Kewell glad to be getting back to best

The return to fitness of Liverpool winger Harry Kewell seems to be coinciding with a return to form. Harry has struggled with injury more or less from the day he joined the Reds, and needed surgery in the summer in an attempt to finally cure some of those problems.

Liverpool fans had been critical of Kewell, the full extent of his constant battle with injury had never been revealed and it was always perceived as a lack of effort and commitment that was preventing him from performing to the level he’s remembered for. One person who did know what was holding the Aussie back was manager Rafael Benitez. Rafa worked hard to help Harry find the cause of his problems, and has also been patient and understanding. Kewell is grateful for that consideration: “I owe a lot to the manager for sticking by me when everyone else was giving me stick. I want to pay him back for that. The Liverpool fans have probably been the most frustrated with me, and I want to pay them back as well – so it’s great to hear them behind me.”

Kewell’s performance at Anfield on Saturday earned him a standing ovation, a gesture he appreciated, and one which Reds fans would love him to earn more and more. Kewell pointed not just to his improved fitness for his improved form – he says it’s also thanks to his team-mates: “It’s great to be able to play without any pain – I feel comfortable and I’m alongside fantastic players, so it’s enjoyable.”

The manager himself spoke highly of Kewell after that West Brom game, describing the Aussie as the sort of player he’d have signed himself. Kewell was brought to Anfield during the Gerrard Houllier days, and it’s a common rumour that Kewell’s Liverpool days are numbered. The fact that Rafa didn’t sign the player is usually given as one of the reasons for the rumour, but Rafa’s comments hopefully put that idea to bed. Rafa has admired Kewell from well before his Anfield days: “The first time I saw Harry Kewell play was against Manchester United at Old Trafford four or five years ago, when Jaap Stam was against him. Harry was very, very fit and he played very well. For me he was the kind of player I would sign, but he was injured and had problems.”

Kewell has benefited as much as the rest of the squad from the increased self-confidence they have all seemed to find this season. Rafa says that this confidence spreads from player to player, and so it was important to get behind Harry as he recovered from those injuries: “We support him and we give him confidence and he gives us confidence and lots of things. For us it’s really important to have Harry because we need players who can go past defenders and Harry can do that.”

Rafa is enjoying the benefits his patience with Kewell has started to bring: “We were waiting for him this year and now he is fit, every week he gives us something. I have said before he is the kind of player who can beat people, get crosses and shots in and he gives us a lot of things on the left hand side.”

Kewell has just started four games in succession for the first time in just over a year, but may be rested for the visit to Luton in this weekend’s FA Cup third-round tie, as Rafa aims to get the most out of the player: “We are trying to use Harry and protect him also – every week he is much better, every week we can see him progress. The most important thing is that he needs to play.”

Without saying all Kewell’s problems were in his head, Rafa explained that the longer he struggled with injury and a lack of form, the harder it was to overcome the psychological barriers that aid recovery. Part of Rafa’s job has been to convince Kewell he can get through it: “Sometimes you don’t know how difficult it can be for a player. If he wants to play, but injuries stop him from playing at the level he wants, it’s difficult to have self-belief.” Off-the-field issues won’t have helped Harry, and Rafa has perhaps pointed out to the player how he needed to improve matters in that regard: “Sometimes he had bad advisors around him, but I think now he is fit and that is the best thing for him. It’s good to see him working really hard now. The supporters are clever and they can see he is trying to do his best, but I would like to see him playing even better. I have confidence in him. I had problems sometimes with people around him but when I talk to him I have confidence. He is a good player, no question. We need to see him playing at this level all the time.”

It remains to be seen whether Rafa will rest Kewell at the weekend, but one Luton player hopes he’s given a chance to play against his old mate. Luton’s Northern Irish striker Warren Feeney was a product of the same youth academy at Leeds that brought Harry Kewell through, and was delighted to hear the draw. Feeney explained how they’ve remained friends despite going their separate ways some time ago: “I became friends with Harry when we were at Leeds. I was allowed to leave the club, while he was offered a contract, but we still speak to each other about twice a week. I was trying to ring him as soon as the FA Cup draw was made, and as soon as I got hold of him I was telling him they would be in trouble against us. It will be an unbelievable tie against a fantastic side, and let’s hope we play as well as we can against them.”