ON his first morning as Crawley Town manager last July, Harry Kewell gathered together his new players in a huddle on the training pitch and told them exactly what he expected from them over the course of the season.
“This might be League Two, but I want you to play passing football,” he said. “I don’t want a direct style any more, we play out from the back, and I want you to always give me absolutely everything you have.”
“We all looked around at each other, nodded our heads, and thought, ‘Yes, I like the sound of that, ‘” says Crawley Town’s Irish defender Mark Connolly. “In that moment you could tell he was going to be really good for us.”
Crawley Town have enjoyed a season of steady progress under Kewell, as the former Australian international has himself emerged as one of English football’s most promising young managers.
Despite inheriting a dispirited group of players who in the previous two seasons had finished 20th and 19th in League Two, Kewell has banished any lingering relegation fears and hauled Crawley up to their current position of thirteenth.
Crawley already have amassed more points than last season, and for the first time in years are looking up the table, rather than down, and still retain an outside hope of reaching the play-offs this season.
This has not gone unnoticed further up the Football League, and last week, speculation grew that the south London side Charlton Athletic in League One were preparing to lure Kewell from Crawley if they are taken over by an Australian consortium, which includes Essendon board member Andrew Muir.
“We have heard the rumours in the media, and hope they are not true,” says the Crawley captain Jimmy Smith. “I would be disappointed to see him leave, because we have a great relationship. It would be really sad.”
“Everyone would be gutted if he left,” agrees Connolly.
“I am sure it will happen, one day, and he will deserve it, but hopefully not yet, we still have things we want to achieve with the manager at Crawley Town.”
Over the last eight months, Kewell has earned the respect of these players for the real improvements and new attention to detail he has brought to Crawley.
“He is one of the best managers I have worked with,” says Connolly. “It is incredible this is his first job, because he has dealt with everything brilliantly, and acts as if he has been doing this for the last 10 years.”
Managers with Kewell’s playing CV, which includes winning the Champions League with Liverpool and playing in two World Cups for Australia, don’t often begin their careers so close to the basement of English football.
“There was a lot of excitement from the lads when we heard he was coming to Crawley,” says Smith. “I grew up watching him in the Premier League.
“Football at this level is a small world, so normally you can send out a few texts to ask other players about the new manager, but I didn’t know anyone that knew him, and I don’t have Steven Gerrard’s number!,” laughs Connolly.
Though Kewell’s only prior experience in management was taking charge of Watford’s Under-23s for two seasons, the Crawley players were quickly impressed with the new approach he brought to the West Sussex club.
“Everyone bought in to him, because he’s been there, and done it all,” says Connolly. “He’s done the sort of thing we are all still dreaming about doing ourselves one day.”
At that first training session Kewell had set himself the daunting task of transforming Crawley in to more of a passing side amid the more physical and unvarnished style of football usually found in League Two.
But to begin with Crawley struggled, and lost seven of their first eleven league games of the season to immediately put their rookie manager under pressure.
“The thing I most admired about him is he didn’t panic,” says Connolly. “All managers say they want to play good football, but after a few weeks if it doesn’t work it goes out of the window and the more basic approach comes back, but he stuck to his principles and kept believing in us.”
“Even when we lost 4-0 to Wycombe, and the fans weren’t happy, he just said, ‘Dust yourself down lads, we are going to keep playing like this, it will work.’”
By the end of December, Crawley had slumped to near the relegation zone, but a run of eight wins from their next 10 games quickly lifted them in to the top half of the table, and within two points of the play-off places.
“We finally adapted to what he wanted, and our results changed,” says Smith. “We were now on the same wavelength, and playing his way, all the hard work paid off, and suddenly we couldn’t stop winning.”
Kewell’s philosophy is to play what he calls “flowing attacking football”; he wants his teams to play out from the back, to press the opposition, and remain on the front foot. On the ball he asks his players to be calm and composed, to provide options and angles, and play between the lines.
“He also wants us to train as we would play,” says Smith. “He has brought a lot of fresh ideas, there is a lot of repetition, and he drills in to us what he wants.”
The players speak about a determined character in the dressing room; who is friendly and approachable, but keeps his distance too; they know he is the manager, and while mostly calm he can also lose his temper when required.
Kewell has also brought a new professionalism to Crawley Town; they now travel to games the night before and stay in a hotel so they can relax rather than leave on the morning, and the recent 6-hour drive to Carlisle was broken up with a night in Manchester where Kewell took them all out to dinner.
The players have not given up hope of a late run in to the play-offs, but whatever happens, already deem this season to have been a success.
“Back in August I saw a newspaper story that predicted we would finish second from bottom in 23rd place so no one gave us a chance of doing anything,” recalls Smith. “I took a picture of the story and kept it on my phone to motivate me.”
“But the manager has come in and helped us exceed all expectations. He gave us a new identity, a winning mentality, and we have come a long way under him.”
The Crawley squad are confident they have a bright future under Kewell, and expect to challenge for promotion next season, but as those Charlton rumours have shown, they are also aware their manager could be in demand.
“We are not silly, we know how football works,” says Connolly. “I can see the manager going on to bigger and better things, but I hope we can keep hold of him at Crawley Town for a little bit longer.”