Nearly two years after making his blockbuster return to the A-League with Melbourne Victory, Harry Kewell is back with crosstown rival Melbourne Heart. That Australia's most famous footballer is back is big news, though the circumstances this time around are very different.
When Kewell joined the Victory in August 2011, his signing concluded a drawn out saga involving several clubs, accusations of outrageous demands, big money and vast expectations regarding on-field performance and box office impact. Though Victory would be the direct beneficiaries, the move was heralded as a boon to the A-League as a whole. Kewell would bring more fans to more games across the country and would serve as an ambassador for the league.
That level of expectation is difficult to remember now that Alessandro Del Piero has taken over the role of most famous name in the A-League and Western Sydney Wanderers have blown away previous notions of what could be accomplished with an expansion club. Kewell made a major impact in 2011/12, though Victory's failure to reach the finals and Kewell's own struggles at the start of the season left the narrative easy for a more than willing domestic press. When he departed after just one year, Kewell made forgetting his experiment in the A-League even easier.
In mid-2013, at the age of 34 and with just three appearances in Qatar over the past fifteen months, Kewell needs to improve his final image in club football. It is true that many fans will remember his exploits at Leeds United and Liverpool, not to mention his performances with the Socceroos, but he surely did not want his single season at Victory to be his exit from professional football.
As such, it is unlikely that he will bring all the baggage to Heart that he brought at least to the process of signing with Victory in 2011. Heart CEO Scott Munn said at that time, "We are not too worried. We are in this for the long haul. The circus comes to town and then leaves." Today, Munn will be reading that quote in countless articles pointing to the hypocrisy of signing Kewell himself less than two years later.
Yet there seems like very little of a circus atmosphere this time around. With Kewell in need of an image rehabilitation, money was less of an object in his negotiations with Heart. Though he turned down an offer from Newcastle Jets, that appears to have more to do with wanting to play in Melbourne rather than in New South Wales. Though not yet confirmed by the club, reporting last week suggests Kewell will earn the league minimum $48,000 in 2013/14. That number, combined with Kewell's status as a domestic player, leaves room for Heart to continue its search for a foreign Marquee Player.
So Kewell takes less money to play in Melbourne, the Heart get a box office draw and potentially an impactful player on the pitch. Munn and company will be less concerned with Kewell being a draw in other markets as the club needs desperately to increase its own attendance at AAMI Park this season. Only Wellington Phoenix averaged fewer fans per game as Heart slumped to second bottom on the ladder, only staying clear of the Phoenix on goal difference on the final day of the season. If Kewell is only marginally effective on the field, the move will be more than worth its tiny cost in additional ticket sales.
Kewell will have an ally in manager John Aloisi, who similarly moved to Heart at age 34 in what turned out to be his final season in 2010/11. Though the circumstances are completely different, perhaps it was that connection, as well as being long-time Socceroos teammates, that convinced Kewell that Heart was the place to land as his career comes to a close.
Neither Heart nor Kewell want to be in such needy positions. Yet here they are, interesting bedfellows in the this ninth A-League season. This move will certainly receive its share of criticism, particularly if things do not go well. But given the specific circumstances for each side, this one-year deal makes sense for both parties.