Coach Kewell – Can Australia’s Golden Boy Find the Golden Touch?

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The legendary status Harry Kewell holds amongst Australian sports fans as a football player is without question. Following his retirement from playing, he has ventured into an even more cutthroat part of the game, coaching.

During his career he faced and fought through a lot of adversity from injuries, fighting stereotypes of non-European players, and the pressures from club and country that only a few at the top ever experience. Why would he put himself through even more pressure now his playing career has come to an end? He could return to Australia and have his pick of almost any position he wants in Australian football. Instead he’s set about challenging himself once more to reach the top against the odds.

His first coaching appointment was as Watford’s U23 head coach where he was charged with getting their youth players ready for the step up to senior football. He lasted two years there before eventually making the step up to senior management with the appointment as Crawley Town’s boss in League Two.

Crawley Town finished 19th the year before and had lost their top scorer, James Collins. For many pundits they were favourites for the drop. For a manager with little money to spend and even no senior coaching experience, it was going to be a big ask. Early on, the fears of appointing a young manager were looking justified.

The Crawley Town bosses stuck with Kewell despite supporter unrest and murmurs of certain players being unhappy with everything from minutes to training and tactics. Their faith was repaid though when a string of good results saw them get within touching distance of the promotion playoffs. Ultimately it wasn’t to be but a sense of optimism was creeping back into the club. Optimism is something in short supply for anyone who follows the lower leagues so it can be pivotal for clubs and managers when the fan base and players believe.

Roll on the 2018/19 season after a decent off season saw some experienced players such as Filipe Morais and Romain Vincelot join the squad. The start of the season was solid but nothing spectacular with the side sitting mid-table after 5 rounds. That’s when Notts County came calling, who had just let their manager – Kevin Nolan – go after a poor start to the season where they were winless in the league.

Nolan had led them to the playoffs the year before so could consider himself hard done by to not be given more time, a sign of things to come at the oldest professional club in football. Notts County were 24th when Kewell came in with expectations shifting from automatic promotion to getting out of the relegation zone.

Fourteen games (11 in the league)  into his reign, Kewell was out. Like Nolan, it seemed a rash decision especially since he wasn’t given a transfer window to work in. Once more, rumours of certain players being unhappy and fans being impatient all helped Alan Hardy to make the decision to let Kewell go.

As a player, Harry was a superstar but he wasn’t a typical superstar. He had the looks, his game was exciting and beautiful to watch but he wasn’t the best at marketing himself. When you consider how massive he was not just in Australia but in the UK and othe parts of the football world, he never put himself out there as much as his contemporaries. Was this shyness? Or was it an extreme focus on the playing side of things?

Speaking to former National team teammates, the young players that came through when Kewell was there often talk about how helpful and open he was with advice and helping them adjust to the international scene. It’s clear though that when he was in camp, he was all business with everything being about the challenge ahead. Although he has friends in football, he wouldn’t be described as a ladnand hasn’t been plagued with off-field dramas.

Many in the media and public could read this as him being arrogant and distant but having spoken to many who have worked with him in the media and in football, they usually describe him as professional, friendly and focussed.

There’s no doubt that this is something he needs to work on going forward. Fans and the media are quite simple in what they want at the end of the day and that’s to feel part of the process which can be done by being more open. Of course winning always helps too.

Football at the end of the day, is a results business but results need to be in context with realistic expectations. So how has Harry done in the two senior appointments so far? Well, let’s look at the numbers with some context.

Crawley Town

Crawley Town finished 2016/17 in 19th position (13 wins, 12 draws, 21 losses, -18 GD). The following year with Kewell in charge and without a proven goalscorer, they finished 14th (16 wins, 11 draws, 19 losses, -8 GD).

At the start of this current season with Kewell at the helm they started with 2 wins 1 draw and 2 losses for a -1 GD to be in 14th place. Since Kewell has left, they have played 20 games for 7 wins, 2 draws, 11 losses and a -5 GD which finds them in 17th.

