The Big Interview: Hitzlsperger - The day O'Leary told me not to shoot!
Thomas Hitzlsperger admits his blockbuster goals against the likes of West Brom, Blues, Portsmouth and Bolton were "the moments I lived for" - even if one former manager told him not to shoooooooooot!
German Hitzlsperger possessed a strike like an express train and smashed home several epic bullets during his five-year spell in claret and blue.
This, after all, was the man fans nicknamed 'Der Hammer' a monikor he says is still with him today.
But, interestingly, he has revealed that a heart-to-heart with David O'Leary in January 2004 saw the manager inform the midfielder that he was shooting too much and not passing enough.
He answered the gaffer's plea and immediately returned to a regular spot in the side, helping Villa secure a sixth place finish in the Premier League after somewhat of a shaky start.
Despite this slight modification in his game, Hitzlsperger says he loves that supporters still remember him for his chartbusting left-foot clout.
"I have always said it was a really special time for me at Villa. I had a wonderful time.
"It was difficult in the beginning because I was very young and in a new country. I had to adapt to the culture and make new friends.
"But Villa as a club were fantastic. They helped me a great deal and made it far easier for me to settle in.
"Once I got into the first team, life in claret and blue was just fantastic. I have such fond memories of the people there - the players and the staff - and the fans. It was special.
"The fans coined that phrase 'Der Hammer'. So many people still call me 'Der Hammer' now. The fans and the players at Villa used to call me it and it just stuck. It's great.
"It all started at Villa. I don't know who came up with it - the person who first used it - but I'd like to thank him or her now.
"The fans were just great. The support was incredible. It makes a huge difference in football when the fans like you. I always had the impression that the supporters liked me.
"They were so friendly and welcoming when I came on to the pitch and when I played. I felt that support. It was very, very good.
"That was one of the big reasons why I look back so fondly - the fans.
"People remember my shot, of course. I practiced a lot when I was younger.But it was a bit of talent aswell.
"I did notice in my early years that I could hit the ball harder than a lot of the other lads.
"I kept practicing and it worked well for me.That's what people remember me for - my shot. That's cool. That's good. It's my trademark I suppose.
"I certainly remember the supporters screaming 'Shoot' whenever I got the ball. How can I forget that?
"It worked against me a bit when David O'Leary was in charge.
"I had a few games at the start of the 2003-04 season where I didn't start, I was on the bench and I was really disappointed. I thought 'I have to change something to get into the team.' I certainly wasn't satisfied being a squad player, I wanted to play week-in and week-out.
"I talked to him and asked him about what he wanted, what he wanted me to change about my game.
"We had a few conversations during the season and I managed to get a spot back. That was a good feeling. I realised that term that things wouldn't always be on an upward path for me.
"I thought 'we have a new manager, he's not happy with me' and it took me a few months to adapt. I finally got my place back. That was very rewarding.
"He was aware that the fans always shouted 'Shoot' and his opinion was that this affected me.
"He said 'don't do that, don't follow that advice because sometimes it's better to pass.'
"I tried to tell him that I wasn't doing it all the time. I said that whenever I get a good position I will shoot because that's my strength.
"He told me to keep my head up and make more passes and not always to go for the shot every time."
In spite of this, Hitzlsperger will always be remember for his almighty wallops, which left goalkeepers like Jussi Jaaskelainen, Maik Taylor and Russell Hoult stranded.
And they hold a special place in his heart.
"I have to say the derby goals against West Brom and Birmingham City stand out above the others. The one against the Baggies was very important. It was a last minute winner and I remember it like it was yesterday.
"You had fans jumping around everywhere, leaping out of their seats and screaming with joy. The noise when I scored that one was truly incredible.
"But the one against Birmingham City was amazing. Scoring in that derby match is a phenomenal feeling. It was in front of the Holte End - it was a dream come true!
"We didn't win the game. But my goal put us 2-0 up so I was feeling on top of the world at that moment. It was incredible.
"Then there were my goals against Bolton and Portsmouth. They were great goals but the key is that they were winning goals! That adds a lot.
"The Portsmouth one was goal of the season if I remember right. Bolton was late in the game and Portsmouth too. I took both well technically. They weren't easy. They sat up nicely for me.
"You go home and watch them again on Match of the Day in the evening. Those are the moments you live for in football."
The delight garnered from seeing those nestle beautifully in the net was a million miles away from the loneliness he felt in his early months at Villa, having joined the club in August 2000 from Bayern Munich on a free transfer.
