A-League: Kewell and Emerton come home

Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton (front row far right) in the 1994 NSW under 15 soccer team that won the Australian championships. Roy Hay

Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton’s recent signings for Australian clubs have, in the blink of an eye, skyrocketed interest levels in the coming A-League season.

Their return represents the closing of a circle started by Kewell 17 years ago when he and Emerton played in the championship-winning NSW under-15 team against a Victorian side that included Daniel Allsopp (who will be a team-mate at Victory) and Melbourne Heart’s Simon Colosimo.

Given the sea of hype on which the ship of sporting commentary sails, we can understand why Victory chairman, Anthony di Pietro suggested that Harry Kewell’s acceptance of a three year-contract for Melbourne Victory was “the biggest player signing in the history of Australian sport”.

Given the competitive market in which he operates he can almost be forgiven.

He saw it as one in the eye for Andrew Demetriou and the AFL and their dealings with Karmichael Hunt, Israel Folau and Gary Ablett.

The signing of Socceroo Brett Emerton by Sydney FC after an eight-year stint at Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League only adds to the buzz. Will the return of the prodigal sons transform the round ball game in Australia?

In the first season of the A-League in 2005, Dwight Yorke, the former Manchester United striker lit up Sydney’s successful run to the league title, but by 2010-11 it was the team performance by Brisbane Roar under coach Ange Postecoglou which drew the accolades.

So it is not immediately evident that the arrival of one superstar — even a domestic hero— and another immense talent in the last years of their playing career will lift the game to a new level.

On the face of it Kewell might not be the best fit for Victory. In many ways he would seem to be better suited to Sydney FC, which has always depended more on theatre goers and bling than Victory, which while it has high demands from its fans for skilful performance and performers, is less besotted by “star quality”.

Emerton might well have been a better acquisition. We will probably never know – though this is Australian soccer so we can’t rule it out either.

But Kewell is certainly one of the relatively few football stars who have cut through to become recognisable sporting figures beyond the devotees of the code.

Kewell will attract more fans, of that there is no doubt, and his contract involves a percentage of the increase flowing directly to him – though it is not clear how that will be calculated.

Victory’s home crowds against Sydney, for example, have varied from 18,206 at Olympic Park in 2005 to 50,333 at what was then Telstra Dome in 2006, and 18,453 in the major semi-final in 2010, and 17,299 in 2010-11 season at what is now Etihad Stadium.

Kewell’s manager, Bernie Mandic, wanted the clubs against whom Harry played to hand over a share of their increased gates as well, but that has not happened.

Incidentally this ploy is not unprecedented. When Malcolm “Supermac” MacDonald played as a guest in three matches for South Melbourne Hellas in the National Soccer League in 1977, Hellas tried to get the opposition clubs to share the insurance premium for the Arsenal striker.

Much depends for Harry’s drawing power on how his body holds out. He has had a history of significant, lingering injuries, though he looked fitter and fresher than ever for the Socceroos at the Asian championships in January this year.

In his favour is the fact that he will have to play fewer games in Australia, in a shorter season and at a slower pace, with time to think when he is on the ball rather than before it arrives.

At Victory he is not likely to be played as solo striker in most games, but in the hole behind the front man, so his contribution could be more assists than finishes. Will that be appreciated by the theatre-goers who will be attracted by the name and come out of curiosity? Will their attendance be one game or will they join for a season?

The rush to judgment before he has kicked a ball is silly. If his body holds up and he finds a congenial role and support as Cadel Evans received from his BMC team at the Tour de France, then he is capable of doing what Evans did – performing some extraordinary solo feats which ensured that he was in a position to win the race.

In one mountain stage Evans had to change bicycles losing a considerable amount of time, but fought his way back with help to the main group then got to the front and had the presence of mind and determination to resist attempts to get him to help the Schleck brothers in pursuit of the breakaway.

Finally when it counted he all but won the individual time trial and with it the overall victory.

In another team game, Kewell could do the same if the support and the conditions are right at Victory. We sense a podium finish next March for Kewell and his new team.