunned. McMenemy had told the press they’d be meeting “someone who’d play a big part in the club’s future” and most hacks had expected to interview an architect who would design a new stadium.
Keegan spent two years on the South Coast helping an exciting side that also included veterans Mick Channon and Alan Ball to finish sixth in the table in his debut 1980/81 campaign, just a point behind European Cup winners Liverpool.
In 2013, to celebrate 50 years of the domestic league in Germany, the Bundesliga website interviewed former stars and Keegan commented: “The Bundesliga brings back great memories. We only played route-one football in England in those days, while in the Bundesliga the game was much more flexible. Our coaches taught us a pressing game that was unparalleled in world football.”
You can follow Johnny Hynes on Twitter (@HynesJohn)