Illustration by Federico Manasse
The abiding memory of Mark Viduka in the Premier League is that of a brooding bulldog forward, lazily monikered with the ‘good touch for a big man’ tag. The Australian provided the English game with his best years; despite a 25-goal season with Celtic prior to his move south of the border, Elland Road, and later the Riverside Stadium, saw him at his deadly best.
Born in Melbourne, the son of a Croatian immigrant, Viduka’s early days as a professional were moulded by his Croatian roots. Australia became a noted migration spot for Croatians fleeing the persecution back home, and the Australian government had welcomed them with open arms and favourable visas.
Viduka’s first club as an 18-year-old was Melbourne Knights, previously known as Melbourne Croatia, and following two successful seasons with them, he made his big move to Europe. Croatia Zagreb – now known as Dinamo – was the natural destination for Viduka, and his goals helped the club wrestle domestic control from rivals Hajduk Split. Viduka struck up a fine partnership with domestic goal scoring legend Igor Cvitanović, winning three back-to-back trebles with the club, during a golden era for the club.
His performances had caught attention across Europe, and in December 1998, Wim Jansen swooped to sign him as Henrik Larsson’s Parkhead partner. After a stop-start opening to life in Scotland, Viduka settled well during the summer of 1999 and tore the SPL apart in 1999/00. Despite playing in a Celtic side that was competing against the best Rangers side for decades, Viduka was head and shoulders above most in the league, including Larsson. The Australian secured the Scottish Golden Boot and the SPL Player of the Year Award, and with his reputation significantly enhanced, he moved on to Leeds United.
His time in Scotland had earmarked him as a target man, good aerially and with the ability to link play to quicker and nimbler players around him. David O’Leary signed him with this mind, wanting a central striker that would allow his young and creative team to have more presence in the attacking third. He was also charged with bringing the best out of Australian teammate Harry Kewell, who at the time looked set to take the Premier League by storm.
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Viduka’s style instantly endeared him to the Elland Road faithful, with his physical style and power in the air a throwback to the days of Allan Clarke and Mick Jones. His time in Yorkshire continued to demonstrate that Viduka was far more than just a stick in the sand, battling with defenders in aid of the team, evoking a true sense of guile.
His appearance gave defenders the instant impression that they would be in for a bruising 90 minutes, but his close control and ability to finish clinically off either foot gave them a further headache. O’Leary’s side was built on pace and counter attacking flair, and Viduka provided the consistent goal threat they need to compete in Europe; finishing as top scorer in his four seasons at Leeds tells its own story.
He was there for the highs of Champions League semi-finals and the lows of financial implosion and relegation, and his departure in 2004 to Middlesbrough was a painful nail in the Leeds coffin. Leeds’ loss, however, was firmly Boro’s gain, as the Australian led the charge for the Teessiders to the 2006 UEFA Cup final, proving that he still had gas left in the tank.
His goals in the 2006/07 season steered Boro away from the drop, but his race was run at the Riverside, and in 2007 he joined Newcastle. At St James’ Park he found himself in another relegation battle, but his goals and experience helped to save them in 2007/08.
Viduka’s early days with the Socceroos was marred by playoff heartbreak missing out on the three successive World Cups. Fortunes changed in 2005 when Viduka was named as Australia captain by coach Guus Hiddink, and the honour spurred the St Albans-raised star to lead his country to their first World Cup in 32 years. Flanked by Kewell and Tim Cahill, Viduka and Australia reached the last 16 and kick-started a new dawn of optimism for Australian fans.
His role in qualification, and at the World Cup itself, solidified Viduka’s status as an Aussie legend, comfortable as an elder statesman leading their Golden Generation into battle. Coupled with his long impact at the top of the European game, there should be no doubting his status as the most impactful Australian footballer of all-time