Dietmar Hamann: Man for all seasons
He became an honorary Scouser during seven successful years at Liverpool, where he nurtured a host of young midfield talent. Now he has Manchester City and Joey Barton to sort out. Andy Hunter talks horses and cricket with a very untypical German
Saturday 14 October 2006
Restricted by the machismo of the changing-room it has taken Steven Gerrard six years and the release of his autobiography finally to issue the sincerest of apologies to Dietmar Hamann. It is perhaps typical of his former mentor, one of the Premiership's most decorated yet understated imports, that until that passage in the book was shown to him at Manchester City's training ground this week he was unaware of the existence of an act of contrition rare among England's published World Cup contingent.
Pages 144 to 146 of Gerrard's tome are devoted to the competitive debut he made for England in the defeat of Germany at the 2000 European Championship. In particular, they detail how "Didi", as he is more commonly known within football circles, separated friendship from a bitter rivalry in Charleroi to guide a petrified Liverpool colleague through the first examination of his international career only to be rewarded with a foul from behind and a public accusation that he "squealed like a girl" as he tumbled towards the ground.
The comment consumes Gerrard with guilt to this day and therefore, to take the Liverpool captain at his written word - "I hope he reads this," he asks - the belated apology is opened before the 33-year-old and a long, awkward silence ensues as he studiously dissects every line. How will City's summer signing respond to the memory of an episode best forgotten, of a cheap allegation with expensive consequences in his profession? Thankfully, for the sake of this interview at least, he reclines back in his chair and laughs. "That's nice," Hamann says as he takes a second look at Gerrard's contrition. "Although he didn't have to do that, I'd forgotten all about it."
Hamann has consigned more to ancient history than many of his peers will celebrate in a lifetime, the side-effect to phenomenal success since graduating through the ranks at Bayern Munich. This summer he chose to put the finest relationship of his career behind him too. Having replicated to perfection his role in the 2005 Champions' League final to help give Rafael Benitez the second major honour of his Liverpool reign in the FA Cup triumph over West Ham - entering as a second-half substitute with the team trailing, help to repair the scoreline to 3-3, convert from 12 yards in a successful penalty shoot-out, then repeat - the midfielder could have extended a glittering Anfield career by one more year. Though he may appear the most laid-back man in football, the easy option held no interest for the former Germany international.
"I could have stayed at Liverpool but one day the manager called me into his office and said I might not have as many opportunities this season because Stevie would play more in the middle instead of on the right like the year before," he recalls, although Gerrard's move inside at Liverpool is yet to materialise. "In my final year at Liverpool I played 30 games, but for my liking that still wasn't enough. I missed out on some important games and after all the good years I'd had there it wasn't an option to sit out my last year and just play 10 or 15 times. I'd had a few offers and, as much as I loved playing for Liverpool, and as hard as it was to leave, I wanted a new challenge.
"I didn't realise it at the time but my last game for Liverpool turned out to be the FA Cup final, which was a great game to go out on and a case of history repeating itself, as we won the cup in my last game for Bayern Munich in 1998. I'll have to be careful if City get to a final this season!"
He will have added cause to rue those words if fate throws City and Bolton together on a showpiece occasion next year. Ultimately, it was not the leaving of Liverpool that aggrieved Hamann but the decision to renege on a move to the Reebok once his former Newcastle United team-mate Stuart Pearce registered City's interest with the Bolton deal sealed. It would take a welter of criticism from Wanderers and £400,000 from City - "the best transfer deal I have ever done," insisted an indignant Sam Allardyce - to conclude an unusually controversial period in Hamann's career.
The chapter is not one Hamann is keen to discuss at length, though he admits: "That was a difficult couple of weeks, but it happened because I made the decision too quickly after realising I would be leaving Liverpool. When I knew it wasn't an option to stay at Liverpool I made up my mind too quick, and that was it. I had played with the manager [Pearce] for a few months at Newcastle and when I saw the players he was bringing to City I thought it was the right move."
Both parties are yet to witness the full benefits of his arduous transfer - a foot injury delaying the midfielder's debut until the fifth game of the season, by which time his new club were struggling and Pearce was being touted as a potential managerial casualty - but the move has exposed a player of vast experience to one facet of the game he had not suffered before: pressure.
Flourishing in the expectant arenas of Munich and Liverpool, trailing by three goals in a European Cup final or to underdogs with seconds remaining in the FA Cup final is, it would seem, no preparation for the days between City's humiliating Carling Cup exit at Chesterfield and the crucial Premiership victory over West Ham, the day Hamann took his bow at the City of Manchester Stadium.
He insists: "I wouldn't call playing for titles and trophies pressure, it is nice to be in that position. Pressure is when you are at the bottom of the table, as we were before the West Ham game, or when you are playing for a contract and to secure your living. That's when pressure comes into a game. There is tension before any game but I never felt under pressure at Munich or Liverpool.
"It has not been difficult to adapt because there are still big expectations at City. Obviously, you are meant to win things at Munich and Liverpool but if we finish in the top eight here it is a similar achievement to finishing in the top two or three with Liverpool. Some clubs have better players, more players, and higher ambitions, but there is not a great difference. We all have our targets and we all want to win."
Hamann came to be regarded as a naturalised Scouser at Liverpool, where his fondness for the social side of the English game and a permanent attachment to the Racing Post defied the logic that foreign players recoil at the national culture. His passion for horses also helped to forge a close bond with Michael Owen, and the England striker has utilised Hamann's contacts in the equine industry as his own obsession with the sport has developed.
