Voted his country’s greatest ever player, a Champions League winner and a veteran of two World Cups, when spelt out like that, it seems remiss to think of Harry Kewell’s career as somewhat unfulfilled.
The Australian attacker was part of one of the most exciting Leeds United sides in the club’s rich history, and lived his boyhood dream of representing Liverpool, playing in two Champions League finals and an FA Cup final with the Merseyside club.
Yet when most fans who remember the Sydney-born star’s time in the English game, thoughts immediately turn to what the dynamic, gifted antipodean might have been able to achieve were his career not blighted by persistent injuries.
Particularly in his later years, recurring groin issues robbed him of the chance to establish himself as a regular key player at Anfield, but what he was able to achieve in more than a decade as a Premier League player would be the envy of most footballers.
Having impressed for Australian side Marconi Stallions on a tour of the UK the year before, Kewell was invited for a trial with Leeds United as a 15-year-old, along with fellow budding Aussie star Brett Emerton, who would later enjoy an eight-year spell with Blackburn Rovers.
Both teenagers impressed and were offered terms by the Elland Road club. Emerton, however, was unable to obtain a work permit to complete the move, whereas Kewell had no such issue, possessing a British passport thanks to his English father.
The Australian youngster immediately stood out in Leeds’ youth ranks, exuding a confident swagger that would go on to define his on-field demeanour. He was handed a first-team debut as a 17-year-old, appearing in a 1-0 defeat to Middlesbrough, and starred in a talent-packed FA Youth Cup-winning team in 1997, alongside future England internationals Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate and Alan Smith.
The following season, 1997/98, Kewell became a regular in the first team, playing 38 times in all competitions, scoring eight goals and registering five assists. With his pace, flair and guile, the young winger looked a natural fit in the immaculate white of the three-time English champions.
Leeds finished fifth that season under former Arsenal manager George Graham. When the stern, notoriously defensive-minded Scot left early the following season to be replaced by David O’Leary, Kewell’s star shone brighter still.
He was joined in the first team by a regular drip of fellow academy graduates, augmented by marquee signings as the Yorkshire side aimed to push for Premier League glory, exciting along the way with their fast-paced, attacking brand of football.
The 1999/00 season saw Kewell, still only 22 and in his peak, notch a career-high 17 all-competition goals and laying on a staggering 20 assists, helping Leeds finish third in the Premier League, after threatening a genuine title charge for some time, and making it to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup.
By this stage, Kewell had become one of the English top flight’s most recognisable and reliable stars. An asset to an ambitious Leeds team, his pace allowed him to play wide on the left wing, his intelligence and ingenuity saw him slot comfortably into a No.10 role, and his technique and eye for goal made him a viable option as part of a front two.
The Australian also had a penchant for the spectacular, too, a scorer of memorable goals, such as his famous strike in May 2003’s 3-2 win over Arsenal at Highbury that ultimately helped secure Leeds’ Premier League status once the after-effects of overspending had taken their toll. Chesting down a lofted pass from Jason Wilcox, he rifled a half-volley beyond David Seaman from the corner of the penalty area.
In fact, he had scored a carbon copy of the Arsenal strike years earlier against Aston Villa, only from even further out, and a deliciously impudent outside-of-the-boot chip against Sheffield Wednesday, kissing the crossbar on its way in, is perhaps his finest strike.
Having helped Leeds fight relegation in 2002/03, scoring 14 league goals to drag them up to 15th in the table, Kewell departed the crumbling club to join Liverpool, the team he’d grown up supporting in Australia, shunning interest from Manchester United and Barcelona among others.
“We had spoken about bringing in players who would have the fans on the edge of their seats and I can’t think of a better description for the qualities that Harry will bring to Anfield,” Reds boss Gérard Houllier said upon securing the gifted forward.
At the end of the 1999/00 season, Leeds rejected a £25million offer from Internazionale for their star player. Just three years later, their hands tied with Kewell in the final year of his contract and ongoing financial struggles, the then-24-year-old was sold for just £5million.
Even more traumatising for the Elland Road club was the fact they would only receive £3million of that figure, with the rest, allegedly, being paid to Kewell’s representatives. This left a bad taste in the mouths of supporters and caused chairman Professor John McKenzie to go public with his dissatisfaction.
“Whilst I have no intention of entering a debate with those who seek to justify their own position in gaining large sums of money from Leeds United, I can say that I am angry and frustrated at the outrageous situation that has developed over the last week,” said McKenzie.
“The reality is that on Friday, July 4 I agreed a deal of £7million with Liverpool Football Club, which Kewell and his agent refused to countenance.
“Instead they made a condition of not doing a Bosman that we pay £2million to Kewell’s representatives, and Liverpool Football Club then reduced the fee to £5million.”
Kewell’s time at Anfield is remembered for the frustration he and Reds fan felt at his constant battles with injures. But things started brightly for the Australian who was handed the club’s iconic No.7 shirt, relinquished by Vladimír Šmicer, upon signing.
In his first season with Liverpool, he featured in 36 of their 38 Premier League games, scoring seven times for his new club. However, with Houllier replaced by Rafael Benítez in the summer of 2004, and as the injury bug kept biting, Kewell slipped down the pecking order.
Given a chance to start in the 2005 Champions League final against Milan, a drab display from the ex-Leeds star was mercifully cut short by a groin tear, he departure coinciding with the Reds’ remarkable comeback from 3-0 down to win on penalties.
Kewell never again broke the 30-appearances barrier in a single Premier League season on Merseyside, playing a total of just 12 leagues games in his final two campaigns before his contract expired, leaving to join Galatasaray in 2008.
Team-mate Jamie Carragher, in an interview with FourFourTwo, lamented Kewell’s awful luck with injuries, but also remembered what the Australian was able to achieve at Anfield: “He was unlucky with injuries and that the manager who signed him (Gérard Houllier) left a year later.
“He had bad injuries but the record books show that he started in a Champions League Final and an FA Cup Final and has the winners’ medals to prove it. He had all the talent but I guess it didn’t quite go for him here. It’s a shame.”
Now embarked on a career in management, Kewell is hoping to make his mark on the English game from the dugout. Despite the way it ended, though, his playing career, and the impact he made at such a young age, should not be tinged with too much negativity.
Named the greatest Australian player of all time in 2012, Kewell is also one of the finest players from south of the equator ever to grace the Premier League.