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When Luis Figo infamously left Barcelona to join bitter rivals Real Madrid, he was forever cast into the pit of hatred by all Cules. Returning to the Camp Nou, wearing the Los Blancos shirt, he even had a pig’s head thrown at him that had somehow been smuggled into the stadium. A banner at the ground said, “We hate you so much because we loved you so much!” There were never reports of any such parts of a pig’s anatomy being thrown at Harry Kewell when he left Leeds United, but for so many of the Elland Road faithful, after he left the club, the feelings they had for the Aussie they had once idolised were very similar to those expressed on that Catalan banner.
Kewell joined the West Yorkshire club at the age of 15 after starring in a tour undertaken by his Australian club, and taking up the chance of a trial at Elland Road. He shone for the club’s youth team and was a member of the successful crop of youngsters that won the FA Youth Cup in 1997. By that time, the tyro wide player had already broken into the first team, making his debut at the tender age of 17 in March 1996; he’d go on to notch his first strike for the club in October 1997 in a League Cup game. Over the next half dozen or so seasons though, he would not only prove to be a regular goalscorer but also become an iconic figure, and standard bearer for the young thrusting Leeds United team under George Graham and then David O’Leary, that took the club’s fans on a dizzying run of success right the way to the semi-finals of the Champions League, before all the hopes turned to dust and slipped away through their fingers as a financial meltdown threatened the club’s very existence.
There are any number of ways to illustrate how the Kewell played his way into the hearts of the Leeds fans. Forty-five league goals in just 181 outings, is a sumptuous return for a player who often played a wide supporting role, although when moved into a central striking position, especially paired alongside fellow Aussie Mark Viduka, he proved to be the coolest of finishers. Over and above the mere numbers, however, the style and elan with which he entranced fans as the poster boy, with the boy band looks, of the resurgent club was probably just as important.
Blessed with a deceptively elusive style, he had pace to burn and the skills to beat an opponent on either foot. Never particularly tall, he was also effective in the air and had little fear of deploying extravagant ability on the ball. With rabonas, stepovers and mazy dribbles, Kewell had the ability to inspire and intoxicate the watching fans and that indefinable quality of ‘making things happen’ in a game that otherwise seemed to offer little promise for his team. He was also the scorer of iconic goals. Three, in particular, would serve to express this. Strikes against Aston Villa, Arsenal and Grasshoppers Zurich were of the highest order and illustrations of a flair that is gifted to so few. That Leeds fans had such a presence in their team was something to be jealously treasured, and once lost, it felt like the betrayal was so much more intense, as the loss was so great.
Towards the end of his time with the club, the financial clutches of debt were eating into any long-term future, as mortgaged monies not yet received meant the fire sale of assets to keep things afloat. At such times, it’s inevitably the case that the best asset brings the best price and, as such, is one of the first to be cashed in on.
There had been a longstanding feud between Leeds and Liverpool, and when it became clear that Anfield was Kewell’s likely destination, love turned to bitterness. News that the player had also held a metaphorical gun to the club’s head as well, threatening to sit out his contract and walk away for free unless the deal was structured in a particular way that apparently favoured him financially only exacerbated the matter. Seeing your beloved star, the player who had given you such joy and elation, leave was bad enough, to hear that he had kicked the windows in on the way out when the club needed every assistance it could get, was too much to bear.
Harry Kewell would go on to lift trophies with Liverpool, the FA Cup and Champions League, that were the aspirations his time at Elland Road had suggested may have been achievable for Leeds United. It can’t have helped matters for Leeds fans to have seen their club spiral into debt and recession whilst their former star reaped the success they had dared to glimpse. Harry Kewell in Leeds white became just a sad memory and a lament for what might have been.