Broadfield Stadium is so nondescript you almost miss it on arrival. Tucked deep in West Sussex suburbia, among green parks and house developments, is the home of Crawley Town. Small, unfashionable but friendly, for most of their 121-year history the club was a non-league entity of little renown. Crawley only climbed into the Football Conference in 2004 and six years ago they reached their highest level ever in League One.
Today they sit in League Two after narrowly avoiding the drop last season. It remains, perhaps, an odd destination for a player who won the Champions League, FA Cup, Uefa Super Cup, a PFA young player of the year award and an FA Youth Cup winners medal during his stellar Premier League career to make his first step into senior management. But Harry Kewell, a son of Smithfield in western Sydney, doesn’t see it that way.
“This club’s very ambitious for me as well so it kind of fit,” he says. “I’m a believer that you have to make things happen, you just can’t wait for the perfect this and that. This is a great opportunity for myself and the club.”
Guardian Australia meets Kewell in Crawley’s front office on a hot summer’s day. He has been putting his team through its paces in preparation for the new campaign that starts at home against Port Vale. At the age of just 38, tanned and tattooed, Kewell looks fit enough that he could still tear down the left flank as he did for Leeds United, Liverpool and the Socceroos.
But management is his goal now, his new ambition and as he professes often, his new love. In May Kewell was appointed the new boss of Crawley following the departure of Dermot Drummy. He had spent two years in charge of Watford’s Under-23s, but after hanging up his boots in 2015, this is his first taste of a first-team role.
“I fully enjoyed myself at Watford but I was frustrated because you’re there as a role to help the first-team. As much as you want to create ideas yourself, you’re very limited because of the players. Your role is to create players to go into the first-team and I’m very happy with what I created there.
“I felt personally I needed a new challenge and luck, as it happened, Crawley were looking for a new manager. A young manager, very ambitious, very hungry but has to have a good family background because this is a very family-orientated club.”
To some, Kewell’s decision to go into coaching was a strange one. He was Australian football’s first real star, a player with the good looks, a TV star wife and dazzling skills that helped finally put football in the national conscious at the turn of the 20th century. With his work for fashion brand Politix, his academies and media appearances, management seemingly wasn’t in his future. There is also the old adage that great players rarely make great coaches. Kewell even admits he had no thoughts of becoming a coach while he was still playing, with those coming after retirement.
“I never rarely saw myself as a great player, so maybe I’m out of that bracket. [But] for me, I love this. When I first did my badges, I remember my first assessment was defending corners and organising the team and getting players into position. When I started playing football I had this fire, this burning desire of ‘wow I love this’. And that’s what I got when I coached from that very first assessment. I just went ‘this, this is what I like’. I love coaching.”
Kewell is buzzing with enthusiasm for the new season to get underway. The task at Crawley is a sizeable one – the Reds finished 19th of 24 teams in League Two, just five points above the relegation zone. The job is not only to stay up but to potentially try and push for promotion. Turkish millionaire Ziya Eren bought the club 19 months ago and has big plans.
Kewell has already made his mark by bringing in seven new players, including his former Watford charge Dennon Lewis, and letting five go. In pre-season results have been respectable with five victories, a 1-1 draw with a Chelsea development XI, and defeats to Brighton & Hove Albion and Portsmouth.
“It’s a changeover, it’s a new management that’s come in,” he says. “It was their first full-on season last year. It takes time to create something. People feel they can create something in a heartbeat – it can’t happen. You’ve got to get a good foundation first and then you can start building on top of that. I think this club is starting to build a good foundation.
“It’s a test for me. I’m a young manager. I’ve got some players in their thirties and they’ve got their ideas as well, but they’ve got to take the lead off me. My door will always be open for the players but they know where they all stand. We’ve been busy, we’ve got some excellent players here already but we’ve brought some quality players in as well. We’re looking good.”
During his career Kewell played under some of football’s best managers for club and country – Guus Hiddink, Rafa Benitez, Terry Venables and Frank Rijkaard. But he is determined to develop his own individual style and coaching philosophy.
“I want to bring something different to the game. I don’t want to sit there and play the way or coach the way Benitez did or Hiddink did. I don’t think you can replicate them because that’s what makes them great managers; they have their own ideas. But there’s certain things off the field, like how they’ve handled certain things, certain situations. That’s helped. I’m a strong believer that you learn on the job.”
Crawley are ambitious but so is Kewell. No Australian has ever managed in England’s professional Football League, let along in any of Europe’s main leagues. Australians may have played with and against Europe’s best but coaching is a different matter. Kewell wants to be the first to break the mould.
“I was always a big dreamer when I played football, I always wanted to play at the highest level and vice versa. There’s no difference in being a coach. I want to see how far I can go. If you want to be the best, you have to be amongst it. This opportunity for me at Crawley has come at the right time. It’s going to be tough. They came 19th last season, they had a great start but really faded away. So it is going to be tough, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
One day managing in the Premier League or even the Socceroos, Kewell isn’t ruling anything out. The first step in the journey starts at Crawley Town.
“You never know. If they [the Socceroos] come calling, you never know. There’s a few people lined up, a few of my ex-team-mates, and they’ve done very well. [But] this is not an easy job. You’re always getting scrutinised, whether you win or lose. People are going to have a go. So you have to have thick skin in this game, but I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t up to the challenge. I love it. I will give as good as I get.”
This article was written by John Davidson, for theguardian.com on Friday 4th August 2017 22.28 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010