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Author Topic: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger  (Read 1456 times)

Offline dave.woodhall

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Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« on: September 02, 2020, 10:10:15 PM »
After the deflating experience of Wembley 2000, followed by a summer of discontent where a few members of the Villa squad seemed less than gruntled by their future prospects, John Gregory moved to strengthen - it was hoped - his team for the new season.

With Ugo Ehiogu expected to be out of the door soon after rejecting the terms he had been offered the previous Spring, a replacement centre-back, Alpay Ozalan, came from Turkey, costing a fair old wedge even though the whole idea of these overseas transfer thingies was supposed to be that you could bring in players at cut-price fees. The ill-fated Luc Nilis came in on a Bosman and immediately looked a class act, despite not having had much of a break in the summer due to his efforts at Euro 2000 for Belgium. There were no prizes for spotting the ‘glamour’ signing - David Ginola was meant to help  fans forget the failure to secure the transfer of Benni Carbone, who chose Bradford over B6.

One incomer that didn’t feature on the radar was one Thomas Hitzlsperger, also on a free. Thomas never broke through to the Bayern Munich first-team (not an easy thing to achieve) but had represented Germany at Youth and U-21 level and was regarded as a promising player. He established himself in the Villa U-23 side but seemed unlikely to reach the top level in the foreseeable future, though a chance came briefly in January when Villa, who previously the same season had nearly run out of strikers (thank God that doesn’t happen anymore) now found themselves, thanks to injuries and suspensions, short of midfielders. Tommy thus got himself some bench time, and even came off it to make a cameo appearance at the end of a 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool.

In theory, there should have been even less chance of a breakthrough in the next season, as Villa strengthened each area of the team that summer. As we raced to the top of the table in October with six wins out of the first ten in what was to be Gregory’s last hurrah, there wasn’t much room for rookies to get a look-in. But at least Hitzlsperger wasn’t allowed to slowly rot away, unlike some recent  youth prospects. Along with young striker Stefan Moore he was sent to get some game time at Chesterfield, my local club.

We nipped up the road to old Saltergate (now, sadly, a housing estate) and saw him perform against Cambridge United in November 2001. It was clear that, despite only making a handful of appearances, Tommy had already become a favourite amongst the Spireites support, a good passing range and wickedly in-swinging corners and dead-balls giving the NE Derbyshire side an extra edge to their team. His loan was extended but he was recalled early, though Town fans I drank with told me they wished they could have kept him. Certainly, his return to Bodymoor wasn’t a prelude to immediate first-team activity of any sort.

By this time John Gregory’s last bubble had burst and Villa were now, as often, in the chasing pack, hoping for sixth place. Two dispiriting 3-2 defeats, one in the league, one in the cup, against Arsenal and Manchester United - both after Villa had taken a two-goal lead - seemed to weigh heavily on John and he resigned, despite his last two games bringing 2-1 wins against Derby and Charlton.

His somewhat reluctant replacement was Graham Taylor, who had returned purely as an advisor to the board, strictly on the non-playing side. Graham, ever the gent, had made it absolutely clear that he was here on the strict understanding that he was not to be seen as a potential replacement for the current boss. Still, as JG had resigned, Graham was free to accept Doug’s offer to return.

Graham inherited something of a mess. Too many players had their best years behind them and would have little, if any, sell-on value. With the collapse of ITV Digital, Championship clubs would be starved of cash for the foreseeable future, so would be unlikely to be interested in Villa’s cast-offs. Still, the job had to be done, and if one thing could sum up the Graham Taylor management skills-set, it could be his fearlessness in giving chances to young players. It didn’t take long for Hitzlsperger to catch his eye and earn a call-up to first-team training. From there, he was soon on the bench and taking his first step as a sub at Old Trafford in a 1-0 defeat. The following week, he made his first start in a home win against West Ham. Shortly after he even took his first goal, an uncharacteristic right-foot shot at Leicester in a 2-2 draw.