"It all started when I went to the U17 World Cup with Germany in New Zealand. I got a trial for Villa after that and because I didn't have a contract with Bayern Munich at the time, I thought 'yeah.' I fancied my chances.
"I trained with the reserves and then the first team. The coaches were impressed and they offered me a contract.
"They showed real interest. They showed they really wanted me. Other clubs who found out I was thinking about moving weren't as clear. Villa said 'we want you eventually for our first team.'
"I thought it was the right move and I could have a good career there. I was right!
"It was hard at the beginning but it made me stronger. I was proud that I didn't just throw in the towel and say 'it's not going to work out, I'm going home.'
"It was good to stay there and fight my way through.
"When I first signed, I didn't know what to expect. I wanted to get into the first team, of course and be a good professional footballer.
"It was new for me because I was playing abroad. What happened in those years was a path that I could never have expected. It was so special.
"Coming from Germany to England I had to work very hard. But it was very rewarding. And the fans were special. They made life easy for me."
Hitzlsperger was left wondering whether he would ever break through after meandering along in the reserves under John Gregory.
But the arrival of Graham Taylor changed everything.
Just before he was appointed boss for a second time, Taylor watched Hitzlsperger excel against Blackburn Rovers reserves.
Taylor was impressed and the rest is history as Hitzlsperger made his first-team debut at Old Trafford against a Man Utd team featuring Juan Veron, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane and David Beckham followed up by a home start in a 2-1 win over West Ham.
"Graham changed everything. He changed my career.
"He watched me in the reserves before he was appointed and he had confidence in my abilities and I played at Man Utd soon after. I came on. I thought 'this is good' I was excited.
"I had my home debut in a 2-1 win over West Ham the following week and it just went on from there. I have to thank Graham for giving me your debut.
"When he told me to warm-up at Man Utd, I wasn't convinced I would be coming on. I had warmed up before with John Gregory and never gone on.
"He called me back and said 'you're going on.' I thought 'wow, this is going to be interesting.'
"I was so, so nervous when he was giving me instructions before I went on. But when I came on, all that pressure fell off me.
"I just thought 'come on Thomas, do something, run about, get involved, impress.' I had a couple of shots on goal and did my best. I was happy and he must have been too because he gave me a start the next week.
"The following season - 2002-03 - was my first full campaign. I had several starts and came off the bench quite a bit too. It was a great experience.
"It wasn't the best season but the experience I gained - being part of a Premier League squad at a huge club like Villa - that was unbelievable. It gave me plenty of confidence.
"I had high expectations. I wanted to get better and better. That was my mindset throughout that season and then in the following seasons too."
Hitzlsperger then gave his all for two terms under O'Leary before Stuttgart came calling, offering him an opportunity he couldn't turn down.
"My contract was up at the end of the season. I had a feeling that I wanted to go back to Germany. I was German but had never played in the Bundesliga.
"I wanted to try that out. Stuttgart were keen. So I decided to move.
"But it wasn't easy, I have to tell you. After five years at Villa, I had made a lot of friends and enjoyed life at the club immensely. It wasn't a decision I took lightly. But it paid off because it was a successful spell at Stuttgart."
Hitzlsperger left Villa with his heart full of great memories, moments that will live with him forever.
But he admits that results against Birmingham City left him cold - although he enjoyed subsequent victories over the old enemy, including the 3-1 Gary Cahill special and the Gabby Agbonlahor-inspired 5-1.
"I watched a couple of games after I left and I was really, really happy. When you talk about regrets, the only one I have is not having beaten Birmingham City.
"We went close! I scored that goal at Villa Park but Stern John scored right at the end to spoil the party. I was so gutted.
"When I left and saw them beat Birmingham City a couple of times. I was so happy. It was a great feeling.
"I remember thinking when I was there 'we can't have such a bad record!' But then Gary scored that overhead kick. And Gabby scored in a wonderful 5-1 victory."
Hitzlsperger doesn't just get his claret and blue fix from watching derby games, though.
He admits he was glued to the set as the team stayed up in style last time out under boss Paul Lambert.
Hitzlsperger was relieved and sees bright times ahead now.
"I have to say it was massive Villa stayed up. There were times when I was worried and it didn't look good.
"But the fact they have stayed up means those players know what it takes now to play in the Premier League, what the demands are.
"They have the quality and the fight in my opinion.
"Going-forward they are fantastic with that front three.
"We drew 3-3 at Goodison Park last season and you could tell how good they were going forward.
"I think everyone at Villa will have learnt a lot from last season and take that into the new campaign. There's a good future there. There's good talent. They will build. Things are looking good."
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