Marcus Hahnemann: From Seattle to Reading (via Rochdale)

HE is far from your average top-flight keeper, though not because he is American (there are plenty of those). Marcus Hahnemann has been known to fix fans' cars, finds guns 'relaxing' and turned his footballing life around at Spotland. He told Mike Rowbottom his intriguing life story
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Marcus Hahnemann, Reading's press officer tells me, tends to be one of the last to finish training as he is usually called upon for extra shooting practice.

It is clearly no different today. Here is the recently capped Graham Shorey – or "Shorey-For-England", as Reading fans have called him for the last year. Jauntily – after all, he has earned his cap at last and West Ham are interested in him – the full-back approaches his four-by-four in the car park before exchanging a cheery word with someone unseen and then driving smartly away. Here is James Harper, the second longest-serving player on the books after the full-back Graeme Murty. And here is the manager, Steve Coppell, wiry and intense in a tracksuit and cap, exerting quiet influence.

There is still no sign of the American who sounds like a German – he has a dual passport – and who has kept goal with consistent effectiveness since being signed by Reading's then manager Alan Pardew from Fulham five years ago.

Hahnemann has been an integral part of the rise and rise of the little Berkshire club to a position where, this summer, they came within a fraction of earning a Uefa Cup place in their first season among English football's elite.

But it is for other qualities that this native of Seattle has become known and loved. In recent years it has been his habit to throw his shirt to the crowd after home matches, something he paid for himself until last season when the club's sponsors, Kyocera, insisted upon picking up the tab.

Then there is the tale, apocryphal perhaps, of how a Reading fan asked to use Hahnemann's mobile phone to call the AA for his broken-down car, and the courteous custodian insisted on being taken to the motor in question, which he promptly mended. Now call me cynical, but I don't sense this is common practice among Premier League footballers. I don't picture Ronaldo or Ashley Cole, rolling up their sleeves and getting under bonnets in the supporters' car park. So this is something I am keen to corroborate with the powerful, shaven-headed figure who now strolls towards me.

Installed on a little chair in the Reading media room, Hahnemann confirms that the story is correct in essence. "It wasn't a huge deal," he says. "When I heard this guy complaining, 'Oh, my car won't start,' I said to him to hop in and I would drive him back to the lot where it was. It just needed a jump start, and I had my cable in the car, so we just fixed it.'

Fixing cars, it turns out, is something that has fascinated this goalkeeper since his teenage years. Having studied engineering at Seattle Pacific University, Hahnemann has maintained his curiosity with all things mechanical, and is currently fretting over how to find time to mend one of the three motors at the home he shares with his wife, Amanda, and sons, Hunter and Austin, nine and seven.

Among the Mercs and Alfa Romeos gleaming in the players' car park is a big, black jeep with the September sun glinting off its chrome. I had speculated that it was Hahnemann's, and I am right. "I like jeeps," he says. "I've got a Cherokee back home in Seattle with about 140,000 miles on the clock, although it's sort of in bits and pieces right now. We've got a cabin up in the Cascades mountains and I like to take it off road with the boys when I'm there. I've got a Porsche over here too, and a GMC Typhoon.

Motorbikes are another big area of interest, although Hahnemann, along with all the other Reading players, is forbidden to ride one for fear of injury. And that is not the only one of his passions that is on hold – in Seattle he has an extensive gun collection which he operates with enthusiasm at a nearby range.

"I've got everything," he says. "I've got a whole bunch of different handguns, including some 45s. And I've got some rifles that look like the M16s they used in Vietnam. If I've got a couple of hours and I'm waiting for something to happen, it gets a bit boring, so I'll be down there just shooting."

I ask whether he has seen American Beauty, the bit where Annette Bening liberates herself from domestic frustration by letting it all hang out on the firing range. He gives me a curious look before agreeing that he has seen the film, and for a moment I wonder whether our little chat is about to end. But no. Hahnemann is considering his response.

"I find it fairly therapeutic," he says. "My friend owns a gunshop and sells to the police department, so I sometimes get to use some fully automatic rifles and Hechler and Koch machine guns. If I tried to convert one of my guns to make it automatic, I would probably get 30 years in jail. When you get to fire them, it's such a blast. If you are into that sort of stuff, it's really cool."

When Hahnemann is not riding off road in jeeps, or firing machine guns, he enjoys flower arranging. Actually, he doesn't – he likes to listen to what used to be called heavy metal music, which means combos glorying in the name of Slipknot, Mastadon, Disturbed and his favourite, Tool. Sadly, this enthusiasm causes ructions at Hahnemann Towers, where his wife is keen for her boys not to become acquainted with the wicked world of pouting and power chords.

Hahnemann is well served with diverse interests, but his career path attests to a character driven to achieve at the highest level. Having progressed to a full-time spot with the Major League Soccer side Colorado Rapids, he travelled repeatedly for trials in Europe before being signed for Fulham by their then manager Paul Bracewell. But, with the arrival of Jean Tigana, three years of frustration lay ahead as he had to shadow the first-choice keeper Maik Taylor.

