‘IF PEOPLE GIVE ME STICK, THEN I’LL GIVE IT BACK’
Hin 1995. ARRY Kewell barks out a laugh when I ask if football has changed much since he arrived in the UK as a 16-year-old kid
“Just a bit, mate,” says the Aussie, who left his family behind in Sydney to forge a career that would eventually yield 274 Premier League appearances, 56 international caps and a Champions League crown with Liverpool.
“I made my debut for Leeds at 17. Back then, I think George Graham just sent us to the park in pre-season and told us to run. If you dropped out first, that was it – you got the sack!
“And look around you. We’re all walking around staring at smartphones. We’re all communicating with friends and family online. People speak to real, live people a lot less.
“In those days, it was only the really rich guys who had phones. I had to wait. For me, it was walking down to the telephone booth, throwing some money in and calling home that way.”
Kewell, now 38, reflects on his playing days with justifiable affection.
As one of David O’Leary’s vaunted ‘babies’, alongside Jonathan Woodgate and Alan Smith, Kewell won the PFA Young Player of the Year award in 2000 and a year later helped Leeds to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
European glory at Liverpool was followed by an FA Cup win in 2006, before successful spells in Turkey, Qatar and Australia.
Few who watched Kewell ever questioned his talent: quick and powerful with a crackerjack left foot.
In 1999, Leeds reportedly rebuffed a £25m offer from Inter Milan for their young starlet. At the time, only one player – Christian Vieri – had cost more.
Yet fewer still had Kewell pegged as management material.
During four lacklustre years at Anfield, the winger’s attitude and fitness were regularly questioned.
German superstar Michael Ballack was one of several pundits who publicly suggested Kewell was coasting, grown fat on wealth and celebrity. In reality, debilitating injuries increasingly robbed Kewell of the ability to survive a frenetic 50-game season.
It wasn’t until a move to Galatasaray in 2008 that he was – in his own words – “reborn”, scoring 22 goals in 63 games.
“Did I have bad games? Yeah, everybody does,” he says. “I didn’t need anybody else to tell me that. But I played through injuries. And when I played, I was full on. I was ultra-professional.
“My skin is that thick from the stick I took, but I never let it affect me. My first coach always told me ‘Never believe what people write about you. Never take anything to heart. The only person you have to impress is your manager’. “And it’s true, isn’t it? As a player, if the manager is happy with the way you’re playing, you’re all good. I played more than 400 games for some of the best managers in the world, so I must have been doing something right.” Kewell reels off the names of those coaching luminaries. “Guus Hiddink with Australia, Rafa Benitez and Gerard Houllier at Liverpool, George Graham at Leeds. Terry Venables was an excellent man-manager. “But my favourite was probably Frank Rijkaard at Galatasaray. He’d come from Barcelona and the way he saw football was amazing. It was all about expressing yourself and the enjoyment.
“The way he conducted himself, on and off the park, was excellent. The way he communicated with players was perfect. I loved my time there.”
Yet Kewell insists he will not be a mere clone of the Dutch maestro, or any other manager for that matter.
“My playing style will be my own, one hundred per cent,” he adds. “I’m not here to replicate anyone.
“I’m not one of these guys who took notes during training sessions. And I’m not going to say ‘Well, George Graham did this, so I’m going to copy’.
“There are a lot of things out there that people say and do, but you’ve got to think ‘What’s best for me? What do I want?’ Yeah, I’m new to management, but I’m prepared to throw my ideas up against anybody else’s.”
Kewell will encourage his Crawley players to challenge his ideas, to seek clarification. He wants them to think, not just to play.
“Everyone talks about team spirit and togetherness,” he adds. “But what forges team spirit? Getting wins at the weekend. How do you get wins? By training your players. By making them better.
“There will be times when you are dominated and you’re going to lose. But, as long as my players feel confident and can see what they’re doing, that’s what’ll make them happy.
“Players just want to improve. They
don’t want to sit there and go through the motions. And, if you can help them do that, they’ll want to help you.”
He also sees little value in passing on his own experiences as a young player.
“Football evolves,” says Kewell. “Society evolves. Everything changes. When I grew up, players were very different. Our interests, the way we communicated.
“So, I can’t just apply my experience to them and say ‘This is what I did, so this is what you need to do’. As a manager, you have to adjust with the times.”
But can a Premier League star and national icon adjust to League Two?
Kewell’s only coaching experience to date is a two-year stint with Watford’s Under-23s, and the recent example of Teddy Sheringham’s failure at Stevenage looms large.
As in his playing days, Kewell is teak tough and belligerent when it comes to addressing the doubters.
“At the end of the day, management is all about results,” he says. “So, whatever people say, whether they think I’ve got the experience, all that stuff, it doesn’t matter. “If I go out there and get results, I’ll stay in a job. If I don’t, I know what’s coming. I knew exactly what would happen if I didn’t perform as a player and I definitely know what’ll happen if I don’t perform as a manager. “So, you can say what you like. Is he ready, is he not ready? Has he got the experience? I’ll go out there, play the way I want and we’ll see if it works. “And, if people want to give me stick, I’ll give as good as I get. If you want to be cheeky, I’ll give you a bit of cheek right back. That’s how I’ve always been and it’s not going to change now.”
NEW ROLE: Kewell in the technical area
DERBY DAY DARLING: Liverpool’s Harry Kewell celebrates scoring against Everton. BOTTOM: Frank Rijkaard ispired him during their time at Galatasaray