At Crawley, Kewell’s side played mostly with 4-1-4-1 (20%), 4-2-3-1 (16%), or 4-4-2 (12%) formations. They averaged 53.51% of the possession and outpassed their opposition 357 passes (74.4% accuracy) to 328 (73.3%) per game. Of the 357 passes, most were either forward or lateral with only around 49 going backwards.

Despite more possession and passes, Crawley averaged one less shot per game than their opposition, 11.6 (35.7% on target) vs 12.9 (37.7%). With both the total and accuracy below their opponents, Kewell’s Crawley team would‘ve benefited from more attacking efficiency which could’ve been facilitated by having a more creative midfielder. With passes to the final third being one of the few passing categories that Crawley were behind their opponents, 66 to 69. They also trailed in smart passes (creative passes to beat a marker) 5 to 7 so the signing of Filipe Morais in the off season who has been utilised centrally was one of Kewell and his team’s remedies.

It would’ve been interesting to see how this season unfolded for Crawley and Kewell. New manager, Gabrielle Cioffi has had mixed results but now has a transfer window to make any adjustments needed, if given backing by the Crawley Town Board.

Notts County

In the 2017/18 season, Notts County – under Kevin Nolan – finished 5th with 21 wins, 14 draws and 11 losses and a GD of +23. They missed out on promotion after going down over two legs to Coventry City. Given a respectable war chest for League Two to work with, optimism was high for the 2018/19 season.

However, a disastrous start saw them winless in the league after 5 rounds. Alan Hardy made the decision to part with the up-and-coming manager early rather than see if Nolan could turn it around. Kewell was given the job and would take charge for the first time for round 7. Before this, Notts County were 24th with 1 point from 1 draw to go with 5 losses and a -10 GD.

The Aussie manager didn’t have a lot of room to move personnel-wise so would have to make do at least until the transfer window. As he showed at Crawley Town, he didn’t put much emphasis on Cup games except to maybe try out some players and tactics. This is probably something that didn’t sit well with fans but with the focus on staying up or being promoted, it’s understandable if a League Two manager focuses heavily on the league. This would come back to bite the manager after a heavy defeat away to League One’s Barnsley being his last game in charge.

For the eleven league games he was in charge, Kewell picked up 13 points with a record of 3 wins, 4 draws, 4 losses and a -6 GD. They had moved off the bottom of the table into 22nd and three points clear of the relegation zone. Form wise they were 16th over the round 7 to round 17 period.

After Kewell was sacked (rounds 18-26), Notts County have a record of 1 win, 3 draws, 5 losses and -11 GD. Altogether this season without Kewell, County have 7 points with a -21 GD from 15 games as opposed to the 13 points and -6 GD from 11 games. Currently, Notts County are back in 24th position.

New manager, Neal Ardley, is likely to be given this transfer window to make the changes that Kewell drew much criticism for saying were needed.

Overall, Kewell has a winning percentage of 34% in league matches which equates to 15 wins in a 46 game season which is enough for mid-table security. His losing percentage is 40% or 18 losses in a 46 game season.

They say football is a results business and some of the flak aimed at Kewell revolve around selections, personality, and tactics but looking at the results County have been better with Kewell than without.

One common problem that top athletes have when they move to the other side of the white line, is that not every one has the same focus and drive that they had. Not everyone can self-motivate, not everyone is able to seperate their personal feeling s from their professional obligations. Harry Kewell and David O’Leary don’t have a great relationship and Harry and his Aussie teammate Mark Viduka even had a falling out while at Leeds but their performances were not affected.

If Harry is to avoid a Notts County situation again, he must learn how to play the diplomat. Get the fans and the players onside and keep them there. Results will do this but when the results aren’t there, being open and honest with the fans while managing the egos in the changing room becomes paramount. Kewell did this well at Crawley by fronting a fan forum after a slow start to last season. It arguably bought him the time he needed before the team had adjusted to their new manager and results started to come.

Adam Howard

Adam is one of the founders of Football Central and the creator of OSAussies.com.  He has followed the career paths of Australian footballers playing in leagues all over the world.  Born in Adelaide and currently residing in Hiroshima, Adam brings a unique perspective to Australian football.  He is an ardent supporter of Australia's domestic competition and national team.

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