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Byline: anthony CLAVANE

HARRY KEWELL knows what it is like to be savaged by critics and fans.

Famed for his reticence, he bounces into our meeting at the Liverpool training ground sporting a boyish grin, a firm handshake a mischievous glint in his eye.

This is a man who clearly has not been broken by the abuse he's endured in recent times.

In fact, he's regaining his finest football form just when the cult of baiting Harry has been stoked up by his actress wife Sheree Murphy's appearance on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Harry believes his wife's show has been eclipsed by Celebrity Big Brother, which finished on Friday.

"I loved it," he raves. "They're all in there bitching about each other but they're all playing the same game. I chopped and changed. One minute I loved George, for example, then I hated him."

In reality, just as in reality television, fickleness rules. One minute Harry's a Kop Flop, the next he is Special K. The house-mate he really felt sorry for was basketball superstar Dennis Rodman.

"He must have wondered what he was doing there at times," says Kewell. "They thought he was out of his box, but he's American and he's got his own ways. It's the same if you're an Australian."

No wonder he empathises with Dennis. The Aussie winger's annus horribilis left him at an all-time low.

But he is emerging from what he calls "The Dark Ages" to play an influential part in the Reds' surge for top honours in 2006.

The ex-Leeds star has been the butt of ridicule in more ways than one. But, whether it's Ant and Dec's merciless mickey-taking on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, columnists questioning his commitment or, most hurtful of all, Scousers savaging him during the Champions League Final, he is determined to prove the critics wrong.

First, let's get the important stuff out of the way. His wife Sheree informed her jungle friends that he enjoyed facials and had "the smoothest, peachiest bum".

Kewell smiles: "I get a bit weary because a lot of men say it to me and fans give me stick. I'd like to meet Ant and Dec after what they were saying. They kept plugging what she said.

"But you can say whatever you like to me, it doesn't bother me an iota."

Sheree also revealed he'd love to play in Italy - yet more ammunition for the critics. "I said the same thing at Leeds," he protests. "I would love to go and try Italy or Spain at some point in my career.

"But I'm here at Liverpool and I want to finish my career here, if they want me to finish it here. Of course, I wouldn't rule it out though.

"It was really hyped up that me and Rafa Benitez fell out over it. But that's complete rubbish."

There's no doubt that he fell out with some Kopites last season, culminating in May's public humiliation in Istanbul.

In the two-and-a-half years since his pounds 5million move to Anfield his traumatic battle for form and fitness had threatened to destroy a brilliant career. Then, out of the blue, he made a dramatic comeback in the biggest match of his life - and ended up being jeered as he hobbled off after only 23 minutes of the Champions League Final.

The pain in his groin might have gone, but the mental scars have not receded.

Kewell, 27, says: "It was hurtful. Hopefully the fans now know what happened. If they do I hope they take back what they did.

"It's not nice to see that with any player. But it happened to me in the biggest game in club football.

"People who call me a flop - they know nothing about football. It surprises me how many times they say that about a player.

"If they want to write something they should ask the club or the doctor and then they'll realise they've been writing rubbish. But they never apologise."

The best way of shutting up the snipers is by winning something with Liverpool this season. So today's clash with Portsmouth has far more significance than normal.

Most players, especially foreign ones, would not consider an FA Cup fourth-round tie against south coast strugglers to be anywhere near as important as upcoming Champions League games with Benfica or even the bid to hang on to Chelsea's coat-tails in the Premiership.

Yet Kewell says: "I can't wait for the Portsmouth match. I want to win the FA Cup because it would be the first big trophy for me."

But didn't he get a European Cup winner's medal after the miraculous comeback against Milan?

"Yes, I played a part in that final. We won and that was fantastic. But if I was to get to another major final I'd like to play for the full 90 minutes. I celebrated for the team in Milan - but not on a personal level."

Benitez has stuck loyally by him and, after a torrid stop-start 30 months, the Spaniard's faith is finally being repaid. Following his first - sublime - goal for the club in over a year against Spurs and a remarkable renaissance in form, some fans are now wild about Harry.

He says: "The first six months at Liverpool were good. Then I got injury after injury. But now I've got through The Dark Ages and I just want to enjoy myself and do well."

Before we leave he delivers his verdict on Gary Neville's infamous celebration in front of Liverpool fans a week ago. It is short and pithy.

"He's got his own reasons for doing it, but what goes around comes around."

Ant and Dec, please note.

Plagued by injury and loss of form

Written off after Champs League Final KO

Ridiculed over wife's comments on reality TV show

Now he wants Cup glory to prove critics are wrong


KEWELL GUY: The Reds midfielder celebrates his wonder goal against Spurs' ALL SMILES: Harry Kewell with his wife Sheree Murphy
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 29, 2006
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