'I enjoy the English game more than the German'
Thomas Hitzlsperger's stunning West Ham debut has rekindled his love of Premier League football, he tells Sam Wallace
It is four days since Thomas Hitzlsperger finally made his competitive debut for West Ham United on Monday night and the Germany international, who will for ever be known as "Der Hammer" in English football, was still smiling at the memory yesterday.
Sitting in a lounge at Upton Park yesterday he reflected on a "dream debut" that went some way to alleviating the pain of seven months out injured, watching his new club fight relegation. Just 23 minutes into the FA Cup fifth-round tie against Burnley the 28-year-old let fly with one of his trademark, left-foot thunderbolts. A new Upton Park legend was born.
Even before Hitzlsperger's goal on Monday he had been given the warmest of receptions by the home crowd. Something about the timing of his return to the side, his gilded international career (he has 52 caps) and, of course, sharing a nickname with the club itself just seemed to make him a good fit for West Ham.
"The reception was quite amazing because I have been introduced here before when I played pre-season against Deportivo La Coruna," Hitzlsperger says. "I was overwhelmed really and that makes it even more special. It was just a game I was really looking forward to, Monday night football – brilliant.
"The gaffer asked me before the game, 'Are you fit to start?' I said I felt good and I could definitely play for an hour. As the game went on I didn't want to come off. I have been known for those kind of shots and to score a goal like that in my first game ... it is nice. People recognise you quite easily, the nickname as well, it all fits together."
The nickname comes from his time at Aston Villa, who took him from Bayern Munich's academy at the age of 18 and where he spent five largely happy years before returning to Germany to play for Stuttgart in 2005. Hitzlsperger says "Der Hammer" originates – somehow – from a line from John Gregory, who introduced him at Villa as having a left foot so good that he could "open a tin of beans with it".
"It's strange because the Germans call me 'The Hammer' and here they call me 'Der Hammer'," Hitzlsperger says. "I don't know why they do it."
Hitzlsperger is different from the average footballer. He is very bright, although he is reluctant to talk about his interest in economics because he does not want to show off. He speaks impeccable English, still with the Brummie accent from his Villa days. He is part of the new generation of German footballers – he just missed out on the World Cup squad last year – but he loves English football and the Premier League.
It was that which drew him back in the summer. Put simply, he decided that he had the best times of his career in England with Villa and despite having been captain of Stuttgart, where he won a Bundesliga title in 2007, his heart was still in the Premier League.
"Although it has been great most of the time in Germany I have felt that football is more enjoyable for me in the Premiership," he says. "Of course, you cannot say it is the best league in the world. You never really know. Just being in the Premier League I have had more joy playing than in the Bundesliga.
"They [Germany] have got a lot of good young players coming through, the national team has played ever so well in the World Cup and the years before that. You can see the progression in German football but [in England] it all comes together: the physical side, the pace of the game, the passion from the fans. The people show you a lot of respect. Sometimes people in Germany are very critical.
"I find there is a difference with the top four teams in England because you expect a lot of them. In the [rest of the] Premier League most of the teams are fighting to stay in it. You have a few good games and people are really upbeat. You show a bit of what you have to offer and people are really excited. We have talked about my shooting and when that came off – they are just happy about it.
"It is easier to make them [fans] happier over here. A good pass, a good tackle, people stand up and cheer. Whereas in Germany I often felt that you have a good game and ten bad minutes, they remember the ten bad minutes."
That is not to say he does not appreciate what Germany has given him. He captained the team in their first friendly after the World Cup in August against Denmark – when he first got injured – despite having been left out of the squad for South Africa by coach Joachim Löw. His problems started in January last year when Stuttgart's new manager Christian Gross told him he could leave. His subsequent move to Lazio did not work out.
He signed for West Ham as a free agent on 26 June, the day before England's defeat to Germany at the World Cup finals, catching a flight home to watch the match. He had been told by Löw that he simply had not played enough football post-Christmas to warrant a place in the squad.
"I said, 'I totally understand' I had a year behind me that was anything but great and these are the things that happen in football," Hitzlsperger says. "Devastated."
A veteran of the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008, Hitzlsperger has seen big changes in German football in the last 10 years, especially the push to develop better young players, which began after Euro 2000. But some things never change. "We definitely know how to prepare for a big tournament, we use every single day," he says. "They prepare us. The whole team around the players are first class. We create this spirit and that is really good.
"The set-up is good and the players believe in it. Most of the time we go into a tournament and they say, 'They are not that good a side, it's just Germany, they might win games because they are lucky and over-confident.' Now we have got to the stage where we play well. If we are honest we look at the Spanish team and they are the ones to beat. We are getting there."
Is he more English than German? "What is English, what is German? I think we have developed and changed over the years. Look at the national team: we are not that side we were 20 years ago. We have moved on from that: a young team, open-minded, not [simply] 'single-minded', as we were seen for many years."
After the injury sustained playing against Denmark he returned to training with West Ham in October after eight weeks out and within a few days had ruptured the rectus femoris tendon in his thigh, which required surgery. Now back in contention to start his first Premier League game for the club, against Liverpool tomorrow, he has a very different perspective on West Ham's woes.
"It is definitely not easy because we have been in the relegation zone for pretty much the [whole] season. It is interesting to see what happens. It is fairly quiet and I understand the fans are disappointed – they want to see changes. There was a short period when there was talk of a new manager but mostly people stayed calm and that is what I find interesting. When I look back at Germany and Stuttgart, they were in a similar situation when there were three managers in a season and it was chaotic.
"We were struggling in the first half of the season and people were going mad in the press, the fans – they would go to the training ground. As the captain I had to see a special group of supporters and explain why we were [struggling]. You think: 'Should we do this?'
"In Germany the club tries to satisfy the fans and if you don't perform they think they have the right to see the players, the manager. Here we just get on with it and improve things in training. I do prefer it this way. It is far more quiet. They trust us to do the right things and although it has not always been easy I feel we have turned the corner. I believe in the players and I am sure we will turn it around."
He has played two years of Champions League football at Stuttgart as well as two major tournaments for Germany and could have waited for better offers last summer. But he just has a thing for England and not even West Ham's travails have shaken his belief. "Lifestyle is excellent, the people are kind," he says. "I came to the conclusion that England is where I want to be."
My Other Life
I like music, the last albums I bought were James Blake and Muse. Books? I have read 'Nemesis', by Philip Roth; 'The Big Short', by Michael Lewis and something by Tim Parks when I was in Italy.
Tomorrow's match against Liverpool will see nine-year-old Hammers fan Jonjo Heuerman complete a three-day walk from Wembley to Upton Park in aid of the Bobby Moore Fund for Cancer Research UK. www.justgiving.com/fornannyandbobby
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