Blast from the Past No.69: Sebastien Schemmel

Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…

The biblical tale of Samson, the ancient Israelite judge who lost his phenomenal strength when his long, luscious hair was cut off, is very famous.

The tale of Sebastien Schemmel, the former West Ham right-back who lost his phenomenal strength when his long, luscious hair was cut off, is less famous.

But no less dramatic.

The year of the Frenchman’s ill-fated trip to the barbers was 2002, and thereafter his existence would be divided into two distinct, contrasting epochs – BC (Before the Chop) and AC (After the Chop).

Our story begins in the year 3 BC (aka 1999), when a hirsute Schemmel caught the eye of Glenn Roeder.

In time, Roeder would become the most powerful man in all of West Ham, but back in 3 BC he was just a humble club scout, sent to France to check out the Hammers’ upcoming Intertoto Cup opponents Metz.

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“Glenn thought Schemmel was outstanding, one of the best attacking right-backs he’d seen for a long time,” Irons manager Harry Redknapp said later.

The Hammers did not sign the player at this juncture. Instead, they waited for the right moment, which duly arrived 18 months later when Schemmel had a disagreement with the Metz hierarchy that prompted the French club’s president to label him “phenomenally unstable”.

Redknapp smelt a bargain in the offing, and brought the 25-year-old defender to Upton Park on loan in January 2001.

A week later, Schemmel was starring in the West Ham side that sealed a momentous 1-0 triumph at Manchester United. Glenn Roeder was right: the boy could play.

Phenomenal stability

“He was the first proper right-back West Ham had had for what seemed like forever, so even just by doing the basics well – tackling, running, crossing – he seemed like a novelty,” Hammers fan Ray Warren told Yahoo Sport.

Tackling, running and crossing were very much Schemmel’s bag. Despite not appearing to be blessed with an excess of technical ability, he was extremely fond of rampaging forward to join the attack, often with success.

Redknapp was sacked at the end of the season to be replaced by Roeder, who wasted little time in making Schemmel’s loan deal a permanent one.

West Ham United’s Sebastian Schemmel celebrates his team’s win against Fulham in April 2002

The following campaign was a strange one for the club, as Roeder initially struggled – suffering successive 5-0 and 7-1 defeats at Everton and Blackburn – before staging an unexpected recovery and guiding the Hammers to seventh place.

Amid this erratic form, Schemmel was a model of consistency and lion-hearted determination. A marauding, industrious and, above all, hairy presence in the West Ham defence, he beat off competition from the likes of Paolo di Canio, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick to be crowned the club’s Player of the Year in a landslide victory.

A mere 18 months after being deemed “phenomenally unstable”, Schemmel had added phenomenal stability to the right side of Roeder’s back four.

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As he acclaimed the Hammers fans in an end-of-season lap of honour at the Boleyn, his wild mane of straggly brown locks swayed to and fro in the east London air.

But then would come the moment that changed the course of history. (Schemmel’s history, at least.)

THE CHOP.

Little is known about Schemmel’s activities during the summer of 2002. All we can say for certain is that, at some point during the close season following his Hammer of the Year triumph, he had a haircut.

When he returned for pre-season training, he looked like a different man. Or, more accurately, the same man, but with much shorter hair.

Fall from grace

Hammers fans were taken aback, but they accepted Schemmel’s choice. A man’s got a right to cut his hair if he wants to. Plus, the new look was actually rather dashing, whereas the previous cut had, if we’re being honest, looked a bit stupid.

The problem was that Schemmel didn’t just look different; he played different too.

A dismal display in a 4-0 opening day defeat to Newcastle was the shape of things to come, as all the characteristics that had endeared Schemmel to the fans the previous season seemed to be replaced by the exact opposite ones.

Determination became apathy. Defensive solidity turned to defensive naivety. Incisive crossing became wayward crossing. Long hair became short hair.

With no other explanation forthcoming, it was this latter change that many fans held – and continue to hold – responsible for Schemmel’s drastic fall from grace.

“He cut his hair and his powers disappeared,” declared one on the Westhamonline forum.

“He got too big for his boots and stopped trying,” was another suggestion.

There is an alternative theory, however, that the reason Schemmel became rubbish was simply because he had always been rubbish.

“Even when he was good it appeared to me he was chancing it. I remember watching one match where he bombed it down the right, then crossed it into the box without looking up to realise that none of our strikers had made it in to the final third with him,” said one supporter.

“It was all about expectations. Nobody expected anything with Schemmel so his average, if honest, hard work was appreciated,” suggested another Hammer.

Almost overnight, Schemmel was transformed from West Ham’s best player into their worst. Roeder, the man who had discovered Schemmel and nurtured him from his Premiership birth, persisted with him for the first half of the season, based mainly on sentiment.

But by December, the Hammers were in the relegation zone and Schemmel’s well of goodwill had run dry. He was replaced by the teenage Glen Johnson for the remainder of the season.

“The sense I got was that Schemmel literally couldn’t take any instruction and just bombed forward all the time whatever the situation,” opined one West Ham fan.

“He was bang average in the first year and even worse the second. It’s laughable how ever got near Player of the Year,” said another (who probably voted for him).

‘I could smell old meat’

As West Ham went down to the Championship, Redknapp – now manager of Portmsouth – smelt another bargain in the offing.

That summer he brought his former player to Fratton Park, but the year was 1 AC, and nothing would be the same again. Pompey got the short-haired version of Schemmel (i.e. very bad at football) and he was released after 18 months and 12 matches.

When he returned to France, he was the half the footballer he’d been when he left. After playing eight unenjoyable games for Le Havre, Schemmel retired at the shockingly young age of 29. He wasn’t even injured.

Rumours abound about Schemmel’s private life, with drinking, gambling and womanising all variously cited as causes for his untimely demise. But to anyone who watched him in the years BC, and then in the years AC, it’s pretty clear it was all because of that haircut.

Nowadays, Schemmel makes his living running a restaurant in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, lovingly named ‘Upton Park’ in tribute to his Premier League heyday.

“Mixed” would be the most generous assessment of its 15 reviews on Trip Advisor, which earn it a disappointing two-star rating overall.

Despite one glowing endorsement from a visiting West Ham supporter who describes the burgers as “absolutely excellent”, a fellow customer complains, “I ordered penne bolognese and when it arrived I could smell old meat, like when you open a pack of mince meat!”

Another underwhelmed punter concludes, “Overall: not bad, but not quite good.” A slightly cryptic summary, but also an unwittingly apt review for Schemmel’s whole football career.

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