Opinion

Aussie Premier League Legends: Mark Viduka - 'Better than we realised'

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Mark Viduka is back in the news, two decades on from the striker's move from Celtic to Leeds in the summer of 2000.

The then-Scottish Player of the Year was to go on and spend ten seasons in the Premier League, playing 240 games, scoring 92 goals and recording 28 assists.

With Leeds, Viduka scored 59 goals in 130 league games.

Three seasons with Middlesbrough then saw 26 strikes from 72 appearances, before two campaigns and seven goals at Newcastle completed an impressive career.

However, there was much more to his story than stats.

The views

"My view on Viduka is that he could have played for any team in Europe at that time," top English pundit and former Manchester United star Gary Neville said in March.

"I think he was one of the best centre-forwards in Europe.”

When the Socceroo was in his Elland Road pomp, he was certainly feared around a league that was going from strength to strength.

There is perhaps no better time than to talk to those who saw one of Australia’s best ever players.

“He was better than we realised at the time,” Rob Smyth, Guardian writer, author and host of 90s football podcast Nessun Dorma, told The World Game.

“I do think he was a really interesting mix of styles – extremely strong and excellent at holding the ball up, a bit like an old eighties forward, but also with fast feet and an even faster brain.

“He was a terrific link player and a really calm finisher. It's quite unusual to see someone with that range of qualities.

"I suppose, on reflection, he would play really well in a modern 4-3-3 as he’d be great at bringing wide forwards into the game. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do.”

Viduka’s best form was for a young and exciting Leeds team that reached the semi-finals of the 2000-01 UEFA Champions League.

“At one point they had an incredible list of centre-forwards – Keane, Fowler, Smith, sometimes Kewell, Bridges when he was fit – but he was usually the first choice," Smyth added.

"I thought he was consistently excellent. Everyone remembers the first season, especially the four goals against Liverpool, but he was superb in 2002-03 at a time when the team and club were falling apart.

"He scored 20 league goals that season in a team that was almost relegated, and probably would have been without him.”

Leeds did eventually go down in 2004. It was obvious that the striker would leave as there had been past interest from Manchester United and Milan. Italy may have been the right option.

“I’m sure he’d have been a success as there was more than enough subtlety to his game, as he showed when he made the winning goal away to Lazio in the Champions League with that brilliant drag-back,” Smyth added.

“He played very well against Lazio and Milan that season. What does surprise me is that a bigger club didn’t come in for him when Leeds were relegated in 2004.

“I’m speculating but maybe he didn’t have the murderous ambition of some other players, on and off the field.”

The move to Middlesbrough was something of a surprise and his time on Teesside was more of a mixed bag as Boro fan Simon Chadwick, professor of Eurasian Sport Studies at Emlyon Business School in Lyon, remembers.

“There was excitement and expectation when he signed,” Chadwick said.

“He was leaving a club laden with stars, albeit one in decline, to come to Middlesbrough.

"He became part of a project that took Boro all the way to the UEFA Cup Final. He did reasonably well during what was Boro's most successful ever period.

"However, he was never a particular fan favourite, although he was up against some hot competition - players such as Juninho, Gareth Southgate, George Boateng, Gaizka Mendieta.”

Viduka famously said himself that he was kind of lazy and didn't like running too much and Chadwick was not alone on feeling that the player could have worked harder.

“Being lazy was one of the common refrains among Boro fans," Chadwick added.

"We had the blood and thunder of Boateng, the leadership and charm of Southgate, the all out commitment of Juninho... Viduka failed to rise to these standards.

"But there’s no doubt that, whatever reservations people might have or still do have, he was a key member of Boro's most successful ever side.

"Would I sign him again if we were in the same position as we were at the time? Of course.

"He was a great goalscorer and someone who played his part in the team.”