The following campaign saw Tommy establish himself in the midfield but the moment he was accepted as having made it was in the home derby against the Baggies. Villa had dominated the game but, at 1-1, Steve Staunton committed a silly foul to get himself sent off. Despite this, Villa still carved out far more chances with ten men but, as stoppage time beckoned, Tommy tried that left-foot cannon from fully thirty yards and a slight deflection helped take the ball past the excellent Russell Hoult for a memorable winner. If you want to get the fans onside, try banging in the winner in a local derby; it often works.

Tommy chalked up twenty-six games as Villa endured a strange season where their home form was very good but away form was awful in a season where West Ham were relegated with a total of forty-two points, happily just out of Villa’s reach.

Graham resigned, which allowed him to openly criticise the crumbling Ellis regime rather than just take the usual pay-off. The new boss was David O’Leary, formerly boss of Leeds, and didn’t he like to remind us of that fact? With a general clear-out taking place, much dead wood being shifted and only two new signings coming in as Doug pinched the pennies ever harder after the profligacy of Gregory’s last year, there were places to be fought for if the reserves and the triumphant youth side of 2002 could prove themselves.

Tommy won a regular place, but would he be good enough? For the first half of the season that was certainly a question that could be laid at the collective feet of the team. The best that could be said was that they flirted with relegation until December, when a League Cup victory at home to John Terry’s Chelsea seemed to flick a switch and the whole side took on the appearance of a confident, young side who played neat, winning football. Rather startlingly at the turn of the year, a narrow win against Portsmouth propelled Villa up to the European places, though other teams had a game or two in hand.

Not that Villa settled for this ‘fluke’. The signing of Nolberto Solano gave a bit of class out wide and the goals and wins kept coming. Peter Crouch, when called upon, found his form and scoring touch, Darius Vassell likewise, and in the engine room Tommy was beginning to establish a reputation for himself. It always helps in the search for cult status if you can knock in the occasional memorable goal; it also helps to encourage the process if you have a predilection for netting in local derbies. This wasn’t a problem for Tommy; having scored the previous year against the Albion, he further burnished his standing with vivid goals against Small Heath and another at what we now have to call the Camp Molineux.

Both were with his left foot; the first, a cannonball finish to a loose ball on the edge of the box in what could have been a 5-0 win but ended up as a 2-2 draw; the latter the opener in a 4-0 win at Wolves. This was the finish at the end of a neat move, with the angled shot showing that there was skill and placement in that big left boot as well as power. The occasional slip -up and foreseeable problems, like Mark Halsey’s refereeing ‘skills’, held things up a bit but we were still in competition for the top six going into the last game, where more lamentable officiating, including the disallowing of a goal for a foul by Olof Mellberg which was actually committed by an opposing player, proved too great an obstacle. Still, it had been a terrific recovery, the team - and Tommy - both proving their worth. Never was the tired call of “Shooooot!” more justified when he came within thirty yards of the goal.

With that fine defender Ronnie Jonnsen deemed not worthy of a contract extension and the initially injury-prone Martin Laursen brought in as his non-replacement, and Crouch allowed to leave for a derisory fee to be replaced by on-loan Carlton Cole, who faded badly after a promising start, the next season brought its problems and after a promising opening where there looked a chance that Villa might match the achievements of the previous year, after October a decline set in. A thunderous late winner from that Hitzlsperger left peg at Bolton that put Villa into the top five was like a last high before things fell away.

It became apparent that Tommy’s contract was due to expire at the end of the season. We’d quite gotten used to Tommy with his vivid winners and Brummie-German accent (now sadly gone) that he had picked up over five years and many would have wanted him to re-sign. Alas, he had decided that returning to Germany would be the best move for him if he was to challenge for a place in the national side, and he made clear his motives to the fans before he went, a rare sign of courtesy in the modern game.

Strangely, O’Leary continued to pick him for the first-team, despite knowing the player would not be returning after the summer. But he didn’t pick him for the last game, at Anfield, despite an appearance there would mean completing a round century of games for Villa. His family made a special trip to see him play in claret and blue for the last time, but he wasn’t even on the bench.

