With so much anticipation about the way the newly independent A-League will choose to market itself and attempt to improve on campaigns of the past, the first teaser for season 2019-20 has appeared.
The table doesn’t lie. Played three, lost three, zero points.
Three games into the season, Harry Kewell’s Crawley Town are officially, currently, the worst team in the English Football League and the only side in League Two not to pick up a single point.
Add in a 5-1 thrashing against Birmingham City in the League Cup and it’s fair to say it’s a steep learning curve for one of Australia’s most famous footballing sons.
Kewell’s early season travails continue to make headlines in Australia. Fox Sports led with ‘Socceroos legend in for criticism after three losses‘, while a few calls of #KewellOut could be found on Twitter and more than a few murmurings of discontent on fans forums.
Three games in and Kewell could already be said to be under pressure.
Does this mean the obituaries should already be written for Kewell’s managerial career? Even after two games the Australian headlines were taking a decidedly negative turn, Kewell’s status as one of the country’s greatest ever players notwithstanding.
It would be easy to write off the rookie boss as out of his depth and another statistic in the old adage that great players don’t make great managers. Easy, and not entirely representative of Crawley’s current position.
The role at the Broadfield Stadium is a difficult one. Not that Crawley is a particularly inhospitable place, it’s a perfect pleasant lower league stadium in the outer suburbs of a perfectly pleasant English town.
The only danger to anyone visiting is missing kick-off due to the regular traffic jams around Gatwick Airport. But it is a club that has been on the slide in recent seasons.
To trace Crawley’s current malaise, you have to go back to 2008, when the Red Devils were still a non-league team and Steve Evans was in charge. Up to that point, Crawley had tended to plod around in the lower mid-table echelons of the Conference, rarely troubling either end of the table and more notable for their frequent points deductions.
The arrival of Evans, an abrasive Scot with a penchant for touchline bans and feuding through the press, coincided with a substantial injection of cash into the Sussex club that turned Crawley into a more disliked non-league version of Chelsea.
In non-league, where a strong amateur ethos remains, blowing your competitors out of the water financially by paying six figure sums for players was somewhat frowned upon. Combined with Evans, plenty of non-league was perfectly happy to let the Football League have them when they won promotion in 2011.
A second successive promotion rapidly followed, despite the selling of top scorer Matt Tubbs and the departure of Evans to Championship Rotherham, claiming he felt he’d taken the club as far as he could.
Evans may not have been popular with the wider football community, but he was effective. With a win percentage of 44 per cent, none of the six bosses in seven years that have followed the Scot have been anywhere near as effective. Dermot Drummy, Kewell’s predecessor at the Broadfield, managed just 15 per cent despite an encouraging early season start.
Crawley managed three seasons in League One and burned through as many managers. Ritchie Barker led the team to a respectable mid-table finish but was sacked after flirting with the vacant position at Portsmouth. John Gregory was forced to step down due to health problems, and caretaker Dean Saunders oversaw relegation.
At the same time, funds were drying up at the Broadfield. Benefactor Bruce Winfield had passed away and budgets were tightened. Crawley were no longer outgunning the competition, but were struggling to keep up with a modest budgets. Last season, the Red Devils were one of a number of teams sucked into a battle to avoid relegation to non-league.
Which is were Kewell comes in – the pet project of current owner, Turkish millionaire Ziya Eren, who has stated an ambition to turn Crawley into a Championship side.
Like Drummy before him, Kewell’s management experience comes from managing youth teams. And like Drummy before him, his side is unlikely to challenge for the title. Many of the squad from last season still remain while signings such as Thomas Verheydt have yet to gel with their teammates.
Again, does this make Kewell a bad manager? Arriving at a club with little in the way of managerial stability in recent years largely populated by a lower-to-mid table squad would be a challenge for any manager, let alone a Champions League winner of any nationality who has never managed in League Two.
But before Kewell is written off as a glamourous yet expensive mistake, consider this – last season Exeter City narrowly missed out on promotion after losing in the play-off final, yet were rock bottom of the division in November and only Leyton Orient and Newport spent more time in the drop zone than the Grecians.
Cambridge United, the most recent victors against Kewell’s Crawley, also spent much of the first two months in the drop zone before finding form and challenging for the top seven. League Two is one of those funny, tight divisions where a few wins can put you within touching distance of the playoffs and a bad run of three games can suck you within touching distance of the bottom two.
It’s far better to start slow and build than to follow Crawley’s route last season of starting strongly before dropping away badly. If Kewell’s side manages to find form, early season anguish will soon be forgotten.
And if Kewell crashes and burns? A lot depends on how much he really wants a managerial position in England. Certainly few clubs in the Football League would be willing to take a punt on a novice who has been deemed to have failed at a mid-table League Two team, although he may find a willing taker in the Conference.
Alternatively, there’s always the A-League, where failure at Crawley will not deter any number of Australian clubs who would love to have a marquee manager in the hotseat.
As John Aloisi has shown, even failing badly in Australia doesn’t stop you if you want it enough. After a disastrous spell at Melbourne Heart, the fellow Socceroos legend has turned Brisbane Roar into respectable finals contenders and is learning all the time.
Alternatively, Kewell could turn to what many consider his natural habitat: the pundit’s sofa. Last season, Kewell regularly popped up on BT Sport’s Saturday afternoon show and looked comfortably in his element.
But Kewell rarely takes the easy option. This is a man who left Australia for England at the age of 15, spent time at Galatasary despite their history with his former club, Liverpool, and who has been openly critical of younger Aussies for not taking chances abroad.
Kewell, as ever, is building his managerial career his way.