Harry Kewell eyes redemption in Asian Champions League final

When Harry Kewell first began regularly featuring in the first team of Leeds United as a teenager, his manager at Elland Road was George Graham. An austere figure who would soon leave Yorkshire under acrimonious circumstances, he nonetheless possessed a presence that intimidated Kewell but also made a lifelong impact.

“I only had George for a short period, but that was enough to imprint what a footballer should be,” Kewell told ESPN in 2017. “He used to walk the halls, and you’d be scared … not in a bad way, but he just had that aura about him.”

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A forward from the fringes of Glasgow who shifted into the midfield during his playing days, possessing a languid style earned him the nickname “Stroller,” Graham is an Arsenal legend, winning a league and FA Cup double with the Gunners in 1970-71 before moving into management, In the dugout, Graham excelled and, off the back of an iron defence, led Arsenal to two league titles, two league cups, an FA Cup and a European Cup Winners’ Cup. He was ousted from Highbury in 1995 for accepting an illegal £425,000 payment from an agent but a year on, after serving a ban, he ended up at the Leeds helm.

Kewell had made his first-team debut under Howard Wilkinson as a 16-year-old back in 1996 but it was under Graham that the Socceroos legend established himself, starting 29 games across all competitions as Leeds secured a fifth-placed league finish in 1997-98.

“[He] said winning the title as a player was fantastic, but winning it as a manager was unbelievable,” Kewell recalled. “Because you are controlling these players. That’s something I’m working towards, but I can’t imagine what that will feel like.”

Nearly three decades on from becoming a first-team regular under Graham and now a manager himself, Kewell finds himself 90 minutes away from a chance to put his old mentor’s hypothesis to the test, as well as cap off an incredible start to life in Japan, as his Yokohama F. Marinos face off with Emirati side Al-Ain in Saturday’s second leg of the Asian Champions League final.

Kewell already has a taste of Champions League highs as a player, of course, part of the Liverpool side that staged one of the most miraculous comebacks in history in 2005, when they fell into a 3-0 half-time deficit only for a stunning second-half fightback to set the stage for a penalty shootout win over AC Milan. Kewell, perhaps infamously, limped out of the game after 23 minutes with injury — almost symbolic of his stop-start time with the Reds.

Remarkably, he isn’t the only link between those 2005 and 2024 finals, either, with Hernán Crespo, who scored twice for Milan in that incredible game, now the manager of Al-Ain. But this time around, it’s the turn of the Argentinian to chase the contest, with Kewell’s Yokohama securing a 2-1 win in the first leg of the tie back on May 11.

Kewell only arrived at Yokohama on New Year’s Eve, leaving his position as an assistant manager at Celtic to replace another former Socceroos star in Kevin Muscat, who departed at the end of the 2023 J1 League season. It continued a recent and, to now, quite successful trend of Australians at the club, with Muscat’s J1 League and Japanese Super Cup winning tenure following on from Ange Postecoglou’s highly successful stint that saw the Tricolor end a 15-year league drought with the 2019 J1 League title.

But Yokohama have never reached the peak of Asian football across their 52-year history — their best finish was runner-up Chinese side Liaoning in the final of the ACL’s predecessor competition the Asian Club Championship in 1990 when they were known as Nissan Motor Football Club. They’ve won the J1 League five times in the intervening period, but Asian football’s biggest prize has eluded them. Postecoglou’s side was eliminated by Korean outfit Suwon Bluewings in the round of 16 in 2020, and Muscat’s by Japanese rivals Vissel Kobe in 2022. Nonetheless, the fingerprints of those two former bosses can still be found on the club’s progression to this point, while Postecoglou can also be credited for breathing new life into Kewell’s coaching ambitions.

When Kewell was speaking to ESPN in 2017, he was the newly appointed boss of League Two side Crawley Town, becoming the first Australian to coach an English men’s professional team after two years as an academy coach with Watford. He was full of enthusiasm then, itching to pursue what had become his passion. But while he started well enough at Crawley, a decision to leave just six games into the 2018-19 season to take over at Notts County kicked off a downward spiral; the 58-time Socceroo was sacked at Meadow Lane after just 11 games and with the Magpies sitting just above the League Two relegation zone.

He subsequently joined the revolving door of managers at Oldham Athletic, lasting 41 games in charge, with 11 wins, before being sacked after just over six months at Boundary Park. He then landed at National League side Barnet, their 26th manager in 10 seasons, and did little to break this instability by going winless in a seven-game tenure before the axe fell. Sacked by three different clubs in as many years, the last of which was in the fifth tier of the English pyramid, the thought that Kewell would be coaching in the biggest game in Asian club football less than three years later would have seemed preposterous.

“I wouldn’t change one thing of what I’ve done in the coaching aspect,” Kewell said following his Barnet exit.

“The only thing I seem to not get a grip on is the unprofessionalism of certain people within clubs. That is what I struggle with. One minute you see them talking to you and they have your back. The next minute they completely stab you in the back.”

But it was here, with Kewell at a coaching crossroads, that Postecoglou, who had just done the league and league cup double in his first season at Celtic, threw him a lifeline: bringing Kewell in as first-team coach for what became a treble-winning 2022-23 campaign at Parkhead.

Not only did this season serve to resuscitate Kewell’s coaching career but it also exposed him to former Yokohama players Tomoki Iwata, Reo Hatate, and Daizen Maeda, the latter of whom’s work ethic and desire to learn reportedly made such an impression that it helped spur Kewell’s enthusiasm to pursue an opportunity in Japan should the chance arise. Almost by fate, Yokohama came calling and, with Postecoglou’s endorsement, Kewell succeeded Muscat after he left Yokohama to take the job at Chinese giants Shanghai Port.

“I’m not taking full credit here,” he said after the semifinal win over Ulsan. “[Yokohama have] had two wonderful managers previously, before me, that have done amazing things. I’ve walked into a club and even on my first day I said I’ve got a very solid base ground. Very solid.

“It just needed something different. And to be able to work on that myself and with my coaches has been excellent. But I have to give credit to my players here who have adapted to it and want to do it. That’s what you’ve got to try and do.

“You’ve got to try and make training entertaining, you’ve got to want players to come in and want to learn and become better. That’s my goal as a coach, anywhere I’ve gone, any club that I’ve managed, I try and make players better.”

Kewell’s time at Yokohama is still young but a chance to become just the second Australian coach to win an Asian Champions League, following on from Tony Popovic’s win with the Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014, undoubtedly offers some level of redemption. Less than three years ago, Kewell had been written off as another former player who couldn’t make the grade as a coach. Now, he is just 90 minutes away from that “unbelievable” dream that Graham had inspired him to achieve.