"Michael studies horses a lot more than me because he is breeding horses now, which I don't," Hamann reveals. "He bought a couple of horses from a friend of mine and, fortunately, they have done really well for him. I don't own any because I cannot get too involved at the moment, but my good friend is a trainer in Germany and maybe it is something I will do after my playing career."
Hamann's presence behind the scenes is not the only reason several former Anfield colleagues - Gerrard, Owen, plus Jamie Carragher and Danny Murphy - have cited the midfielder as a major influence on their careers. The resilience and hunger that were so evident for Liverpool in Istanbul and Cardiff, and that prompted Hamann to leave Bayern at 25 in order to find harder assignments, have been acquired by Pearce to provide City's young, raw talent with as much guidance off the pitch as on. In the week Hamann's team-mate Joey Barton received a £2,000 fine for improper conduct from the Football Association, albeit for merely exposing his backside at Goodison Park, his presence makes perfect sense.
The midfielder as mentor, however, is not a role Hamann takes lightly. "When I came through at Bayern I was looked after by Lothar Matthäus," he reveals. "He had just returned from Italy and played his last three or four years in Munich and he always tried to look out for me. He was an awesome player, a fantastic player. He always gave you a feeling that if something went wrong, he would be there to help you. He wouldn't say much, but I don't think much needs to be said. You learn more by watching what a player like him does. The most important thing is that a young player doesn't feel intimidated and cannot play his proper game because he is scared of making mistakes.
"I've played with people who have deliberately tried to show they are superior to younger players and I think that's wrong. That's the coward's way, in a sense, because it doesn't help the kids and it is a sign of weakness as well. The best way is to show the kids they belong and to feel comfortable at this level. I try to teach them, but the kids are a lot different to when I was at their level."
The circle has turned for Hamann, and though he has signed a two-year contract with the option for a third at City he is now the medal-laden German midfielder that others turn to as he enters the twilight of his playing career. Not that he could have envisaged such a role when Kenny Dalglish brought him to England and Newcastle for £5.25m in 1998.
In the eight years since, the man whose virtues as a defensive midfielder were prized long before the role became de rigueur for all successful teams has won every honour available with the prominent exception of the Premiership title. A quick analysis of his record at Anfield details one European Cup, one Uefa Cup, two Uefa Super Cups, two FA Cups, two League Cups and one Community Shield victory. Then there is an appearance in the 2002 World Cup final, the 1999 FA Cup final defeat with Newcastle at Wembley, where he also scored the last goal underneath the Twin Towers, and a Uefa Cup, Bundesliga title and German Cup from his formative years at Bayern. It is no wonder that run-ins with the man who was to become England vice-captain no longer register.
A medal collection to envy, however, does not guarantee unreserved acclaim for a player whose selfless position within the team and undemonstrative style have not attracted the widespread recognition his achievements deserve. In a recent Sky poll to discover the Premiership's "greatest foreigner" the midfielder finished a mid-table 28th, seemingly a fair position until you consider that Harry Kewell finished higher, although it is not in Hamann's nature to seek or demand reverence. The words of Gerrard, born out of admiration for his talent and temperament as much as regret, mean far more.
Sitting beneath a motivational poster that could have been scripted with Hamann in mind - "It is amazing what you can achieve when you don't care who gets the credit" - he explains: "I don't really think about how other people see me. What matters to me is that the manager and his coaching staff appreciate what I do. Obviously, it is even better if you are hearing nice things from the supporters but being appreciated within the club is the most important thing for me.
"I decided to leave Bayern because I didn't think I was playing to my full potential. I didn't want to be known as the boy from Waldasson who came through the ranks and so I left. I signed for Newcastle for five years, but the manager changed after only a couple of weeks and it was difficult, although we still went to Wembley in the FA Cup final. Then the move to Liverpool proved to be the icing on the cake, as we always seemed to be moving forward and we won a few trophies. I would have liked to have won the Premiership but I am happy with what I have got; in a few finals we were quite fortunate, and I am just grateful to have played for a big club such as Liverpool for such a long time."
A career in coaching (Hamann made a tentative start to his coaching qualifications in his final year at Anfield) possibly awaits the 33-year-old, although his passion for England could open alternative avenues. Having retired from international football, the midfielder was employed by German television to commentate on England's games at the World Cup - "I thought why not? I would have gone to watch them anyway, I like watching England" - while his longevity in the Premiership has also produced some unexpected spin-offs.
"I am big fan of cricket these days," he reveals. "People are surprised when I start talking to them about cricket, but I am really looking forward to the Ashes. I'll be supporting England rather than the Australians."
And no apology will be required for that.
Premier Germans: The other five over here
* JENS LEHMANN (Arsenal)
Temperamental goalkeeper who usurped Oliver Khan as Germany's No 1 at the World Cup
* MICHAEL BALLACK (Chelsea)
Captain of his country, the midfielder signed from Bayern Munich on a free transfer
* SERGIO PETER (Blackburn Rovers)
A left-sided midfielder, made his debut in the FA Cup last year
* MORITZ VOLZ (Fulham)
Right-back, signed from Arsenal and, bizarrely, a self-confessed David Hasselhoff fan
* ROBERT HUTH (Middlesbrough)
Former Chelsea central defender, he has 17 caps for his country
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