It was 1993 and a 15-year-old Harry Kewell had just arrived at London Heathrow Airport with his friend, Brett Emerton. Little did they know at this stage that both would go on to have highly successful football careers and be regarded as two of the finest players to come out of Australia.
After their long flight, Harry and Brett had to make their way across town to Kings Cross Station – a daunting place at the best of times for those not used to the chaos of London. For a teenager who had never left his home country, this was a real challenge. Like any good developing players, however, they found their way, made it to Kings Cross and on to Leeds where they had their first taste of Yorkshire hospitality. After initially thinking the two youngsters were trespassing at Elland Road, a security guard named Jack realised the pair were at the ground for a trial, with Harry announcing “we’re here to meet Paul Hart!” Jack led the two young players inside the iconic ground and Harry’s English journey began. However, his development goes back further than Elland Road.
It all started in the Western Sydney suburb of Smithfield. For those who haven’t been, Sydney has four very distinctive parts to it divided by the compass. Whilst the Northern Beaches and Eastern Suburbs’ famous coast – known best by the hipster paradise that is Bondi – are the images you’ll see on postcards, the ‘Golden West’ can be a tough, uncompromising place. It was in the suburb of Smithfield where Harry Kewell began his quest from local club footballer to UEFA Champions League winner.
We caught up with Harry and asked him to take us back to where it all began well over 20 years ago and how his development in the parks of the Western Suburbs got him a trial at one of the most successful clubs of the 1990s.
Harry explains, “As far back as I can remember, I was always kicking a ball around. Coming from Australia I was exposed to a lot of other sports, everything from rugby league, tennis, golf – anything that requires hand-eye coordination or an ability to run. I was one of those kids that wasn’t always the best at every sport but I could play them well.”
Whilst Harry enjoyed other sports, he makes it clear that football was always his primary passion. He began playing with Smithfield Hotspur, with “a few mates” as a young boy but soon had the chance to move to Marconi, an iconic club in the west of the city. While there, the chance to go on and play district, regional and state football came about.
Harry continues, “When I got to state football at U13 level I worked with a coach called David Lee who selected players whom he wanted to train personally. After I’d played in that team I went to his training school twice a week. He saw potential in me when not many others did, to be honest. I never made the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport] and was left out of teams at Marconi. David took me in and helped me work on individual skills. It was at David’s academy that I met Brett [Emerton] and our friendship began from there. When I arrived for my first day I walked on to the field and all the other players were juggling. At that stage I could barely juggle a ball and it was a bit intimidating. David invested a great deal of time just working on my skills; juggling, striking, turns and tricks. He really polished me up and I got better, stronger and more technically adept.”
Clearly Harry had a strong mentor with the ability to develop talent in David Lee, who helped develop Harry’s skills through constant repetition.
“When you practice properly that’s what you have to do,” Harry explains. “With my striking and volleying, I repeated the practice thousands and thousands of times, but David was good enough to coach me in where I was going wrong and where I was going right technically. Whether it was a shoulder dropped too far or my head was out of position, David could see it. He helped me hone in on my existing ability and from there I took it into games.”
Alongside his formal coaching during this time, Harry would also go and play in Smithfield Park in West Sydney, where he learnt to express himself through free play. He would juggle the ball all the way there to work on his control, and then practice passing against a brick wall and dribbling in and out of wooden posts. He would use trees to practice bending the ball. “It didn’t matter that the tree was 40 feet high,” he smiles, “you just learned to shape your shots!”
Harry was always an extremely competitive player, and he believes that competition is essential in player development. He continues, “I agree with kids playing small sided games, but I believe it should be done in the right way where competition is encouraged, wanting to win. There’s no point being able to flick a ball up onto your back if you don’t play the game properly. I remember being in the park with a mate of mine and he had every trick in the world. We used to play 1 v 1s and he used to go try and go around me with his skills. When I got the ball I would simply push it past him, use speed and score – so I think it’s important to acknowledge that balance. I really believe even if you’re training alone you need to make it competitive and work so you’re testing yourself.”
It was an approach which stood him in good stead because, soon after his formative years of strong coaching and work in the park, the young lad from Western Suburbs found himself at Leeds United within two years of making state league football.
“When I was 15 years old, David was provided with six scholarships to send players over to England. There were 14 players competing for them, and honestly I thought we were all good enough. I was lucky enough to be picked to go to Leeds United and get a feeling for how a Premier League club worked day in day out. After a short period of time training at Leeds, I was offered the chance to sign for the club. Brett and I were thrown in the deep end, but it was great. It was the real world, we had to find our way and nothing was given to us for free. We had to survive on our own.”
It was clearly a tough initiation but both Harry and Brett showed resilience. Both players were offered the chance to stay at Leeds, but only Harry remained thanks to his British heritage which made it easier for the club to sign him. Brett Emerton would eventually go on to have a long and successful career with Feyernoord, Blackburn Rovers and Sydney FC.
