Harry Kewell finds his calling in management after injury-hit career
CRAWLEY, England -- Harry Kewell likes to talk. He talks a lot: about players, about Australia, about the builders working on his house (not going well at the moment, by the sounds of things), but mostly about his new career as a manager. He has a lot to talk about. The former Leeds, Liverpool and Galatasaray winger has just become the first Australian to manage an English professional team, taking over at Crawley Town, a League Two club in an unassuming satellite town south of London.
Crawley's stadium is pleasantly bijou, on the edge of the town centre but not exactly dominating the skyline. As you approach it, a slightly curious, 6-foot-tall football on the traffic island just outside is one of the few hints that a professional football club is nearby. A small groundstaff steadily prepares the pitch for the coming season as Kewell sits in a resolutely unglamourous room under the stands, just down the corridor from the main reception, which is also the club office, which is also the club shop.
In short, it isn't exactly the sort of place one might associate with a Champions League-winning player with more than 500 (mostly top-level) club appearances and 56 caps to his name. But this is a man who caught the coaching bug after a playing career in which he barely gave management a second thought and is now hooked. He gives the impression of a man who just wants to coach, no matter where it is.
"My passion for coaching is immense," Kewell said. "I've fallen in love with it. I enjoy the structure. I love the hard work, organising. I love putting a plan together through the week and executing it at the weekend. To be able to get a young player to perform a drill or execute a phase of play -- that's satisfying. I get happy and think he's learned, and that's what I enjoy. I actually prefer coaching to playing."
Perhaps because we all enjoy different things as we get older, the place from where Kewell's buzz comes has changed. "The joy I got from scoring a goal, I'm feeling that now from the sidelines when my team scores," he said. "In fact, it feels better. George Graham [Kewell's first manager at Leeds] said winning the title as a player was fantastic, but winning it as a manager was unbelievable. Because you are controlling these players. That's something I'm working towards, but I can't imagine what that will feel like. I can't imagine what it will feel like on the first day. I'm excited for the friendly this weekend. I'm excited for every friendly. I'm excited for training."
This is the enthusiasm of a man who thinks he has found his calling.
Kewell became truly enthused by coaching when he was taking his badges. His first assessment was to set up a defence for a corner, and afterward, one of the players approached him and said: "That was good. I'd play for you." From there, he spent two years with Watford's under-23s, but by the end, he was becoming frustrated.
"I felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall," he said, "and that's not because of Watford. It was because the manager liked my players and was taking them for the first team. I was getting frustrated that I couldn't take these players through."
Part of the reason for Kewell's enthusiasm for coaching comes from the injuries he suffered during his playing career. From his early days at Liverpool, Kewell was dogged with fitness problems -- infamously having to go off in the 2005 Champions League final -- that followed him until the end of his career.
"100 percent," he says when asked if he feels he has unfinished business in the game because of those issues. "I'm not the only person that's happened to, where careers have been bright at the start then through injuries taper off. But I think that's helped me now. I understand injuries. That knowledge and the mental toughness you have to have to get through those injuries, I can share that now.
"One of the players at Watford was having a terrible time, but I could help him understand it and get through it. When you sit players in front of doctors and surgeons, they use big, fancy words, and sometimes players get lost. It's hard to digest. But when you've been there and you can break it down into 'football language,' they can understand it better."
In some respects, it isn't a surprise that Kewell has developed a passion for management, given those he played under. Throughout his career, he can count Rafa Benitez, Gerard Houllier, Guus Hiddink, Frank Rijkaard and Graham among his mentors, and it's the latter two he discusses with the most fondness.
"I only had George for a short period, but that was enough to imprint what a footballer should be," he said, talking of Graham's "firmness" and enthusing about Eddie Gray and Paul Hart, two other coaches at Leeds. "He used to walk the halls, and you'd be scared -- not in a bad way, but he just had that aura about him. Benitez, Houllier, Hiddink were all fantastic, but my favourite was Rijkaard [at Galatasaray]. The way he saw football was completely different. The way he conducted himself was unbelievable."
If he can cast himself as a cross between Graham and Rijkaard in their pomps, he has a decent chance of doing very well indeed.
Recently, a young defender he worked with at Watford, Tom Podaridis, said Kewell's training sessions "blew me away" and that he "brought that Aussie mentality of working hard." As the first Australian to coach an English side, is he representing his nation to an extent?
"We've got some good coaches. They're doing very well in Australia at the moment, competing against each other. Tony Popovic has won the Asian Champions League. Graham Arnold has done fantastic. Kevin Muscat and John Aloisi have done well. There are some good coaches out there, but I've had an opportunity here. Maybe this is a pathway. Maybe it is all on me to do it well so we can bring some others over."
An interesting distinction between Kewell and other young coaches is that he doesn't have a dogmatic style in mind. He has no overriding philosophy to which his players have to stick.
"I don't think it's possible to be dogmatic and only play one way," he said. "These days, you have people dissecting your game every day. Not once a week and not just the opponents, it's everyone -- fans, reporters, people on TV. So eventually it goes out there, so you've got to be able to adapt. It's like a game of chess. You very rarely make the same moves because eventually someone will work out, 'That's the way he plays.'"
One thing that does seem non-negotiable is his desire to encourage "thinking footballers." What does he mean by that? How does a coach create a "thinking" player?
"You ask questions. I was always a player who asked questions, and it wasn't to be cheeky or rude, but I always wanted to know what the manager wanted," he said. "I'll put the players on the spot, like a couple of coaches put me on the spot before. Because if they don't understand it on the board in the team talks, how are they supposed to do it out there?
"A player has got to be able to think what to do, to take this pass or that pass, not just: 'This is what the manager wants me to do.' That's a thinking footballer. That doesn't mean the left winger can show up at right-back." Too much thinking? "Well, more just being stupid."
But the word that comes up most often is "ambition." He uses it to describe himself and Crawley, using Bournemouth as an example of what a small club can do -- "they're the perfect model" -- but he isn't stopping there. In the past, he has expressed a desire to manage Liverpool one day, and though he's a little more circumspect this time, you get the impression that this is a man with big plans.
"Obviously, I want to get to the top. I want to manage one of the biggest clubs in the world. I want to create something in football and for people to say, 'Wow, that was his idea.' I'd love to create something."
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.