Tommy put this disappointment behind him and headed off to Stuttgart. Somehow you expected this unassuming player to get on and how he did! Quickly winning a place in his new team, in his second season he was a key player as Stuttgart won the Bundesliga and he also achieved his main goal of reaching the national team, where he was to make over fifty appearances, while rattling in a half-dozen goals.

He came back to England to play out a few games for Everton and West Ham and then retired. That would have been it for most players, but Tommy just carried on climbing. In 2014, he came out as the most high-profile gay footballer of his time, something which, sadly, is still regarded as being of major significance. Just last year, he was named as the Sporting Director of Stuttgart and if honesty and integrity are requirements for the role, he will no doubt be a storming success again. He even tweeted a message of support after the recent vital win against Arsenal to show he’s still got that claret & blue bug. He still likes us and we, I’m sure, would return the compliment.

Not bad for a reject who wasn’t good enough for Bayern Munich, hey? Perhaps we should be charged with daylight robbery - and no, I’m not talking about 1982, either.

Dave Collett

Offline hilts_coolerking

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #1 on: September 02, 2020, 10:15:09 PM »
Excellent piece about a top bloke.

Offline WilliamStanding

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #2 on: September 02, 2020, 10:18:33 PM »
What a great article.

I worked with a colleague who went to Birmingham university with his then brummie girlfriend.

Loved his brummie twang accent and will always remember that deflected screamer shut those Smethwick chunts up.

The crowd shooooot never had such a productive outcome in the history of the PL, show me a better left peg other than Stans.

Offline Legion

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #3 on: September 02, 2020, 10:26:42 PM »

Offline Ian.

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #4 on: September 02, 2020, 10:39:15 PM »
Really enjoyed that, great article.

Offline robbo1874

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #5 on: September 03, 2020, 12:28:38 AM »
Loved Tommy Hitzlsperger- cracking attitude and a sweet left foot. Shooooot!

Offline algy

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #6 on: September 03, 2020, 07:17:41 AM »
Great piece about a player I absolutely loved at Villa.

Online JD

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #7 on: September 03, 2020, 09:06:31 AM »
Fantastic article about a fantastic man.   

Offline West Derby Villan

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #8 on: September 03, 2020, 09:18:07 AM »
Great article about a very good player

Offline Risso

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #9 on: September 03, 2020, 09:57:26 AM »
I was sat in the away end at Bolton with my nephew when he hit that last minute screamer to win the game, absolute belter that was.  He comes across as a terrific guy, and he retains a massive findness for Villa.  Shame his all round game wasn't as good as his shooting, or he could have been a legend.

Offline SheffieldVillain

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #10 on: September 03, 2020, 10:14:47 AM »
It's strange isn't it, how some players even if not here for a really long spell or a massively high profile player, just click with us a club and as fans? Tommy Hitz just seemed to get us. Good player and as JD and Risso said, comes across as a top bloke.

Offline Mossie Hennebry

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #11 on: September 04, 2020, 01:11:56 AM »
It's strange isn't it, how some players even if not here for a really long spell or a massively high profile player, just click with us a club and as fans? Tommy Hitz just seemed to get us. Good player and as JD and Risso said, comes across as a top bloke.
For me, this attitude is currently evident in one John McGinn.

Offline Damo70

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #12 on: September 04, 2020, 10:41:13 AM »
I didn't realise he had won so many German caps.

Offline Louzie0

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #13 on: September 05, 2020, 10:43:44 AM »
Excellent article.  He was such an exciting player to watch. There was always something likely to happen when he got the ball and ’shooot’ was building up in the crowd.
What a great career he’s had and continues to enjoy at Stuttgart.

Offline Rudy65

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Re: Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Thomas Hitzlsperger
« Reply #14 on: September 05, 2020, 11:03:24 AM »
I remember walking out of the Trinity Rd stand with my then 6 year old son And just managed to see Tommy’s winner against the Baggies. Cue pandemonium

Ditto the goal in 2004 against Blose when I was in the Holte although the silence walking out after the game, due to their late equaliser, is my abiding memory of that game


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