“It’s good to turn over a new leaf and start afresh, and I think there’s no better club for me to do that than Middlesbrough.”
There have been more than a few fresh starts in the career of Mark Viduka.
Mark Viduka recently made what will most likely be his last ‘big’ move before he shrinks down to the lesser leagues of Europe and possibly back for a final romantic fling in a revamped Australian league. As of Friday, Teesside is his new home.
The deal which takes Viduka north very nearly went through six months ago, when the close of the transfer window defeated the hopes of both clubs – Leeds desperately needed the money and Middlesbrough desperately needed a striker. It would prove to be one of many snags in Viduka’s turbulent European reign.
However, with Leeds crashing out into anonymity of the Nationwide, the deal was hastily revived. Both clubs still had their respective January agendas to address, and while the eyes of the football world were fixed on the Euro 2004 final, Viduka was whisked away to the Riverside Stadium to complete his medical with barely a headline.
Middlesbrough is an interesting setting for what will inevitably be ‘Dukes’ last swing at glory. It’s a town set halfway between Glasgow and Leeds, the cities in which his football won acclaim on the park and his behaviour drew angst off it. Although he spent a markedly longer time in Yorkshire, the parallels were painfully obvious.
The supremely talented Socceroo striker has dominated four leagues with an ideal compromise of aggression and finesse, which he famously honed on the back streets of the industrial Melbourne suburb of St Albans. Nevertheless, his volatility ensured that the fragile balance regularly became unstuck.
A remarkable goal-scoring ability was blighted by an on-going warfare with managers who dared to interfere with his game, lifestyle or unwavering commitment to the cause of the Australian team. Paired with – or arguably against – idolised heroes like Henrik Larsson at Celtic and Alan Smith at Leeds, Viduka would never become the darling of the masses.
On several instances Viduka showed his flair for the occasion at Leeds, never more so than his first match against rivals Liverpool on an unseasonably warm autumn day at Elland Road. The Reds bagged three; Viduka nabbed four. Those who questioned his ability to make the jump of quality from Scotland to England were quickly silenced by perhaps the most memorable individual performance in Premier League history.
He appeared to enjoy a mutually beneficial partnership with David O’Leary, not to mention the constant supply from a cosmopolitan midfield compromising the likes of Harry Kewell, Olivier Dacourt, Lee Bowyer, Eirik Bakke and the home grown David Batty. The £6m deal that brought him from Celtic seemed like a bargain. But the fairytale didn’t last.
After making such a huge impact on arrival in England, the speculation inevitably came. Barcelona, Juventus and Roma were eternally linked with the burly front man, and even Manchester United cited Viduka as a potential candidate to help form a replacement version of the Cole-Yorke-Sheringham-Solskjaer quartet. Over the ensuing years, the gossip seemed to rupture Viduka’s focus.
As the Leeds bandwagon started to lose on-field momentum, arguably traceable to decision of replacing O’Leary with Terry Venables, Viduka looked sluggish and unhappy at being locked down in the Midlands. Club ambitions of domestic and European glory were soon replaced by a fight for mid-table mediocrity. The club started to haemorrhage into debt, and, before long, the dreaded relegation battles came to fruition.
Frivolous spending on players like Robbie Fowler, Darren Huckerby, Seth Johnson, Nick Barmby and Jason Wilcox would come back to bite, and the club was eventually forced into a fire sale of its first team squad. While all seemed to part company on loan or on permanent deals, of the meagre skeletal remains, Viduka, like the other loyal ‘bait’ – Smith, Paul Robinson and James Milner – would stick around until the grim death.
His 13 goals in Leeds’ last nine outings would be enough to save Leeds from demotion 2003, but the heroics could not be repeated a year later. It was only a matter of time before the rumours turned to fact, and Boro manager Steve McLaren stepped in to clean up the details that couldn’t be finalised on time in January.
Middlesbrough has gained notoriety in recent years for their ability to bring in high-profile attackers who notoriously under-perform. Alen Boksic, Hamilton Ricard, Noel Whelan, Benito Carbone, Dean Windass, Michael Ricketts and Massimo Maccarone were all plucked from various clubs across the continent, and the magnitude of their pledges of goals were only matched by the delivery of failure.
Even Szilard Nemeth, top scorer for Boro last season with nine goals, is well short of the elite bracket of strikers Viduka belongs, or at least belonged too. His partnership with the Australian will be crucial in determining whether the north-east club is capable of achieving the goals of their ambitious chairman Steve Gibson, and, just as importantly, making up the lost ground on their rivals up the road at St James’ Park.
At 28, and with only limited time on his side, it could well be the last opportunity Viduka gets to thoroughly test himself in England. Sadly, if he cannot score more goals, he will not be remembered as player of class and ability, but one who-might-have-been and had a penchant for public bust-ups.
At Middlesbrough, he gets a chance to avenge the critics and prove his worth. Whether he takes it remains to be seen.