Mark ElliottComment

THE RUDE AWAKENING OF HARRY KEWELL

Mark ElliottComment

Past it? Lacking commitment? Surely not......

When Harry Kewell picked up possession midway inside the Brisbane half an old instinct took over. From the right touchline he cut inside, evading two defenders and arrived at the edge of the penalty area. Taking the shot on with his favoured left foot Kewell found the bottom corner and gave his side the lead.

The quality of the goal and the Australian’s Yellow and Blue jersey invoked memories of an old incarnation of Leeds United, rampaging through Europe with their vibrant young, Antipodean winger forging a reputation as a potential world star.

Unfortunately, this Harry Kewell is 33 and a veteran player who never quite fulfilled all that promise and hype. This was his first goal from open play for Melbourne Victory after a difficult start to life back at home in the A League.

Kewell returned to Australia in August in a deal his new chairman Anthony Di Pietro labelled “the biggest player signing in the history of Australian sport".  His arrival was designed to do for the Victory and the A League what David Beckham’s had done for Los Angeles Galaxy and MLS. Kewell is the pre-eminent superstar of Australian football after a long career which also took in spells at Liverpool and Galatasaray and saw him collect Champions League and FA Cup winner’s medals.

Like Beckham, he’s also undeniably handsome and something of a marketing man’s dream. His is a carefully cultivated image brought in to sell the six year old league to the wider public alongside his glamorous soap actress wife and young family. Kewell’s moody, stubbly face looks down from a number of billboards in Melbourne as his sponsors cash in on his celebrity and the buzz generated by his return.

His arrival certainly seems to be helping the league raise its profile. A league attendances have been falling in recent years and most of the 10 clubs are running at a loss. Last season’s league average of just 8,459 was more than 4,000 short of the record set in 2007/8.

Pre-Harry, the Australian public seemed to be losing interest in domestic football but this season’s average looks set to break the 11,000 barrier, boosted by the Victory’s average home gate which currently stands at an impressive 23,111 (up from 15,243 in 2010/11).

On the opening day of the season Kewell’s Victory faced Sydney FC, a long standing rival and the team boasting the year’s other famous returnee in former Blackburn and PSV winger Brett Emerton. More than 40,000 fans saw the game at the Etihad Stadium which usually stages big games in the AFL. That contributed to a record breaking opening weekend which saw almost 80,000 supporters watch games throughout the country.

In addition to enticing new or lapsed fans back into the stadiums the move has improved the league’s media coverage significantly. Reports on Kewell and the Victory are a larger and more regular fixture in the sports pages of some of country’s biggest newspapers (while the celebrity gossip magazines are having a field day too).

But while the move has had the desired effect off the pitch, results on the field have so far failed to live up to expectations.

The Victory won the A League in 2009 and finished second in 2010. Last season they finished a disappointing 5th and Kewell’s arrival has done little to slow the decline. They currently sit 6th in the table, a point clear of Newcastle in 9th and just five off the bottom. Central Coast Mariners are 15 points ahead at the top with just 16 games played.

Recently the club sacked the coach Mehmet Durakovic and replaced him with the former Ipswich midfielder Jim Magilton. The Northern Irishman is yet to take charge of his first game but caretaker boss Kevin Muscat did coax an improved performance from the team in a 2-1 win over the bottom club Newcastle Jets last week.

Kewell’s own performance was an improved one too and not before time. As the team has suffered he has too, failing to regularly play to the standard expected of a player who should still have enough in the tank to excel in a league of this standard.

The winger has always been frustratingly inconsistent, a fact not helped by his legendary susceptibility and sensitivity to injuries. At the moment though he’s fully fit and admits that he may have underestimated the quality of the football he’s now involved in.

“It's been difficult. The league is not as easy as everyone made it out to be.

"It's a tough league. It's fast, it's furious, it's strong, it's quick, so it's for me to adapt to that. This has probably been a big learning curve for me coming from Europe back home to play in the league.

“I've had a rude awakening,” Kewell told the Herald Sun.

So far the player brought in to dominate the league has managed a meagre return of two goals, including one from the penalty spot. His generally lacklustre play has already led to some speculation that he may go down as another high profile flop who came to the league several years too late.

On New Year’s Eve, Michael Lynch of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote:

It is palpably obvious that Kewell's pace has gone, and that has affected his impact when played up front, as he has been in recent games.

He simply does not appear to be fast enough to get to passes played into the channels or outsprint an opponent to a loose ball, nor does he seem able to work defensively, track back and then get forward quickly when a counter-attack is on.”

The Victory simply have to persist with Kewell. Dropping him is not an option when many of the fans who come out too watch them come to see Harry. Equally though, the crowds will want to see a good quality product on the field if they’re going to come out and watch A League football on a regular basis.

Fans of the A League have already suffered the presence of aged stars like Romario and Dwight Yorke who came to the league on a paid holiday while an out of shape Robbie Fowler cut an embarrassing figure in Perth last year.

Australians may be fairly new to high level domestic football but they do know their sport and they can tell when a player is past it. Kewell needs to show them something more than fleeting glimpses of his best, match-winning form.

It’s very much in his interest to prove the doubters wrong and keep the public engaged. The creative terms of his Victory contract mean that Kewell receives a comparatively low basic salary (boosted by a $500,000 per year payment from the Football Federation of Australia) but a high percentage of any revenues generated by his presence at the club. The more spectators he attracts and the more shirts he sells the more money he earns.

The second half of the season could be crucial for the future of the A League and a lot rests on their high profile signing. Revenues must increase if all ten clubs are to remain viable and after a shaky start it’s time for the league to grow.

It could be equally important for the personal reputation of Harry Kewell. His image in Europe was tarnished by his disappointing spell at Liverpool where he was often accused of lacking commitment. A repeat of that would jeapordise his legacy in his homeland where for now he’s still revered as an Australian sporting hero.

Mark can be found on Twitter @markleeelliott.

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