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MARK VIDUKA: THE AUSTRALIAN FORWARD WHO WOULD BECOME ONE OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE’S UNSUNG IDOLS

Looking back at the exploits of Mark Viduka - the forward who became a hero in the Premier League with Leeds United and Middlesbrough.

Mark Viduka is an icon for several reasons. The former Australian forward brought his talents to the Premier League at a relatively young age, and considering he hailed from a country that hardly provided any top talents abroad at the time, his impact makes him a hero for his country. His rise to his peak, though, was just as complex as several other professionals, however, right from a very young age, it was evident his talent would take him places.

Starting off in the early ’90s, Viduka plied his trade in his native Australia for the Melbourne Knights, where he left a mark at the club early in his career. The Knights have a large Croatian heritage, and they gave Viduka – a person with a Croatian background – an opportunity at the tender age of 18.

The teenager was only there for two seasons and in that time, he was top goalscorer in the league in both campaigns and was also voted the best player in the league in both seasons as the Knights surged towards the title in 1995. An exceptional talent, his professionalism and maturity over the two years received several plaudits, and he would attract attention from Europe. Such was his impact, that after just two years at the club, one of its stadium’s stand was named after him.

From there, he moved to Croatia in the hope of making a name for himself on the European stage. His move was to the most successful Croatian team in Croatia Zagreb (now Dinamo Zagreb). In his three years in Zagreb, he proved to be a threatening attacking force as he helped the club win the league on three occasions as well as enjoy relative success on the European scene.

Playing in the country where his family roots came from, it was a big chance for the forward to stake his claim as a big prospect. His ability on the ball was faultless, showing elegance for a man of his size. Bringing others into the game as well as scoring was a strong part of his game. As well as creating goals for his strike partner Igor Cvitanović, he chipped in with 40 goals in his three seasons in Croatia.

One game that will always be remembered was a Champions League qualifier against Serbian rivals Partizan Belgrade in 1997. A strong side that had a wealth of young talent to their disposal, they would prove to be a difficult opponent. After winning the first leg 1-0, the Croatians were in pole position to qualify. An inspired Zagreb showed relentless dominance in the game racing to a 5-0 win with Viduka in amongst the goals to contribute a spectacular game that saw his side qualify to the next round. The Viduka effect was certainly in full effect.

After a successful three-year period in Croatia, he was picked up by the team who he had defeated with Zagreb in the Champions League, Celtic in Scotland. He had left a lasting impression on the Slovakian manager Jozef Venglos when they played earlier in the season, and in the winter transfer window, Celtic made a £3.5 million offer for the big Aussie.

Unfortunately, his time in Glasgow did not start all too well, when he decided to leave Celtic and think about quitting football altogether. However, a shining light in February proved valuable for Celtic when he returned and from thereon became a big hit for the Scottish club. Playing alongside another great striker in Henrik Larsson, this was the firepower Celtic needed to defend their title.

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VIDUKA ENHANCED HIS REPUTATION DURING HIS SHORT STINT AT CELTIC PARK

Larsson was the poster boy at Celtic and was the player they looked to for inspiration in a game. His ability score goals out of nothing and his intelligence on the field was what struck an unlikely partnership between Larsson and Viduka. The latter did not gain the credit enough for his performances with the mercurial Swede. Larsson that season took the top scorer and best player award but Viduka’s importance could not be understated. However, it was not enough to see them win the title as Rangers had other ideas, winning both the league and Scottish Cup.

The 1999-00 season proved to be the turning point in Viduka’s career as he scored an incredible 25 league goals and was the clear goalscoring machine in that league. Celtic did not win the league that season as they finished second behind Rangers with a 21 point gap. That season also saw the striker have to ex-Liverpool players in charge – John Barnes had an uneventful stint while Kenny Dalglish would take over on an interim spell.