Not only was it a great achievement for Harry to be picked up by Leeds from relative obscurity, but when he came through the academy of the Yorkshire club, he was surrounded by a really strong, competitive group of young players. Coming through the youth team at that time were players who would go on to have long, successful careers in the game: Jonathan Woodgate, Damian Lynch, Steven McPhail, Alan Smith and Allan Mayberry were all products of the famous northern club. As the young academy prospects made it to the first team, players like Lee Bowyer and Rio Ferdinand were added to the team. “There was a real camaraderie within the squad,” says Harry, “and training was always feisty. If there wasn’t a fight at Elland Road once a week, it wasn’t normal. That was purely down to competition.”
Although the competition was fierce, Harry believes it brought the team together and created a siege mentality in the group. “You knew if you didn’t perform someone else would take your place, so challenges were always flying in left, right and centre! That got us prepared for the weekend. If a team tried to kick us, we could give it back. If opposition tried to pass us off the park, we could play that way. We were never afraid.”
With a group of players that would all go on to have successful careers, perhaps it’s not surprising to hear tales about the level of desire within the club’s roster. Arguably at that time there was no clear playing style to follow other than simply being as competitive as possible. Paul Hart, Harry’s coach, promoted a passing game, but Harry recalls “perhaps 20 years ago at Leeds it was more about simply learning your trade, going out there and performing at a high level, making an impression on the first-team manager through simply playing games and competing.”
Obviously an advocate of skill acquisition through repetition, we wanted to know what made Harry’s playing style unique. In what we found to be typical Harry Kewell style, he was direct in his answer.
Harry elaborated: “I was always told I was good at ‘seeing a game’. A player sees the game differently to a manager; a manager sees a game differently to a chairman. I was always told one of my strengths was being able to identify areas where we were having success or where we were struggling. I was also adaptable. I didn’t mind a physical game, or a passing game – I was comfortable adjusting my style relative to the game I found myself in.”
As his career progressed from a stellar time at Leeds alongside some exceptional players including countryman Mark Viduka, Harry was signed by English giant Liverpool FC. It was at this point in his career that he began to hit his peak and played in some of the biggest games. “I get asked a lot about my mental preparation for those big games,” says Harry. “But for me, every game for me was an important game. There was no difference. I never really got nervous, I was just excited. You’re still on a pitch, against 11 men with a round ball trying to score. The only difference is the crowd.”
He continues, “I always felt comfortable as soon as I got out on the park. It felt natural. Even playing in World Cups with massive crowds, I just enjoyed it – I was at work! I used to think, ‘this is what I loved doing, what I was paid to do’. You hear the crowds, but it never fazed me – in fact I loved it. If you have a good attitude and you show focus you’ll cope with pressure.”
One of the biggest games in Harry’s career came in 2005, when he was named in the starting 11 for Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League Final against AC Milan. In a cruel twist, Harry was injured early in the first half – and so the high point of Liverpool’s recent history was, for Harry, the climax of “a difficult season”. At the start of that year injury problems started hampering Harry’s season to the point where he felt his groin “could go at any time”, but he had managed to stay fit during the lead-up to the final. “I didn’t expect to start in that match,” he says, “I was just happy for the chance. When Rafa Benitez came up to me on the day of the game and told me I was starting, I was thrilled. I felt mentally and physically up for it.”
Harry recalls the fateful game: “I prepared as normal, and when we went out I felt good. We got off to a poor start in the game and then I went in to a strong challenge with [Gennaro] Gattuso and my groin just snapped off. I looked down and could see the muscle in my leg. I could run, but I had no power or ability to kick, so I put my hand up and that was it. From a personal point of view it was frustrating. I’d worked my whole life, since the age of four to get to play in that game and when my moment came an injury happened. It’s heartbreaking, but that’s football.”
Despite his own personal heartbreak, Harry is full of praise for his teammates: “It was hard to accept, but football is not an individual game, it’s a team game and that gets you through everything. What I saw that night from my team was fantastic, and they deserved everything they got.”
Two years later Harry featured in another Champions League Final against the same opposition, but Liverpool couldn’t repeat their heroics of 2005. “Many would say AC Milan should have won in 2005, and we should have won in 2007,” Harry recalls. “We played all over them that night but it was a very unlucky free-kick that resulted in Inzaghi’s first goal. You have to take the good and the bad in football.”
It’s clear that Kewell has fond memories of his time at Liverpool and some of the big games he played in. Throughout his career he was also fortunate to work with some exceptional coaches and managers. Harry remembers George Graham at Leeds as “a fantastic person and leader. He had an aura, a presence that created stature within the club and you didn’t want to let him down.”
He continues, “At international level, Guus Hiddink was exceptional, he got the best out of us as a national team.” “I enjoyed working with Gerrard Houllier, he was so passionate and he was one of the reasons I signed for Liverpool. Talking football with him was a joy. Then when you look at Benitez, tactically he is a genius. When he came to Liverpool he brought something different.”
And the best that Harry has worked with? “Frank Rijkaard. Simply because of the way he sees the game. I always thought I saw football in a special way but he was another level. He saw things that others couldn’t.”
