Harry Kewell’s redemption arc nears completion in Asian Champions League

<span>Harry Kewell’s Yokohama F Marinos head into Wednesday’s Asian Champions League semi-final second leg looking to overturn a 1-0 deficit against Ulsan HD. </span><span>Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Harry Kewell’s Yokohama F Marinos head into Wednesday’s Asian Champions League semi-final second leg looking to overturn a 1-0 deficit against Ulsan HD. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Harry Kewell’s coaching journey has been unconventional, to say the least. His previous job ended at the bottom of England’s fifth tier, but he is now just three games away from a continental title and a place in the Club World Cup. Fifa’s expanded 2025 tournament in the United States would be worth an estimated $80m to Yokohama F Marinos but for the Australian’s coaching credentials it would be priceless.

On Wednesday, the five-time Japanese champions, coached by Kewell since the turn of this year, host Ulsan HD in the second leg of their Asian Champions League semi-final. The South Korean side have a 1-0 advantage from last week, but there is all to play for at Yokohama International Stadium.

Related: Harry Kewell: from Sydney's west to the grandest stages of world football | Paul Connolly

The venue that hosted the 2002 World Cup final is a far cry from Crawley Town’s Broadfield Stadium, where in 2017 the former Leeds and Liverpool winger became the first Australian to take over an English professional club. It was a decent start but then it all went wrong. There were 11 matches at Notts County, seven months at Oldham Athletic and then in 2021, a far from magnificent seven games and just two points at Barnet. Being fired by a team worried about relegation to the sixth tier does not usually result in many options, but having Ange Postecoglou onside helped the unemployed Kewell.

The now Tottenham boss gave Kewell a job at Celtic in the summer of 2022 as first team coach. Postecoglou’s success in Japan also proved valuable. He led Yokohama to the 2019 J-League title and recommended Kevin Muscat as his successor. The former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Crystal Palace defender delivered the championship in 2022 and once Muscat moved to Shanghai Port in December, Yokohama moved for a third successive Australian coach and a reader of the Postecoglou playbook.

“I’ve known Ange and Kevin a long time,” Kewell said after taking the job. “I class them not only as work colleagues, but friends.” He promised evolution rather than revolution. “I’m looking forward to continuing the work that Marinos have put in over the last five, six years and kind of bring in my own gold dust on top of it.”

That glitter has, so far, come in Asia. Domestic form has been decent. A win at the home of champions Vissel Kobe earlier this month was impressive and was followed by victory over Gamba Osaka. These are still early days however with most teams having played just nine matches. Yokohama are seventh, just five points behind leaders Machida Zelvia but with a game in hand. In the Champions League however, Kewell’s timing was perfect; he came in just before the start of the knockout stages.

The 45 year-old has a perfect chance to make his mark, partly because, despite their five domestic league championships, Yokohama have consistently underachieved on the continental stage. They had never made it past the round of 16 before, meaning Kewell has already managed to do something neither of his Australian predecessors managed – win a knockout Asian Champions League game.

In doing so, he has displayed familiar aggressive instincts. Just as Postecoglou had Tottenham attacking when down to 10 and nine men against Chelsea earlier this Premier League season, Kewell impressed in March when Katsuya Nagato was sent off just moments into the second half of the second leg in the quarter-final against China’s Shandong Taishan. Yokohama were 2-1 up from the first leg but, despite the numerical disadvantage, there was no thought of sitting deep. Kewell took a man out of midfield and reinforced the attack. It was brave and successful; the Marinos got the goal that sealed their progression.

“We had no intention of changing anything,” Kewell said. “We have players with speed out in wide spaces where we knew they didn’t want us to attack. Whether we had 11 players or 10 players, we wanted to play the same way.”

Aggression was again the order of the day at the home of the formidable Ulsan in the first leg of the semi-final. The South Korean side, gunning for a third Asian title as well as a third consecutive K-League triumph, are a tough outfit. Yokohama took the game to the Tigers but couldn’t make any of their 18 goal attempts count and lost 1-0. Kewell will be hoping for a different outcome on Wednesday.

If so then an Asian Champions League final awaits against either Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates (coached by fellow 2005 Uefa Champions League final alumni Hernan Crespo) or four-time winners Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia. It would be an immense occasion and opportunity. So far Kewell has carried on the good work of his fellow Australians but now he has a chance to strike out on his own, to win a major international trophy and move up to the global stage. Nottingham, Oldham and Barnet will look very far away indeed.