With over 30 goals in his short spell at Celtic FC, he only spent one full season at the club before leaving. That speaks volumes of his ability, as he was famous for his hold up play and his technical prowess. His overall stature as a forward benefitted him greatly, as he was the club’s top goalscorer as well as their Player of the Season in his only full campaign. His finest hour in the green-and-white hoops was arguably the match against rivals Aberdeen, where both he and Larsson scored a hat-trick each in a famous 7-0 win.

That one season at Celtic was enough for him to earn a big money move to the Premier League giants Leeds United for a fee of just over £6 million. After finishing third in the league, reaching the semi-final of the UEFA Cup and earning a place in the Champions League for the following season, this looked like the right, progressive move for Viduka at the time.

Manager David O’Leary was a big spender in the summer transfer window, as he brought in star centre-half Rio Ferdinand, a goal machine in Robbie Keane, and Olivier Dacourt. Leeds fans will always remember his fine partnership with young forward Alan Smith. The pair were an unstoppable duo causing havoc in the league and Champions League. They finished the season with a combined 40 goals between them – with Viduka striking 22 goals – in a season that saw them finish fourth, just outside of the Champions League positions.

Their Champions League performance, however, cemented it as Leeds best performance in Europe to date as they narrowly missed out on the final, falling to Spanish outfit Valencia in the semi-final. This was certainly a season to remember for Leeds and Viduka. He finished with a total of 17 Premier League goals and in joint-third with Arsenal legend Thierry Henry.

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AT ELLAND ROAD, HE TOOK LEEDS UNITED AND HIS OWN PERFORMANCES TO NEW HEIGHTS

The story of Henry and Michael Owen, who were on top form at the time, is always told, but Viduka would have to gain plaudits for some of his displays. Some of his best displays in a Leeds shirt came in the big matches – and his performance against Liverpool, where he scored four, made him one of the most revered players to don the famous white. Leeds were trailing 2-0 in the first half before Viduka clinically scored four goals with ease leaving the Reds back-line in a haze.

The next two seasons saw Viduka flourish in the Premier League, finishing as the club’s top goalscorer in both campaigns. He guided Leeds to fifth in the 2001-02 season with the Yorkshire side actually being in top spot at Christmas. He may not have reached the levels of the previous season, but he was adding creativity to his game as assisted seven in addition to 11 from himself. He strike partner, Robbie Fowler, was the one who benefitted from Viduka’s creative intelligence as he scored a club-high of 12 goals after moving from Liverpool.

Leeds survived relegation in the following season with defiant performances from the Australian to become the saviour of the club, scoring over 20 goals in a struggling season for the team along with his countryman Harry Kewell. In the final game of the season, Viduka proved why he held in such high regard. In a game against Arsenal, who beat them 4-1 earlier in the season, it looked inevitable Leeds would see relegation that day. With the scores locked at 2-2, and minutes to play in the game, Viduka produced the winner in a game that saw Leeds safe from the drop and dealt Arsenal a loss that ended their title chances.

However, financial turmoil was the downfall for Leeds United, and with the loss of key players including Kewell to Liverpool and Jonathan Woodgate to Newcastle, they were in disarray. Management changes throughout the 2003-04 season that saw Peter Reid sacked, Eddie Gray departing, and Kevin Blackwell take charge in a tough season. Despite the valiant efforts of Viduka who, once again was top goalscorer for Leeds, and Alan Smith, they were left an enormous task and finished 19th in the league, thus going down a division.

With relegation to the Championship and money problems to go with it, Viduka would end his stint at Elland Road. The Australian forward would, however, extend his stay in the Premier League, moving on to Middlesbrough. Boro knew they had signed a lethal striker who could cause defenders nightmares with his physical, brutish attributes in front of goal. His style worked at Leeds, and with a few problems of their own, Middlesbrough could be optimistic that he would aid their situation.

For the first time in the Premier League, Viduka had failed to score over 10 goals in the league. However, himself and veteran forward Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were a dangerous strike partnership that helped Middlesbrough to their best-ever league position of seventh and gained qualification to the UEFA Cup.

