Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Lucas Neill is the new Harry Kewell

Pick one: Sydney Olympic of the New South Wales Premier League, or Watford, promotion contenders in England’s League Championship.

Yup, Lucas Neill has landed on his feet.


Ageing Australia captain Neill needed a club in the worst way in order to lead the Socceroos to this year’s World Cup. There are zero bones about this – seventy-four games for six teams in four years since the last Cup is a telling statistic. Neill was, and perhaps still is, in serious danger of missing Ange Postecoglu’s squad after vehemently criticizing Australia’s young players following ex-manager Holger Osieck’s departure in October.

This week, he has been cut by manager Ange Postecoglu from the Socceroos’ squad for a warm-up game against Ecuador while simultaneously batting seemly eyelashes towards former club Blackburn Rovers and hometown Olympic.

Only in Australian gold does he still command respect for his abilities, if not for his personally-vaunted natural leadership. If he places so much currency in that leadership, it speaks ill of his stocks in this trait that each of his last four teams have not seen the same value. Many younger Socceroos would not share his own lofty opinions of his charisma.

After long stints at Millwall – a club with a long fondness for Aussies – and similarly-inclined Blackburn Rovers, Neill has become a shiftless free agent, roaming the globe in search of game time and ready coin. In the eight years since his defining day in the gold and green, Australia’s most publicized player has played for nine clubs with declining influence. Such has been his difficulty settling down that there have been few stories reporting on-field performance and many on possible landing spots, dressing-shed schisms and how – or if – he fits into a new generation of Socceroos.

Since the South Africa 2010, the defender has only managed over twenty games at one club, rocking up to 39 matches alongside compatriot Harry Kewell at Galatasaray during 2010-11. There is no coincidence that Cimbom’s assistant manager at the time was Guus Hiddink’s sidearm and noted Neill fan Johan Neeskens.
There’s an odd symmetry to the link-up with Kewell, for Lucas has now replaced Kewell as Australian football’s story-for-hire.

Kewell, the captain’s contemporary for Australia, Galatasaray (and nearly Liverpool), has a reputation for making the game all about Harry: overblown and poorly-timed injuries, startling recoveries, a soap-star wife, will-he-play-in-Australia questions, will-he-play-for-Australia questions, an ego with its own gravitational pull and, buried beneath those B-list celebrity trappings, sublime talent.

After making a name for himself as a hard-bitten defender capable of playing both on the right and centrally, Neill has become a similar figure of parody. His presence in the game is now less about his times on the pitch than when he is removed from it. The questions surrounding him are not as lurid as those flung at Kewell, but instead wonder if Neill can successfully contribute to a dressing room, if his inflated opinion of his leadership abilities are to his (and others’) detriment and if he even demands a place on merit in a Socceroo backfield.

Amidst all this, if he is match-fit, Neill probably still has a role to play. With Rhys Williams missing the tournament, Neill may be the best central defender Australia has to offer to a terrifying group in Brazil. He has an amount of that chest-out, chin-up defiance made so popular by John Terry that if not encumbered with egotism might prove invaluable in an Australian squad likely to include several players at their first Cup.

Watford will provide fourteen potential opportunities to prove to Postecoglu that he can contribute tactically and physically rather than solely with his Spartan brand of leadership.

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