It was probably a good job Harry Kewell was still in India for the Nagjee Cup when Watford played Leeds United in the fifth round of the FA Cup, as the stick he got from the away supporters was merciless. If you were wondering where the vitriol stems from, it’s an upshot of him joining Galatasaray, the team Leeds were in Turkey to play when two of their fans were stabbed to death the night before the Uefa Cup game in 2000. They have never forgiven him. His wizardry on the left flank now counts for very little.
The stick is not quite at that level but Kewell has, to put it in Australian vernacular, copped a fair bit on various message boards and social media of late from followers of Watford. He knows he’s without a league win in eight under-21 games but it says a lot about the short termism in English football these days when fans are calling for the coach of the under-21 team to be shown the door.
Whether you believe youth football is about winning or development, or indeed both, is probably a debate for another day. Kewell is working with what he’s got, however, which is a group of largely callow players playing at this new-found level for the first time and facing some sides who have been operating as a Category Two club for years. Watford’s 16-year-old right-back David Sesay, for example, can play at this level for another five years. It’s not as if Kewell can dip into the transfer market to strengthen his team. And it’s not as if Kewell is not trying. He’s in at 7.30am every morning. “If they want to stay, I’d be here until 9.30 at night teaching them.”
He’s not asking his players to do anything he hasn’t done or is not prepared to do. He even works out with them in the gym, so that’s why he still looks as fit as a fiddle and like he could still do a job.
Besides, we’re pretty sure he has earned enough money during his decorated playing career to not have to work again. He does it because he is passionate about the development of young players and wants to make a difference.
His views are certainly worth listening to. Most coaches would not have fronted up after a defeat as anaemic as the one against Barnsley recently, and he’s certainly not obliged to talk to the media. He could easily have showered, changed and sped off to his family home in Islington in his Mercedes sports car. In fact he did the complete opposite, even answering a call from his wife Sheree to tell her he was in the middle of an interview. “Ask me anything you like,” said Kewell. Now there’s an offer we weren’t about to turn down.
Are young players in general paid too much? “That’s a problem,” he said. “We had a rule at Leeds where you couldn’t talk [about money] until you’d played 50 games. Now you play five minutes and you get it.”
Do academies produce formulaic, one-dimensional footballers, ones who have grown up in a functional, structured environment?
“I heard a rule on one of my coaching courses where they’re trying to stop junk training or stupid training, something like that, where kids go out on the street and play football,” said Kewell. “You’re not allowed to do that because they need to coach you in a structured way. What?
“We’re too worried about all the stuff we’ve got to do [as coach] off the pitch. These kids want to play football, let them play football. When I played, I trained three or four hours a day. It didn’t harm me. At the moment the average you’re allowed to train them is 40 minutes when they’re young – something like that. In Spain they can play five or six hours a day. We know why technically Spain are bringing better players through.
“I think Ajax have a wonderful idea where for half an hour or 45 minutes before training they let the players just do what they like. They go out and do flicks and tricks. That’s how you get to know the ball and understand the ball.”
Ex-pros will queue up to tell you that things were better in their day and how it’s now a different game. ‘The game’s gone,’ they usually say. However, when you’ve had the distinguished career Kewell enjoyed, and when you came to this country at 14, and left after seven years as a pro at Leeds and another five at Liverpool, what he says has currency, real value.
“I used to do things where you’d think now: ‘Wow, I’d never let my kids do that.’ But I did it,” he said. “I used to juggle the ball from my house to the park which was on a main road. I’d juggle the whole way, crossing roads and never dropping the ball. You learn to understand like that. I would rather spend two hours out on the park with someone teaching them the right way to do something than to sit there and type it all up. Call me old-fashioned but that’s the way I got taught how to play football. We used do thousands of repetitions of the same thing. When we used to play football we’d say: ‘Let’s see if we can hit that pole or let’s see if we can bend it round here.’ These are all things you do in a game. So why would you stop that? When training is training, that’s when you play the way the manager wants. When you have free time just go and play, let them enjoy it.”
Is Kewell a subscriber to the view, pitched by author Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers, that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field?
“I got told a story about Michael Jordan by Tiger Woods,” said Kewell. “It was two o’clock in the morning and he got a big slap across his face. Michael Jordan just slapped him across the face and said get up. It was the morning of game seven. He said: ‘Come out here’ and worked for three hours on one shot. He said: ‘Just keep feeding me the ball.’ That’s the best basketball player. You look at all the best players in football, they do the same thing. Cantona – half an hour or 45 minutes after every training session they kept on whipping balls into them. It’s the way it is and I don’t think we should stop.
“I know a few golfers I’d play with and they’d say: ‘How did you do that?’ and I’d say: ‘I used to go down the park with me mates and a hundred golf balls and go, right: ‘Let’s see if we can bend it around this tree and curve it around that tree.'”
And it didn’t do Kewell any harm. Is there a danger of someone like Kewell falling into the same trap as Glenn Hoddle did, in that he finds it difficult to teach and translate areas of the game that were second nature to him? Hoddle, remember, criticised David Beckham in front of his England teammates in 1998 for his lack of mastery of a free-kick routine. The story goes that the England manager then stepped up and executed it with ease.
“Great players don’t always become great managers,” said Kewell with a nod to the failed managerial careers of Diego Maradona, Paul Gascoigne and Bryan Robson. “But I’ll take AFL for example. Some don’t make it and some do. But when they do it’s people who have been in the game and understand the game. When you have people who can understand the game, they see things. I’m not saying I can see everything. I’m just saying we understand the game, especially at this level. We know what it takes to get to that next level.
“If you’re talking about under-21s and even younger, you’ve got to be able to give them every possible chance to make it. The best people are the ones who have done it, they know what it takes. I know I had to run through ten brick walls to get there. So I’ve got to explain it. If someone hasn’t run through a brick wall how are you supposed to explain it if you’ve never run through a brick wall yourself? We’ve got players who have set levels. Beat that [they are saying]. Messi and Ronaldo have set a target which may very well be hard to beat. But if I was a young player now that is the level I would be getting there. I would like to see more football people who have been there and done it and are involved in the game. I think we concentrate too much, sometimes, on the other stuff. We’ve got to be concentrating on the field to make our players better.”
•Pictures courtesy of @NagjeeCup