Brits abroad - Mark McGhee

Continuing our Brits abroad series in which we speak to players and coaches to get the lowdown on their time overseas, Adam Bate talks to former Aberdeen and Newcastle forward Mark McGhee about his time at Hamburg.

Former Aberdeen and Newcastle forward Mark McGhee discusses his experiences at Hamburg.

Scotland international forward Mark McGhee was part of Sir Alex Ferguson's famous Aberdeen team that won the European Cup Winners' Cup and the UEFA Super Cup in the 1980s. His success with the Dons earned him a glamour move to recent European champions Hamburg in 1985. Adam Bate caught up with McGhee to find out how things went in Germany.
So how did the move to Hamburg come about? You'd played and scored against them in the UEFA Super Cup hadn't you - was that the catalyst?
Yeah, we'd also played them in the UEFA Cup as well. We'd been in Europe for those three or four years and we'd played a lot of rounds. In the year they'd won the European Cup against Juventus, Aberdeen had won the Cup Winners' Cup so we were two of the dominant teams in Europe at that time. What really happened was that a couple of other German clubs had approached me already and the possibility of going to Europe became more and more exciting. I had interest from Italy too. And the overriding thing that swung me in Hamburg's direction, I have to say, was that I got a call telling me that Gunter Netzer (ex-Real Madrid player and World Cup winner with Germany, who was then Hamburg general manager) was flying in on a private jet to Aberdeen and coming to my house to persuade me to go to Hamburg. That did it for me. Gunter Netzer was having a sandwich in my village. It was unbelievable!
Was it a difficult decision to leave Aberdeen?
No, I think everyone felt it was changing. They also felt there was an inevitability about Alec (Sir Alex Ferguson) leaving. I think we felt that if he wasn't going to go then, then he was going to go a year later which he basically did. We certainly didn't think there was any chance he was going to be there much longer. At that time, perhaps our thoughts had him leaning towards Rangers rather than go to Manchester United but we were right in the end. As the team started to break up, I wanted to take advantage of the success that we'd had because Aberdeen wasn't a place where any of us were going to benefit other than while Ferguson was there winning trophies.
As well as Netzer, you had Ernst Happel as your coach too - a man who had led both Feyenoord and Hamburg to European Cup triumph. How was that experience?
Yeah the set-up was a typical continental one with Ernst Happel as the coach and Gunter Netzer as the general manager. Happel was world-renowned as a coach of the Dutch national team (at the 1978 World Cup) and a hero in Austria where they named the national stadium after him. He was an old man and a cantankerous sort of type. He was more interested in the games than the preparations in training although he was always there. He was fairly grumpy and he didn't have a lot of patience for the likes of myself who arrived without any German whatsoever. He always insisted on speaking to me through a translator. Even when I could speak German he was still speaking through her! He was fairly set in his ways but he was a fantastic coach and when it came to the games he had it sussed.
And Hamburg had some great players and some strong characters in the likes of Ditmar Jakobs, Felix Magath and Manfred Kaltz. What was it like walking into that dressing room?
It was difficult on a personal level at first as there wasn't a lot of English [spoken] in the dressing room. There were only two guys - Erik Soler who was a Norwegian and Gerard Plessers who was a Belgian - who really spoke English. But yeah there were plenty of characters there.
What differences were there on the training ground - you often hear about how things were more advanced on the continent but on the other hand you'd been working under Ferguson...
The actual routines and programmes that we would do were fairly similar. Football is football. But what was different was the regime. For instance, we would train twice a day at Aberdeen a lot of the time during pre-season. But at Hamburg it went to another level for 17 days. We trained twice a day but most days we were training three times - it was really intensive. During the season we mostly trained twice a day with sessions early in the morning and late in the afternoon. As much as I could understand it, I found it physically challenging because a big part of my routine was sleeping. So I was having to go home to try and get a sleep in between sessions which I found a little bit different. But you have to adapt.
What about life off the field? Did you enjoy the city of Hamburg?
I absolutely loved it. We lived on the outskirts and the locals were really hospitable, friendly people. That really helped us locally find our way around. My son was only three at the time and he was speaking German so we were really rocking and rolling. The city itself was really good. People like Manny Kaltz were prepared to take the time to show you around so it was great. It's just a fantastic city.
Hamburg finished fifth in the Bundesliga that season and went out of the UEFA Cup at the last 16 stage. What are your memories of that year on the field?
I felt that right through the European campaign up until when we lost to Inter Milan, my own performance was improving steadily. I was getting used to it, I was getting fitter and I was getting better. We beat Southampton that year but went out to Inter on away goals. They were a good team with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Liam Brady. I then came back after the break in January and struggled with my hernia. I battle on trying to play with it, having injections and all that sort of thing. Up to that point in my life I'd never been injured in my whole time at Aberdeen. Then I got a bad ankle injury the day before we played Bayern Munich and I insisted on playing with heavy strapping around it. We won 1-0 and I scored the goal but I had to come off. But then I didn't play again until the following season. By the time I made my comeback, things had changed a little bit for me and for the club. Celtic came in for me and I decided to come back home.
It wasn't the end of your foreign adventures though as there was a brief move to Sweden later in your career. What was the story there?
That was when I was finishing at Newcastle. I had a double-hip operation towards the end of the season at Newcastle. I was still prepared to carry on. I was 34 and felt as though I needed games so I went to Sweden but while I was out there I got offered the opportunity to take the Reading job. So after six or seven weeks in Sweden I came back, got the Reading job and have never been back since.
Do you think those experiences abroad influenced your approach to management?
Any manager is the sum of the experiences he's had under every manager he's worked with, whether it's Fergie or Billy McNeill (at Celtic) or whoever. And certainly the European experiences were influential in my style. Regards to the way players come or go from clubs, regards to the way players are treated when they are injured and regards to training twice a day when appropriate. I think I definitely got that from Hamburg.
So you would recommend the experience?
Oh absolutely. I think language is a big thing. You've got to be prepared to try and learn the language and really make yourself a part of it. My experience in Germany was brilliant.

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