Long Reads

Kevin Muscat – The Tough Tackling ‘Aussie’ Hard Man

Although born in Crawley, England, Kevin Muscat moved to Australia at a young age and began his footballing career Down Under, going on to represent his adopted country on the international stage. He played for Australian clubs until August 1996, when Dave Bassett, then manager of Crystal Palace brought the defender to British football. The next decade or so would see what seemed to be a concerted effort to develop a reputation that some would consider ‘hard’ whilst others, especially opponents thought bordering on the downright violent. 

In his first term with the South London club, Muscat was part of Bassett’s team that achieved promotion to the Premier League after defeating the manager’s former club, Sheffield United, where Muscat had first trialled for him, in the play-off final. It would be a short initial stay in English football’s top tier, however. After just nine appearances, Muscat was transferred to Wolverhampton Wanderers in October 1997. The £200,000 fee received produced a handsome profit for Palace on the £35,000 they originally had laid out to sign the defender from South Melbourne.

After five years with the Molineux club, his next move would be north of the border to join Glasgow Rangers, where he would be part of the team that secured a treble of domestic trophies in the 2002-03 season. He would then join Millwall, as the Lions’ manager Dennis Wise perhaps recognised a kindred spirit, and the sort of determined fighter needed to guide his team to success. During his two years working under Wise, Muscat would skipper the side to the FA Cup Final of 2004. It was the first time in the club’s history that they had reached such exalted heights. Ironically, an injury in the semi-final meant that Muscat would miss the Wembley showpiece. Millwall would lose out in the final, but manager Wise insisted that Muscat should be presented with a medal for his efforts with the club in their run. In 2005, he would return to Australia with Melbourne Victory followed by a short period at Sunshine George Cross, before turning to coaching. On the surface, it reads like a fairly non-controversial story of a career, but one that skips lightly over the controversies that Muscat inspired when playing in Britain. 

In his first season on these shores, he would be dismissed in a game against Norwich City, for an overly robust challenge that inspired a melee including almost every player on the pitch. Of course, these things can happen to any player. The problem with the perception of Kevin Muscat, is that this wasn’t seen an isolated incident, it was taken as a harbinger for the remainder of his career, that led to him being labelled as “the most hated man in football.”

That particular epithet was bestowed on Muscat after an excessively aggressive challenge on fellow Aussie Stan Lazaridis in 2000. In the same year, he seriously injured Craig Bellamy in a league game. Such challenges were hardly limited to domestic games. Additionally, in what was deemed as a friendly with the Australian national team – someone may have forgotten to appraise Muscat of the sense of occasion, or perhaps he didn’t really care – against France, Christophe Dugarry was added to the growing list of victims. 

Two years later, whilst with Wolves, he lasted a mere nine minutes before seeing red for crashing an elbow into a Grimsby Town player, earning himself a three-match ban.

The problem with such misdemeanours, of course, is that bans mean an absence from first team action, and that brings into question the defender’s value to any team. Such a situation was highlighted during his time with Millwall. A stamp on Watford’s Danny Webber brought another suspension and caused the club’s chief executive to insist that his temperament must improve or he would be moved on. Damage to the club’s reputation to one side, there was a clear indication that such action brought into question his continuing career. 

They say that a leopard never changes his spots though, and whether or not Muscat tried to calm things down, it seemed to have little effect. A challenge on Matty Holmes of Charlton Athletic meant the midfielder needed multiple operations on his injury, with an initial fear that it may result in the loss of his leg. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Holmes would take legal action against Muscat. In a ground-breaking case, Holmes was awarded substantial damages and costs when the action was settled at the High Court. Even then though, there was no admission of liability. 

Retribution for his actions was not confined to legal redress. Following the injury inflicted by Muscat on Craig Bellamy, Norwich City team-mate and fellow Wales international Iwan Roberts, no stranger to the physical side of the game himself, delivered his own form of punishment by stamping on Muscat during a game in 2004. He suffered a fine and suspension, but received whispered wide acclaim from other players who had suffered at the hands – or more accurately the feet – of Kevin Muscat. If some may have hoped that a ‘biter bit’ payback may have curbed Muscat’s excesses, it was a forlorn hope. In the same season, a robust challenge from behind on Ashley Ward brought a red card. Such was the ferocity of the challenge; the FA levied a five-game ban. Back in Australia where Muscat returned after leaving Millwall, things hardly changed, but back in British football, more than a few players breathed a sigh of relief that the challenges driven by Kevin Muscat’s aggression were now on the opposite side of the globe. 

In a professional career, spanning the best part of 19 years, Kevin Muscat would receive 123 yellow cards and a dozen red ones. That may sound less than harsh considering the reputation he built. If the numerical evidence is less than compelling, the empirical type speaks volumes. Threats and warnings to intimidate opponents are nothing new in football of course, but when, Ashley Young later recalled that, on his debut, Muscat threatened to “break (his) leg” if he dribbled past him, there was a clear understanding that this was no casual threat. How physical was Muscat’s game? Well, legend has it that he is the only player in ‘Old Firm’ history to be kept out of the Glasgow ‘derby’ games as his temperament was deemed to be too likely to inspire problems in such a powder keg confrontation.

There’s often s thin line in sports involving physical contact between the acceptable and the unacceptable, and it’s true to say that for some players that line is blurred. For others though, it’s as if there’s no line at all, and many of his opponents would be keen to place the attitude and aggression of Kevin Muscat firmly in that latter column. It’s difficult to avoid overstepping the line, if you didn’t know one was there.