West Ham United cult hero Sébastien Schemmel was back in east London for the first time in years for Sunday’s 3-1 Premier League win over Leeds United.
The French defender-turned-restauranteur was invited to London Stadium by the Supporters’ Club and joined by his two children for a post-match walk on the pitch alongside his present-day contemporaries.
Looking fit at the age of 47, Schemmel became arguably the unlikeliest Hammer of the Year in 2001/02, when he impressed in a star-studded side that included Paolo Di Canio, Joe Cole, Trevor Sinclair, Frédéric Kanouté and Jermain Defoe.
“It's very special for me to be back here, because 21 years ago I was here and received the trophy for Player of the Year, so for me that was big dreams and it's a special day for me today too," he told West Ham TV, before predicting a 3-1 victory for the Irons over ACF Fiorentina in the upcoming UEFA Europa Conference League final.
"It was strange to sign in England because the first thing was for me to stay in Metz. I signed for West Ham and now I never forget what happens to West Ham! The first year was amazing, the people, the fans, Upton Park, so I want to thank everybody for this two years.
"I think this was the best team I had ever seen in my life - Joe Cole, Paolo Di Canio, Michael Carrick, Tomas Repka - it was a very fantastic team and it's a very good memory when I talk about that. I think Joe and Paolo were much, much better, but I gave my all on the pitch and I think for that the fans voted for me, so I want to say thank you, even 21 years later!"
The floppy-haired full-back had spent the first eight years of his professional career with hometown club Nancy, winning promotion from Ligue 2 in 1998, and Metz, for whom he played against West Ham in the 1999 UEFA Intertoto Cup final.
At that time, Schemmel impressed scout Glenn Roeder – then working on manager Harry Redknapp’s backroom staff – and, after the player’s relationship with Metz soured during the 2000/01 season, the Hammers pounced, signing the player on loan.
“Glenn thought Schemmel was outstanding, one of the best attacking right-backs he’d seen for a long time,” Redknapp said later.
The 25-year-old debuted on 22 January 2001, in a 1-1 Premier League draw at Charlton Athletic. In his second appearance, six days later, he helped the Hammers keep a clean sheet in the historic ‘Let’s all do the Barthez!’ 1-0 FA Cup fourth-round win over Manchester United at Old Trafford.
With the likes of Gary Charles, Rigobert Song and even captain Steve Lomas failing to nail down the right-back position during the opening half of the campaign, Schemmel’s place in the starting XI was assured.
Summer 2001 saw Redknapp’s reign end, with Roeder replacing him in the dugout. Unsurprisingly, the new manager made Schemmel’s loan move permanent for what turned out to be a bargain fee of just £765,000.
The 2001/02 season was Schemmel’s finest in a Claret and Blue shirt, with the previously unheralded, virtually unknown Frenchman producing a series of buccaneering displays in Claret and Blue.
The flying full-back started all but three of West Ham’s 38 Premier League matches, helping the Hammers to a seventh-place finish and scoring what turned out to be his only goal for the Club in the Boxing Day thrashing of Derby County at the Boleyn Ground.
While many of his teammates caught the eye, it was Schemmel who edged out Joe Cole to win the ultimate accolade of the Boleyn Ground faithful, becoming just the fourth overseas player to be voted Hammer of the Year.
Twenty-one years on, he was back in east London to see Declan Rice win the award for the third time, and to speak to West Ham TV!