Leeds bank on their Australian advance

The Mark Viduka Interview: The striker forced to escape the country of his heritage is warming to a new homeland
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The Independent Football

You sense, after a few minutes in the strapping Australian striker's presence, that Mark Viduka is at peace with himself, not to mention those around him. With the exception of last season at Celtic, that has not always been the case. To suggest he has compressed a somewhat turbulent life into his five years as a professional footballer is to say that Captain Cook enjoyed the occasional cruise before happening upon Viduka's homeland.

You sense, after a few minutes in the strapping Australian striker's presence, that Mark Viduka is at peace with himself, not to mention those around him. With the exception of last season at Celtic, that has not always been the case. To suggest he has compressed a somewhat turbulent life into his five years as a professional footballer is to say that Captain Cook enjoyed the occasional cruise before happening upon Viduka's homeland.

Reviled and abused during the latter stages of his time at Croatia Zagreb, where the front line normally meant his role with the club, but when the air-raid warning sounded during training referred to a war zone only 40 miles distant, he moved to a supposed haven named Celtic. It was there he achieved notoriety in British football as the player who ran home because of the pressures; when many commentators ridiculed a man who had accrued a reported £1.5m from the deal, who boasted a beautiful girlfriend, Ivana, but couldn't contrive to kick a ball.

Fewer of them subsequently paid tribute to the character it had required to return and last season become Scottish Player of the Year and the Premier League's top scorer. Captain Cook's ships, it may be recalled, were Endeavour, Resolution and Adventure. In his own way, Viduka has sailed in identical vessels on his voyages of discovery. "I feel I've gained a lot of experience in a short time as a professional in Europe," says the 24-year-old. "Hopefully, that will help me do the business with Leeds. In Croatia, particularly, I had to grow up very quickly. It was an experience that was new to me, and I had to learn quickly how to deal with it. I've had my low times, but I believe I've pulled through it all pretty well."

At Leeds' Thorp Arch training ground on Friday a group of young Australian footballers, the Adelaide Panthers, here to take on the Leeds Academy, swarmed over Harry Kewell's parked black Corvette, imagining the pleasure of being one of the League's most consummate performers. You could see it in their eyes: the fantasy of scoring Premiership goals, and then afterwards with the girls, aided by the allure of gallon-guzzling automobiles.

For Sydney-born Kewell, the transition from talented teenager to acknowledged genius has been smooth. Not so for his new team-mate and attacking partner, originally from Melbourne. When Viduka, who moved to Elland Road for £6m this summer, enthuses about the beauty of Yorkshire; about green fields and the abundance of trees; simple pleasures like visiting Harrogate, and walking his dog, it is evident the transfer was more than about money. "I also had offers from Spain and Italy, but I liked the atmosphere here immediately," says Viduka, scorer of 27 goals last season. "I was impressed by the way they approached me, particularly the attitude of Peter Ridsdale and David O'Leary, who is respected by all the players."

The latter, who describes his signing as possessing "two good feet for a big man, and a nice touch" emphasises that Viduka could also have stayed at Celtic and been better rewarded financially. However, Viduka insists: "I want to play against the best players in the world, and the Premiership is where you find them. I want to get to the top of my profession and I believe this is the place where I can do it."

He adds: "Leeds have impressed me for the last couple of years, especially last season, with the quality of their play and the way they work for each other. I honestly felt they were going to win the League from the start they had. In the end they didn't, but it was obvious they were going places. The whole club excited me."

Less than two years ago, he was not so much in a state of excitement as of manic depression, having walked out on Celtic two days after joining them from Croatia Zagreb. His luggage had been dispatched on to the Gatwick tarmac, on the orders of a furious Fergus McCann, from the aircraft which was to convey Viduka and his new team-mates to a winter training camp in Spain. He flew home to Australia for seven weeks and considered swapping a footballer's load for that of a hodcarrier, with his house-builder father Joe. "There were many times I thought about giving it up, but in the end I decided that wasn't an option," he says. "The game has been my life since the age of five and I just couldn't walk away from it."

The son of Croatian immigrants, Joe and Mary, he was brought up in St Albans, a working-class suburb of Melbourne. The area was home to 50,000 Croatians and it was inevitable the young Viduka would favour the European game rather than Aussie rules football. He played for Melbourne Croatia under-9s and later moved to the much-vaunted Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, from where he "graduated" aged 18. Despite overtures from Borussia Dortmund, he was persuaded to join Croatia Zagreb by the club's president, the late Franjo Tudjman, who unfortunately for Viduka, was also the country's detested political leader. After 50 years of Communism, Tudjman represented the unacceptable face of radicalism. "I couldn't refuse," Viduka says. "I felt it was my calling.

"You must understand I have feelings for both countries. Although I was born and raised in Australia, I also have a Croatian heritage." He scored 41 goals in 75 appearances, but then his form dipped, along with the popularity of Tudjman and he became regarded as the president's pet. He was spat at in the street and his car was vandalised. "The Croatians are very expressive people," Viduka explains wryly. "The stress built up and I had run-ins with supporters. Yet, I had risked my career by going to the war-torn country of my heritage. That's why the treatment I received hurt so much."

His "escape" to Celtic came initially as a blessed relief. However, it took four months to negotiate because of complications over the £3m fee, half of which was reportedly due to him. When he arrived at Celtic Park, Viduka had two days to prepare for a game against Hearts. "I couldn't switch off what I'd been through," he says. "I didn't know anyone and I felt physically and mentally drained." The ensuing seven-week hiatus proved to be his salvation. When he returned, Viduka was a man reborn. "I focused all my energies on doing well," he reflects. "I was very pleased with my overall game for Celtic last season. Apart from the goals, I set up a lot of chances for team-mates. At the beginning Celtic was a tough time for me, but I've put it all behind me. I see all that period as a learning part of my career and my life."

O'Leary hopes to be the beneficiary now that Viduka has successfully done so. The player is not completely match fit, having only played one-and-a-half games during a pre-season tour of Sweden. In the first, deployed alongside Kewell, he scored a hat-trick in the 7-1 defeat of Lysekils. In his second, he aggravated an ankle injury originally sustained with Celtic. But he hopes to play in Wednesday's Champions' League qualifier against 1860 Munich, who include his international room-mate at the 1996 Olympics, his fellow striker Paul Agostino.

O'Leary no doubt hopes that Viduka can have an effect this season similar to the one Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink once produced, and already speaks of the two Australians playing together up front as "a very exciting partnership". The manager's only concern is that injuries may force him to thrust Viduka into such contests quicker than his fitness should allow. The emergence of Kewell and Viduka has increased the game's profile dramatically in their homeland. "Hopefully, by producing top-class players, it will inspire the younger players in Australia. They'll be saying, 'Gee, if they can do it, why can't we?'" Viduka says. "Before, there was nobody of this quality playing in Europe."

In the Eighties, he and his father were avid viewers of the exploits of John Barnes (who was to become his coach at Celtic), Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle. Now, back home in Melbourne, Viduka senior is having a special satellite dish installed to enable him to watch live English Premiership football. His son isdetermined to make it a highly worthwhile investment.

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