Hamburg 1979 – the mighty mouse roars

HAMBURG is Germany’s second biggest city by population and one of Europe’s biggest sea ports. It is home to two major football clubs, Hamburger SV and FC St. Pauli.

Until the 1970s, HSV was an under-performing club. They had been German champions twice in the 1920s, but the Bundesliga, which was inaugurated in 1963, had been beyond them. In 1968, they reached the European Cup Winners’ Cup final, losing to AC Milan, but until 1976, when they finished runners-up in the Bundesliga, their league performances had fallen short of expectations. Some top players had lined-up for the club, notably the legendary Uwe Seeler and Willi Schulz, who had both appeared in the 1966 World Cup final for West Germany

That 1975-76 campaign pointed the way forward for the club. They finished four points behind Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga, won the DFB Pokal by beating Kaiserslautern in the final, and also reached the semi-final of the UEFA Cup, narrowly losing to Belgium’s Bruges.

The following year, they won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, overcoming holders Anderlecht in the final in Amsterdam. Hamburg were an ambitious club and wanted everyone to know. But when Liverpool and England’s Kevin Keegan signalled he was leaving the English champions to try his luck abroad, Hamburg were the first club to show an interest. Keegan had been very vocal about his intentions, almost inviting Europe’s big clubs to “come and get me”, but in truth, Hamburg would not have been on anyone’s list of likely buyers.


Manny Kaltz

Keegan moved to Germany and earned Liverpool a £ 500,000 fee. On a personal basis, he secured a lucrative deal that amounted to multiples of his Liverpool contract and his status as an international superstar meant his total earnings were around a quarter of a million pounds. Unlike some big names, Keegan knew how to manage his career and always gave 100% on the field.

Hamburg’s general manager was then Peter Krohn, an entrepreneur who was trying to elevate the club in the eyes of the football world. He latched onto the idea of trying out pink shirts in a bid to appeal to female supporters – a cliché perhaps, but nevertheless a demonstration of forward thinking.

The Hamburg side that Keegan walked into was a tight-knit group, almost a clique. There was some resentment around the arrival of the poodle-haired England striker, as well as the other main signing, the Yugoslavian defender, Ivan Buljan from Hajduk Split.

Keegan’s first season was disappointing, although he still won the European Footballer of the Year award in 1978 and the great Hamburg experiment almost ended after a year. His Bundesliga debut was not in the script, a 5-2 defeat at Duisburg, and it took a few games before Keegan netted his first league goal. But the problems went quite deep, Keegan himself felt he was not getting the ball enough and by lining-up in midfield, the club wasn’t getting the best out of their new man. Keegan knew it, the fans knew it, but the management was slow to react to the divisions in the dressing room or the fact they had an unhappy star man. The Hamburg side was mostly German as only two foreigners were allowed per team. Keegan’s relationship with the management was also rather strained and after a poor campaign, he gave the club an ultimatum – use me properly or I will have to leave. Real Madrid, apparently, were waiting in the wings.

Big man, little man

Keegan was talked back onside, largely due to the efforts of the club’s new general manager, Günter Netzer, who persuaded him that his future lay with HSV. Hamburg, meanwhile, bought some new players and hired a new coach. Horst Hrubesch arrived from Essen for £ 450,000 , a possible attempt at recreating the “big man, little man” model that had worked well for Keegan at Liverpool with John Toshack. Jimmy Hartwig, one of Germany’s first non-white players, was signed from TSV Munich 1860 and Bernd Wehmeyer arrived from Hannover. The new coach was the Yugoslav Branko Zebec, a slightly controversial figure who developed a problem with alcohol.

Felix Magath

Keegan was popular with the fans, who gave him the nickname Machtig Maus –  mighty mouse. He took his time to get on the scoresheet in his second season, despite the presence of the powerful and intimidating Hrubesch. That first goal came in a 5-0 demolition of Borussia Dortmund on November 4. Keegan was ever present in 1978-79 and, starting with his opening goal, he scored 17 goals in 23 games. He was well on the way to retaining the Ballon d’Or for 1979.

Hrubesch also needed a bedding-in period and didn’t find the back of the net for his new club until his sixth game, but finished with 13 goals. Hrubesch benefitted from the pinpoint crosses of Manfred Kaltz, an impressive full back who perfected the art of bending the ball into the area, the Banananflanken.  Hrubesch, who was known affectionately as Das Kopfball Ungehauer (the header beast), summed up the way the two players would link up: “Manni banana. I head. Goal.”

Kaiserslautern made the early running in the Bundesliga, but HSV closed the gap to one point just before Christmas with a 1-0 victory at Bayern Munich and a 3-1 success against Arminia Bielefeld, a game that saw Keegan score a hat-trick. After 17 games, the halfway stage, Kaiserslautern, Hamburg and VFB Stuttgart were separated by just two points. Bayern were way behind at this point, but had a far better second half of the season.

After the winter break, Hamburg appeared to be off the pace and earned one point from their first three games. By the start of April, a 3-0 win against Kaiserslautern seemed to destabilise the leaders, who then only won two of their last nine games. Stuttgart were also in the running but were scuppered by a 1-4 home defeat at the hands of Köln in their penultimate game. Hamburg, meanwhile, were in fine form and went 12 games unbeaten, culminating in a nervous 0-0 draw at Arminia Bielefeld that gave them the title as Stuttgart capitulated.

Hamburg were now uncatchable, three points ahead of their nearest challenger. There was one game left, however, at home to Bayern Munich, who had climbed into the top four. Bayern won 2-1, but it didn’t matter, Hamburg finished the campaign with 49 points, one more than Stuttgart.

Golden years

The 1978-79 season was the start of memorable period for HSV. In 1979-80, they reached the European Cup final, losing to Nottingham Forest and also finished runners-up in the Bundesliga. Two more titles followed in 1981-82 and 1982-83 and in 1983 they were European champions, thanks to a goal from 1979 skipper Felix Magath. Keegan, who had found the intense training regime adopted by coach Zebec too much, had one final season after the 1979 title before moving back to England and Southampton. He was by no means the only outstanding player to don the HSV shirt in that title-winning season, but he truly left a mark in Germany and paved the way for other British players to move abroad. As for Hamburg, who now find themselves in Bundesliga 2, the late 1970s and early 1980s represent a wonderful era in the club’s long history that they must surely long for today.



Photo: PA

One thought on “Hamburg 1979 – the mighty mouse roars

  1. Just a note… from the 1920s onwards, the Bundesliga was not “beyond them”.
    There was no Bundesliga until 1963, and HSV were one of the inaugural teams in the new national competition.
    Until then, they had won the North German championship a record a record 31 times, qualifying them for the knockout playoffs to determine the national champions. This might be where the underperformed, only winning 3 titles… but then I take comfort from knowing that Bayern Munchen only won a single title before 1963!

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