Striking contrasts: ups and downs of the man from Down Under

Mark Viduka has endured the vagaries of the press and the precariousness of football boom and bust. Tim Rich finds the Australian in search of solidity
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Given that his sister is a journalist, you might expect Mark Viduka to understand how newspapers work; how sometimes they require a hero and a scapegoat.

Given that his sister is a journalist, you might expect Mark Viduka to understand how newspapers work; how sometimes they require a hero and a scapegoat.

Throughout his career he has been both. When he left Melbourne as a teenager to join Croatia Zagreb, he was told by the new nation's president, Franjo Tudjman, that he would be a "a symbol to all Croatians". He ended up being abused, called "a poofter" and weighed down by impossible expectations.

At Celtic he became Scottish Footballer of the Year. "You don't get that award by being ordinary", and yet when he returned to Australia during stressful contract negotiations, the media ran wildly inaccurate stories that he had been at a mental institution in Glasgow.

How will he be remembered in the white of Leeds United? As the man who scored four times against Liverpool, in one of the most remarkable single-handed displays the Premiership has ever witnessed? Or will it be as the man who at Bolton, in a game Leeds had to win to avoid relegation, got himself sent off after being told to calm down by, of all people, Alan Smith and the teenage James Milner?

Has he had a fair press? "What do you think?" I tell Viduka that he is an easy target. When he plays well, when he displays the outrageous back-flick that sparked Smith's goal against Lazio or the fabulous finish that condemned Arsenal to their last Premiership defeat almost 17 months ago, his brilliance is obvious. When he fails, he fails obviously.

"At Parkhead people should not have had too much to complain about. But there is no pressure like Scottish football, it is unbelievable. I mean the Scottish press," he said. "If you are playing for Rangers or Celtic, the scrutiny is constant, unforgiving. The city of Glasgow revolves around football in a way that it simply doesn't in England.

"Take the north of England, you've got so many quality teams but in the whole of Scotland you've got two, and all the newspapers talk about is Rangers and Celtic and sometimes they make things up. Second place is not good enough and for anyone that is a very difficult situation to find yourself in."

But for the highest class of footballer, for Thierry Henry, for Ruud van Nistelrooy, second is always "not good enough". They adjust to the pressure, gulp it down and thrive. "I understand that," said Viduka. "Thierry Henry has to be judged like that but he's playing in a good team and that makes all the difference.

"Look, you can have a shocker, score two goals and everybody's happy. Other times you can have a ripper of a game, score nothing and nobody cares." It seems ludicrous to say so, but playing for Manchester United against Lyon, Van Nistelrooy made no significant contribution, other than scoring two goals. "Exactly. You can score two goals and come off feeling something is missing."

There has not been too much missing from Viduka's game since he left the wreckage of Leeds for Middlesbrough, technically Yorkshire's last outpost of Premiership football, to pair up with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

Between them, they have scored nine times, given Boro their most solid start to a season under manager Steve McClaren and launched their first European campaign with a comfortable Uefa Cup victory over Banik Ostrava.

What attracted him to Middlesbrough, apart from its being a beautiful hour's drive through the north Yorkshire countryside from his village near Harrogate, was, he says, "its solidity". This was a commodity Leeds entirely lacked. On the day we met, Middlesbrough had been drawn in the League Cup against Coventry City, now managed by Peter Reid. At Elland Road, the two had suffered a vicious fall-out with Reid complaining about Viduka's time-keeping and attitude.

It ended with the striker walking out of the club's Thorp Arch training ground with the words: "If you want to get relegated, stick with this bloke." Leeds went down to Portsmouth without him, conceded six goals, a result which to nobody's surprise triggered Reid's sacking. Leeds were relegated without him.

"I'll have a coffee with him," Viduka smiled. "I had no real problems with Peter Reid. I think the situation he found himself in was desperate. People react to them in different ways and, deep down, he's a good bloke. Everything was out of control, for the playing staff, for everybody. The cleaner at Leeds didn't know if he was going to be in a job next week. Everybody was waiting to hear whether the club was going to be saved, sold or go under."

Steve Gibson, Middlesbrough's saviour, chairman and benefactor, will ensure there is no such question hovering above the Riverside Stadium, which nine years ago opened with a fixture against Chelsea, who are, coincidentally, today's opponents.

Then it seemed a very glamorous match until you realise that in Ruud Gullit's team were Steve Clarke, Andy Myers, Gavin Peacock, Dennis Wise and Mark Hughes. The glamour has gone up several notches, although when asked how he feels facing John Terry, Viduka replies that, while he is technically excellent, Terry will not try to intimidate him like some centre-halves he could mention.

"Well, Keown was one. Martin was a little bit over the top, he did weird things during a game. He'd be trying to wind you up all the time. He'd hit you behind play, have a crack at you at corners and smack you in the face. And yet Ray Parlour was telling me the other day that he's a top bloke; it's just when he crosses that white line that he changes. It happens to quite a few footballers; Alan Smith is one that springs to mind, and Danny Mills is another."

Misunderstood men. In a week which sees the release of a whimsical romantic comedy about Wimbledon, it is worth stating that perhaps the finest film ever made about sport is Australian. Directed by Bruce Beresford, The Club concerns an Australian rules football team which signs a hugely expensive star from Tasmania, whose form oscillates between the brilliant and the terrible and is thought of as weird, or worse, "a poofter" because he reads the odd book. There is a publicity conscious chairman, who finds it all too much, infighting and financial crises. I remember to ask Viduka if he has seen it but forget to say whether it reminds him of Leeds.

"I've watched it, it was made about 1980 and it's about my club, Collingwood, the Magpies. Warnie [Shane Warne] is big on them and I used to watch them all the time. It's a tough, tough game; you have to be super-fit, very strong and you get to wear those cut-off tops that show your arm muscles.

"But there was never a choice between that and football. My parents are immigrants to Australia; they came in the 1960s from Croatia. My father was from a footballing background, he played a little bit, just locally, but introduced me to a team called Melbourne Croatia, who became Melbourne Knights, the team I've supported all my life. There was only ever going to be one sport. I was never an all-rounder."

He was, however, brought up as a Croat. At home the Vidukas spoke only Croatian, his wife Ivanna is Croatian and when he captained Australian youth teams he wore the red, white and blue checks of the young nation on his armband. "I go back all the time, it's peaceful now. My dad's from the Dalmatian coast, a place full of islands and beaches."

There is now a two-year-old boy to take with them, although small children are not usually thought compatible with Rottweilers, of which Viduka has two, Tara and Max. "I don't know why people don't understand the appeal. They are good guard dogs and good companions. Yes, they are dangerous but they're not vicious, they can be good natured and very protective of kids. If somebody comes over the children are not sure about, the dog can sense that."

Just like a Premiership footballer wary of the autograph book about to be thrust into his face or a microphone aimed by a journalist wanting an easy hero or a simple scapegoat.