"When we got promotion to the Premiership in 2001 I was thinking to myself I was just a red card or an injury away from playing in the best League in the world," he says. "And then Fulham signed Edwin van der Sar."

Dropping down to third choice had an upside, however – it meant he could go out on loan, and he soon found himself at Rochdale. Bliss.

"It was such a contrast to reserve team football there," he recalls. "At Rochdale every game was life or death to the 3,500 fans. You felt real pressure, real adrenaline. It was great."

The exposure helped him come to the attention of Pardew, then engaged in trying to steer an enterprising Reading side into the top tier. At the age of 29, Hahnemann had arrived. And by 2003 his progress was being guided by the man now managing Reading, Mr Coppell.

"Steve is so different to most managers," Hahnemann says. "He doesn't yell at you a lot. He does lots of subtle things. It took us a while to figure him out, but once we got it, it was fantastic. Steve sets up a game plan, and 99 per cent of the time it works, if we can execute it, although sometimes we can't."

This season, as he acknowledges, there have been a couple of instances where the plan has gone awry, such as their 3-0 home loss to West Ham. "I should have done better with the first goal," he says. "Craig Bellamy hit it really early and I wasn't quite set. That was a bit tough, because I knew I should have done better..."

It is a brief glimpse into the torturous world of the goalkeeper's psyche. But then, he did choose to become a goalie, didn't he? As did three of his compatriots. With Brad Friedel at Blackburn, Kasey Keller at Fulham and Tim Howard at Everton, it seems you don't need to be American to be a goalkeeper, but it helps.

"I think it's something to do the hand-eye co-ordination you need to play basketball and baseball," Hahnemann says. "And attitudes are different in the States," he adds. "After ice hockey games you see the players all giving the keeper a pat on the head. In the States it's cool to be a keeper, but in England keepers get a harder deal.

"Look at all the comments Paul Robinson got after the Germany game. Some guy hits a shot that's moving and swerving all over the place, and he doesn't even let it in, he knocks it against the bar before it gets turned over the line. And suddenly he's being seen as a crap keeper. When you are the last line of defence, you can't screw up even a bit."

Hahnemann has not made a habit of screwing up in the last five years, and his form earned him a place in the US squad for last year's World Cup. His status also meant that it was to him that Steve Sidwell turned when the Reading midfielder was considering his move to Chelsea towards the end of last season.

"I said if he stayed he would be playing every week, which would probably not happen there," Hahnemann recalls. "But he said, "Yeah, but am I good enough for it?" And he would never have known if he didn't go. It was like when I wanted to come over to England. I had a decent life with Colorado and it would have been easy to stay. But you go for the challenge."

As you might expect, he has a measure of respect for the recent decision taken by one D Beckham to ply his lucrative trade at LA Galaxy. "Beckham has already raised the level of awareness for the game in the States," he says approvingly. "His wages are not as high as some have said, if what I hear is correct – $5m (£2.5m) a year for five years. And him being there has already led to a new sponsor for the league who is pretty much covering those costs. When he's playing the crowds are up from around 25,000 to 85,000. And the clubs aren't stupid – they are making fans buy tickets for four games to get to see Beckham.

"He's already had guys absolutely launching him on the pitch, but his team mates were right there afterwards. Tackle-wise, the League is a lot easier than in England. But I think it will be difficult for him with the contrast in earnings. When you are playing alongside guys getting $30,000 or $40,000, it's bound to be a bit awkward."

Hahnemann has been courtesy itself, but he is now beginning to resemble a dog that needs a walk. Time to go. As he makes his way towards the beast of a motor that will soon transport him, he announces that he has a clear objective in mind. "I'm going to try and sort out the front suspension of my Porsche," he says cheerfully. Let's hope it gets his mind off Craig Bellamy...

Overachievers and over here: A brief history of American keepers in English football

American goalkeepers have made a far greater impact in England than outfielders – perhaps, as Kasey Keller once suggested, because young Americans play a lot of basketball and tend to be adept with their hands.

However, the first transatlantic "netminder", Tony Meola, was not a success. He made 11 appearances for Brighton before a brief matchless spell at Watford. He took revenge by keeping a clean sheet when the US notoriously beat Graham Taylor's England in 1993.

Juergen Sommer became the first to play in the Premiership, with QPR in 1995, but it was Keller who established the national reputation. Starting with Millwall he played for Leicester, Tottenham, Southampton and, after a spell in Germany, is now at Fulham.

Brad Friedel has also spent more than a decade in England. He failed to break through at Liverpool but is a fixture at Blackburn, with 317 games already under his belt, and a goal at Charlton in 2004.

Everton's Tim Howard has spent four years in England, initially with Manchester United.

James Mariner