Hasselbaink had reached his pinnacle at Chelsea and before being let go on a free. His partnership with Viduka, however, worked a treat for their club. Both players were similar in style and were coming together on the back of similar situations. It may not have been Viduka’s best season in the league, but his presence in the team was enough to propel Hasselbaink and Stewart Downing and the club into finishing seventh.

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VIDUKA, HERE SEEN REPRESENTING MIDDLESBROUGH.

The 2005-06 season saw Viduka find himself a new centre-forward partner in newly signed Yakubu. Like his partnership with Hasselbaink, this also worked and the pair managed to both reach double figures for the season. Similar to several before him, Yakubu certainly benefitted from Viduka’s presence. The likes of Larsson, Smith, Kewell, and Hasselbaink all improved with their Australian strike partner and there was a pattern emerging for those supporting him.

It would be right to think that he made them better players or rejuvenated their careers. His attributes of unselfishness and his supportive style as a forward was seeing his teammates reap the rewards of a player who was always looking to help the outfit he represented. His strike partners seemed to enjoy their time playing alongside the Australian forward as he complimented their style with his. A well-oiled machine was ticking by just nicely throughout the season as Kewell and Smith certainly saw their name in light with Viduka going under the radar of his opponents.

That 2005-06 season saw them reach the final of the UEFA Cup, losing to a strong Sevilla side 4-0. The bottom half finish was a negative point that saw Steve McClaren leave, although his European exploits encouraged the English FA to give him the country’s top job.

Gareth Southgate, the former Middlesbrough player would take the reins at the Riverside and made it clear he wanted to keep Viduka. This was definitely a wise decision made by the English manager, as in his last season with Middlesbrough, Viduka went on to become the club’s top scorer along with an in-form Yakubu to lead the club to a comfortable mid-table finish.

In the summer of 2006, he led the Australian national team to its first World Cup since 1974 and was the captain that earned them a last-16 place. That summer would end in disappointment as the Socceroos would bow out following a controversial penalty scored by Francesco Totti for Italy.

His international career was not so glamorous as he failed to be as efficient in front of goal when compared to his exploits at a domestic level. But the intelligent Aussie forward was not overlooked for the 2006 World Cup as his influence in the team and wisdom was not to be missed. In his 43 caps as an international, he only managed to score 11 goals.

His main highlight as a Socceroo was the World Cup where there seemed to be no hope that they would qualify. In a group with Brazil, Croatia, and Japan, it looked to be an uphill challenge to make it to the second round. But a surprising win against Japan and a draw against Croatia saw them make it through where they faced the eventual winners. The Totti penalty was certainly heartbreaking, especially considering the way it was lost, but there was pride to be taken after such a valiant showing throughout the competition.

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THE DRAW AGAINST CROATIA AT THE WORLD CUP IN 2006 WAS CRUCIAL

In his final two seasons as a professional, Viduka signed for Newcastle United on a free transfer. He started showing signs of decline as injuries were the cause of his problems in the north of England. The forward may not have scored too many in his time at the Magpies, however, he was the prominent figure for setting up Michael Owen and Obafemi Martins to helping Newcastle divert from the relegation zone and finishing mid-table in the league. In his last Premier League campaign before hanging up the boots, he made very few appearances as the Magpies would, unfortunately, be relegated.

Mark Viduka’s career may not have had the glamour of Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba or Wayne Rooney, but one thing for sure is that Viduka is an underrated, unsung hero in England’s top flight. His importance to Leeds United and Middlesbrough no matter what state they were in was commendable and he is well-regarded amongst both sense of fans. Overall, it could be said that he is an icon in Australia for his impact in the Premier League. Not only was he a fine goalscorer, but his effort for his team also set the bar for several others and for that reason, he is one of the league’s greatest imports.

BY LIAM HAYCOCK