Football: Hamann is where the art is for Gullit

FA Cup final: 43 years on, Trautmann's heroics inspire a compatriot on a very English occasion
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DIETMAR HAMANN completes his first season in English football next Saturday by following in the studmarks of Bert Trautmann. When the midfield man from Munich plays for Newcastle United against Manchester United at Wembley he will become the second German to appear in an FA Cup final. He has been on the verge of a cup final in England before. But that was far from the madding crowds of the national stadium, a million metaphorical miles away indeed, in a former pit village in County Durham.

"I remember it well," Hamann reflected at Newcastle's training ground at lunchtime on Friday. "It was my first competition with Bayern Munich. I had joined them four weeks before." Bayern's Under-19 team did not quite make it to the final of the River Wear International Youth Tournament in August 1990. But their recent recruit helped them to a 1-1 draw against Barcelona in the surreal setting of the Ryhope Colliery Welfare Ground before they fell at the semi-final hurdle. "We came up against Sunderland," Hamann recalled. "We were the better side but we lost 3-1. The referee was against us that day. He was a homer."

The home boys of Sunderland went on to lose to Barcelona in the final at Roker Park. Among them was Michael Gray, who has more painful memories of Wembley than Ryhope. The Toon Army have painful memories of Wembley, too, of course - not just of Newcastle's painfully embarrassing performance against Arsenal in last season's FA Cup final but stretching all the way back to 1955. Newcastle have not won beneath the twin towers since the afternoon Trautmann made his Wembley debut in the Manchester City team beaten 3-1 by Jackie Milburn and Co. They have not won a domestic prize of any note since then, either.

If those 44 years of Geordie hurt are to be brought to a euphoric conclusion on Saturday, the chances are Hamann will have something to do with it. Forget the talk about Alan Shearer's sharpness and Duncan Ferguson's fitness. The key man for Newcastle is Hamann. If the underdogs are to hold any sort of sway against the pedigree players of Manchester United, the former Bayern boy is the one who will do the dictating.

Hamann is to Ruud Gullit's team what Patrick Vieira is to Arsene Wenger's. Strikingly similar to the lynchpin Gunner in style and build, like the Frenchman he is composed on the ball and blessed with that mark of midfield distinction: the ability to examine his options before making his pass. The cross-field delivering that prompted Louis Saha's fifth-round winner at Blackburn was a stunning illustration of the talent Hamann has at his, and Newcastle's, disposal. The same could be said of the wondrous goals he has struck, more recently against Nottingham Forest and Arsenal, but most spectacularly on his St James' Park debut back in August - a 30-yard thunderbolt in an eve-of-season friendly against Juventus.

The irony, of course, is that, having left Bayern last summer, he now faces an end-of-season cup final against the same club his former colleagues play in the European Cup final on Wednesday week. "Yeah, it is ironic," Hamann mused in his clipped, well-considered English. "But that's life. That's football. I have no regrets about leaving Bayern. You have to make these decisions.

"It was obvious Bayern would win things this season because they have such a strong team. It would have been easy for me to stay in Munich, get five or six more trophies in the next five years and then sign another contract. But I wanted a new experience. I wanted a new experience with my family abroad. For the next few years I don't want to go back to Germany. It was a decision I made in the summer and I am still happy with it.

"I think it's a big success for us to reach the FA Cup final because there are so many good teams in England. But if we lose it, of course, it will have been for nothing. It will be a difficult game for us because Manchester United have a very strong side, but anything is possible. It's a final. It's just 90 minutes, or 120 minutes. We will see what happens. Bayern have a big chance too, I think. With Keane and Scholes suspended, I think they will have a good chance in Barcelona."

At 25, Hamann is too young to recall Bayern's last European Cup win. He was three months short of his third birthday when Franz Beckenbauer lifted the trophy for the third successive year after Frank Roth's second- half goal sank St Etienne at Hampden Park in 1976. But he was raised as a Munchener - he was four weeks old when his family moved from Waldsassen in northern Bavaria - and served his football education as a Bayern boy, coming through the ranks with Markus Babbel, a youth-team colleague at Ryhope nine years ago.

Hamann was still a boy when Beckenbauer blooded him in the Bayern first team, as an 18-year-old in 1992. He went on to win two Bundesliga titles, one Uefa Cup, and one German cup before establishing himself as a fixture in the national side and deciding to broaden his horizons beyond the Olympiastadion.

At times, Hamann must have felt like the sky was falling in on him since his move to Newcastle last summer. Just a week into the season, Kenny Dalglish, the man who invested pounds 4.5m in him, was shown the managerial door at St James' Park. And in his first match under his new boss he was taken off by stretcher with a knee injury that kept him out of action for two months. When he returned, he struggled to find favour with Gullit and their strained relationship was not helped when grievances aired in Kicker, the German sports magazine, were relayed back to Tyneside.

Fences, however, were mended and since the turn of the year the dreadlocked Dutchman has come to appreciate the true worth of his German midfield composer. Hamann, in turn, has come to value his "new experience," as he puts it. On the field, with his new team, he has emerged as one of the Premiership's polished performers. And off it, with his Austrian wife, Tina, and their baby daughter, Chiara, he has settled contentedly into his new life in the north-east of England.

"It's funny," Hamann said, stretching his long legs away from the pitch- side bench on which he was sitting, "I've lived here for one year and it's like my home. I do feel settled now. I'm glad I came. If we could win next week's game...that would be great."