Hamann keeps fire burning as Anfield waits for Gerrard recovery

Liverpool's inspirational midfielder is ready to return, but credit must first be given to the German who has proved he has a northern soul.
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Bucks Park, Telford, could barely cope with the crush. Telford Town had not drawn a crowd of 6,200 before, not even for last season's fourth-round FA Cup tie with Millwall, and on Monday night they were not playing.

Bucks Park, Telford, could barely cope with the crush. Telford Town had not drawn a crowd of 6,200 before, not even for last season's fourth-round FA Cup tie with Millwall, and on Monday night they were not playing.

The majority had come to see one man, Steven Gerrard, returning to action with Liverpool Reserves, two months after he limped off at Old Trafford with a broken bone in his foot. On Merseyside he is regarded as unbearably precious. It was his threat to leave Anfield that helped to trigger the demise of Gérard Houllier's regime; it was his decision to stay that legitimised the new one, managed by Rafael Benitez.

Liverpool coped without their captain because Liverpool always do. In one of the great statistical wonders of the age, they win more matches without him than with him and this season the pattern has been repeated. Seven points from five games with Gerrard, 13 from seven without him. There seems to be no footballing explanation for it.

Nevertheless, this time Liverpool were better able to deal with his absence. Benitez had added beef to Liverpool's midfield in the Spanish shapes of Xabi Alonso, a man whose talents Sir Alex Ferguson had long coveted, and Luis Garcia. There was also Dietmar Hamann, who in five years had earned himself a reputation as the steel in Liverpool's centre, but who was expected to return to the Bundesliga at the end of the season.

At his best, such as in his fiercely competitive display at Newcastle in December, Houllier, likened Hamann to Franz Beckenbauer. "On days like these, we call him the Kaiser [Beckenbauer's nickname] and you can see why," Houllier grinned in the press room at St James' Park after Hamann had nursed Liverpool to a rather fortuitous 1-1 draw. Benitez, too, appears increasingly convinced of Hamann's value, intimating he would like him to remain beyond the summer.

If there was a time and a place at which things began to turn for Benitez, it was around 4pm on 16 October at Fulham. Liverpool were two down; they had recently lost to Chelsea and Olympiakos and a third straight defeat loomed. "Nobody really understood what was going on," said Hamann, reflecting on the mood in the away dressing-room. "We had been beaten two or three times away from home without playing well and yet with a bit more luck we could have got a draw in all of them. Here we were at Fulham, playing an open game and were 2-0 down. The air was full of frustration; the feeling of not knowing why this was happening. Then, in the first bit of good luck we had all season, Milan Baros's shot took a wicked deflection to make it 2-1 and then, all of a sudden, the whole game changed. Even Josemi's sending-off did not interrupt our rhythm. At Fulham we had three shots on target and scored four goals. You need some luck."

This afternoon Hamann finds himself at the scene of another turning point; Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium, the ground where Houllier's rule began to fail. His rebuilding of the club was gradual; in 2001 they won their three cups, the following year they were second and in November 2002 they came to Teesside having gone remorselessly clear at the top of the Premiership. The match that followed was a crossroads. Liverpool lost to a Gareth Southgate goal and for the next two months they kept on losing. By the time they recovered to beat Manchester United in the League Cup final, their moment had come and gone.

"We are still far away," Hamann reflected. "We finished 30 points behind Arsenal last season. You can't make that up in one year but we have to be closer to the top three this season. What the future will bring we will see but we are going in the right direction now. Two years ago we seemed close but Arsenal pulled away and we stagnated. If one team goes 49 games without losing and your club struggles, then you get gaps of 20-30 points. It's too much for a club of Liverpool's standards."

He does not quite accept Michael Owen's summation of Houllier - that he was a fine man-manager but a poor tactician, unable to adapt to the changing circumstances of a match. "He did a lot for the club. When he took over, Liverpool were on the edge of mediocrity. They were really struggling. He changed things round, won a few trophies but didn't win the League [in 2003] and then things drifted. Afterwards, we did not perform as expected but if you look at Gérard Houllier as a whole over his six years at Liverpool, he did a good job."

I suggest that Houllier chose the wrong club. Had he gone to Newcastle, the club Hamann joined from Bayern Munich, and won two League Cups, a Uefa Cup and an FA Cup, there would be a statue to him on the Gallowgate. "Yes," Hamann smiled. "But I was not entirely surprised when Gérard Houllier went. The signs had been there for weeks and there was a lot of talk straight after the season that he would not be back. We were preparing for the Euros in a training camp in the Black Forest when I heard Benitez was coming and I was not entirely surprised by that either."

Hamann has been slightly surprised by how long he has remained in England: it is more than six years since he exchanged Munich for Newcastle. "When you first leave home, you always think: 'Well, I'll do a couple of years and if I don't like it I can always come back.' I had a little daughter, Chiara, by then she was six months old. I didn't have to worry about school so in a sense I was free, I could go where I wanted. Now Chiara is six and Luna is five and when they're at school, you don't want to move every year.