Having also played at World Cups and with 56 caps for Australia, as well as having stints at Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City, Harry is a knowledgeable man to ask about how the game is developing ‘down-under’ and whether much has changed since he emerged.
“The game is changing. The Australian team is developing and there is some great talent out there. They’ve just won the Asian Cup, they have confidence and I believe they will do well in the World Cup Qualifiers. There’s no such thing as an easy group at the World Cup but I think after the next one we will be able to judge how far we’ve come. Back in 1998 through to 2006 you could see the progression. Getting to the last 16 in 2006 was great and we were unlucky, but that’s football. If they get out of the group stage I think it will be a sign of progression.”
Another factor influencing football in Australia is the ever-growing A-League, a competition which Harry believes is heading in the right direction. However, he acknowledges that the A-League, like many growing leagues around the world, still suffers simply from not being Europe: “The players are still going to leave and try and pursue football in Europe because it’s the best level. If you are a basketballer you don’t aim to go play in England, you go for the NBA in the USA. It’s the same in football.”
However, Harry doesn’t see this as a bad thing, saying: “We need to ensure the A-League is great at developing players, and if those players get half a chance to come to England or play in Europe, they should. Australian players need to compete at the highest level. Having older top players come over and help nurture the young players is great, but I see the A-League as a great way to get our players exposure and development to go on to higher things.”
It is much harder, acknowledges Harry, to say how best to improve player development in Australia. “Football is all about opinions and we all have our own ideas,” he says. “I think perhaps the amount of different ideas can create problems. There’d be thousands of people who would say they don’t believe in any answer I could give. It’s hard to get everything moving in the same direction so I think the main focus should be on ensuring the coaches working in Australia are coaching for the right reasons – to make the game better and create different types of players.”
Throughout his career, Harry was known for his creativity – exemplified by his famous “rabona” cross against Manchester United in 1999. But we wanted to know how he interprets creativity in the game and who was the most creative player Harry played with or against.
“My favourite player was the Brazilian Ronaldo, and I was fortunate enough to play against Zidane twice and to see him play up close. I would say aside from Messi and Ronaldo now, he was the best.”
Whilst citing some phenomenal attacking players, Harry showed that he really does think about the game, following up his answer to this question with a clever insight that is often overlooked when we discuss the topic of creativity.
He continues “However, as an attacking player I always look at that side of the game, but creativity can be interpreted in different ways. One of my favourite players to play with was David Batty at Leeds. He knew his role. Nine times out of ten he wouldn’t give the ball away. He had unbelievable control and would always supply the ball. He didn’t make the game difficult, he was clever. He knew his role, was in the right place at the right time and played so simply that he was a great creative player to play alongside.”
Harry is a man with a long playing career behind him, and is someone who worked hard to fulfil his potential. He believes it is hard work more than anything that determines whether a player at any level can fulfil their potential. He was strong in his conviction that young players need to give their all, and that maximizing your potential is a result of taking your chances. “I’ve seen a lot of skillful players come through who get their chance and don’t take it,” he explains. “The players that seize the moment will go further.”
Having recently taken up the role as the U21 Manager at Watford FC, Harry is making the transition from professional player, to player developer. However, Harry has had his own academy – The Harry Kewell Academy – already up and running in Australia for a while. It is clear that his own early development years have influenced the way he approaches his coaching and his work within player development.
“My philosophy has been developed through the way I was taught and that’s what I am trying to re-create because that’s what I believe. Within my Academy I work with a section of players on ball striking. Not just with the inside of the foot, but working on all surfaces. Whether it’s cutting the ball with your laces, or striking with the outside, I work on accuracy and technique. I encourage players to try as hard as they can with the most difficult surfaces and not play safe. Looking at technique, shoulders, body position, comparing striking to a golf swing and breaking it down. I’m not worried about power initially, just technique, the power will come as they grow.”
And what about those park sessions? It seems they have an influence also: “Once we’ve worked with players within the academy I will encourage all of them to go and practice on their own, they have to work on their technique. My philosophy means technique, 1 v 1s and ball mastery in a competitive way first and foremost so that when they can play the game in their teams they can execute these techniques.”
Harry speaks about his “passion” for coaching. Having recently entered the world of player development in the professional academy scene in England, his longer term ambitions include moving into management eventually. “I would love to develop players and pass them on to the first team,” he says. “The role at Watford FC is very exciting and I am already enjoying it. I have a really hard-working group of players and the opportunity to work with top young footballers week-in, week-out is something I believe will make me a better coach.”
With a fantastic playing career at the highest level behind him, observing Kewell’s transition from full-time player to full-time coach at the highest level will be interesting viewing. From discussing player development with Harry, it’s clear that due to his fiercely competitive nature and passion for the game, the players under his guidance will be in for a very exciting journey with a mentor who has been through exactly what they are going through. He will no doubt be pushing his players hard as they try to break through to the Watford FC first team and cross the white line into the cauldron of Premier League Football.
Harry Kewell for Liverpool v Birmingham City. Photo: Michael Steele