"Chiara's bilingual and when you ask her what she speaks better she says English. We talk German at home but she is struggling a bit with her reading and spelling in German because we've only just started to teach her those aspects. It is probably easier to learn English well; the grammar's not quite so hard."

It was in the wake of the 1998 World Cup that Hamann was enticed to St James' Park, part of a raft of signings, including Gary Speed and Nolberto Solano that might have given stability to Kenny Dalglish's brief reign on Tyneside. Instead, two games into the season Dalglish was fired. Hamann, like so many of Dalglish's squad, saw their relationship with his successor, Ruud Gullit, break into pieces. At half-time in the FA Cup final with Manchester United, Hamann told Gullit he was injured and could not carry on. Later that summer he issued a statement: "I am coming back from holiday, I will go and collect my things at Newcastle and I will not set foot in the place again."

He had enjoyed his time in the North-east, visited Durham Cathedral and Hadrian's Wall and fitted in well. He said he did not mind when his team-mates gave him a copy of Mein Kampf as a "humorous" Christmas present. A week before we met, the German ambassador had given a speech claiming that English attitudes to Germany were still imprisoned by the Second World War. By chance, I came across a copy of The Sun which described their footballers as "The Jackboot Boys". As stereotypes go it is as if Germany's leading tabloid, Bild, suggesting the Beckhams stopped for afternoon tea and croquet before David took Brooklyn for Latin prep.

"You don't get many opinions about the war because you don't really talk about it. A lot has been done in the papers about the funny side of the war because the English have a black humour and sometimes the Germans can't really deal with it. I'm resistant to it; there may be a few jokes made but I consider that part of English life."

When Hamann was growing up in Bavaria it was under the spell of football. He was born in 1973, the year before Munich staged the World Cup final, the year after it hosted the Olympics. He was eight and 12 when West Germany reached the World Cup finals of 1982 and 1986; 16 when Beckenbauer's side won the trophy. He was 29 when playing in the 2002 World Cup final and will be 33 when the tournament is again staged in Germany in 2006. That is the context in which Hamann and players like him are judged. If you imagine the English tabloid press puts pressure on their own national team, you haven't read Bild.

"Expectations are already high for the World Cup. German teams have not had the best results in Europe on a national or a club basis but anything less than the semi-finals will be a disappointment for the German people. Every time the tournament comes around, they expect us to win it and right now there are a few better teams than Germany.

"England is not too different to Germany in terms of media expectations. Even though you probably haven't achieved as much as the Germans the expectations in England are only slightly less than the ones in Germany. You go to a World Cup, people expect you to win it. Unfortunately for us they only supply one trophy."

Even reaching the World Cup final in Yokohama and losing to Brazil, the tournament's outstanding team, did not buy Rudi Völler much time. "When we came back to Frankfurt, the reception was really fantastic. But it faded and, no, I don't think we got the credit we should have. We may not have lifted the World Cup but we came closer than many teams."

Given the German reputation for doing nothing without relentless testing, the choice of both Völler and now Jürgen Klinsmann to lead the national side appears strange. Neither had managed a club before, although Hamann, who has not made Klinsmann's squads, pointed out that he was not first choice. "They tried to get four or five managers, foreigners and Germans such as Otto Rehhagel, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Guus Hiddink; all sorts of people. For whatever reason they didn't want to do it. That left Jürgen who's lived in America and been out of the mainstream game for a long time. He's strict, tougher than you would think. He's always had his own ideas and has taken a few from other sports. His attitude is that he will do it his way."

Sebastian Deisler should be a central character in Klinsmann's teams. When he first appeared in international football at the age of 19, he was known simply as Der Supertalent, until he succumbed to depression. With your every move analysed by 40,000 spectators, with your performances shredded on witless radio phone-ins, it is surprising that more footballers do not fall victim to the inner ghosts that claimed Deisler and Stan Collymore. "When you have the chance to make your hobby your profession and you get paid good money, there is always a downside," Hamann said. "You can't go into town because people know you; you can't do things unnoticed - but when you sign a contract, you know that. Nobody has to sign a contract with Liverpool or Arsenal; if you want to reach the highest level you have to do it. I haven't seen Sebastian for years but they say it is an illness, that it has nothing to do with the pressure of playing football."

Hamann reckons he has "three or four years" of this pressure left, although he doubts he will remain in the game. "I have always been interested in business and economics, still follow it and took what is the equivalent of the A-Level in Germany. Now, I study the stock market, follow everything to do with business. My father was very different, he used to work for the police and was my coach for five to six years, giving me that special treatment fathers give their sons. Now he's working with computers and software. He started 20 years ago and he always said to me: you have got to start learning about computers, they are the future. One day, I will take his advice."

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