On Wednesday night, a young and inexperienced Melbourne Victory side took the field at the DGB Arena for the second last game of their Asian Champions League (ACL) campaign.
With a host of first-choice players left back in Melbourne to prepare for Sunday evening’s do or die semi-final against Sydney FC, the dead rubber nature of the fixture was unambiguous.
Elsewhere in Melbourne, at the headquarters of Melbourne City in Bundoora, regretful eyeballs would have been watching on as Victory ran out the penultimate match in yet another underwhelming Asian assault; Daegu FC eventually defeating the Australians 4-0.
Third place finishers in Head Coach Warren Joyce’s first season at the club in 2017-18, City were seemingly destined to finally attain an elusive place in the Asian Football Confederation’s premier club competition this year; a long-held goal of ownership group City Football Group (CFG).
CFG – with a global eye to the prestige an A-League title delivers versus one of a confederation – likely would have poured resources into an assault on Asia; possibly to the extent where it would have been prioritised over the A-League.
In an almost perfect metaphor for City’s struggles to escape the shadow of their larger rivals, however, Victory’s improbable run to the A-League championship served to snatch that prize from the fingertips of City.
Now, a little over a year on from that fateful night at McDonald Jones Stadium when Victory lifted the title, City enters an almost complete rebuild.
On Wednesday, it was announced that Joyce would not be receiving an extension to his two-year contract, ending his tenure at City with 27 wins, 11 draws and 21 losses from 57 A-League games.
Later that afternoon it was confirmed that the on-loan Ritchie De Laet, Riley McGree and Shayon Harrison would all be returning to their European club sides, taking 18 of City’s 39 goals with them.
Joyce returns to England with a legacy of contradictions – the favourability with which his tenure will be observed highly dependent upon on whom one asks.
Those inside the club and a number of former players have praised the transformation that has occurred in the City dressing room since Joyce’s arrival; the 52-year-old credited with fostering an environment of hard work, accountability and trust in which no player is considered bigger than the team.
Other former players and staff, though, would characterise Joyce as an authoritarian: a coach whose inflexibility led to poor results, alienation of players and his eventual downfall.
Prodigy Daniel Arzani made his breakthrough under Joyce, Nathaniel Atkinson has become a regular contributor and academy prospects Ramy Najjarine, Moudi Najjar, Connor Metcalfe and Idrus Abdulahi all made their debuts in Joyce’s tenure.
Young Australian’s McGree and Lachlan Wales – who particularly flourished under the Englishman – also saw regular minutes.
Nonetheless, frustrated figures such as now former Academy boss Joe Palatsides and young talents Denis Genreau, Dylan Pierias, Josh Cavallo and James Delianov may disagree about the opportunities afforded to young players by Joyce’ administration.
Despite delivering them the club’s highest ever league finish in his first year, it’s the fans that are the most united in their opinion of Joyce’s tenure and it is one that is almost entirely negative.
Already winning no plaudits with his ruthlessly pragmatic, deliberate and defensive footballing style; Joyce’s clash with fan favourite Bruno Fornaroli truly proved to the point of no return for a number of the City faithful.
Though his statements surrounding team culture and accountability as the saga wore on left little doubt as to the cause of the rift between coach and striker for those that read between the lines, the recalcitrance of Joyce to break the seal of the dressing room and truly explain the situation served to alienate vast swathes of the fan base.
Nature abhors a vacuum and, with the likes of Tim Cahill, Michael Valkanis, Michael Jakobsen, Neil Kilkenny and Fernando Brandan also having left the club under his tenure, City fans had little hesitation to fill the perceived communication void left by the club with their own explanations.
They were in no mood to give the Head Coach the benefit of the doubt against a player that is the closest thing the club has had to an icon in its existence.
Vociferous in their criticisms on social media, fans eventually translated their protest from the cyberspace to the real one: City’s home attendance average shrinking to 8,133, good for second worst in the A-League in 2018-19.
Despite all the rancour that arose football is, ultimately, a results business.
Had he led City to an A-League title, there would have been no doubt that Joyce would have returned to City in 19-20 with a clear mandate to continue his program of reform.
A mere fifth-placed finish combined with a 1-0 loss to Adelaide United in the first round of A-League finals, however, means he is on his way home.
With a vacancy in their senior coaching role, City now finds themselves at a crossroads.
Whispers indicate that CFG’s search for a coach is already underway – likely to be a European – with a shortlist expected to be whittled down as soon as possible so a proper recruitment process can be completed before the commencement of the 2019-20 A-League preseason in July.
The need to address the Bart Schenkeveld situation – with the Dutch defender out of contract and wanting (deserving) of marquee wages – will be key, as will addressing the goalkeeping position with the retirement of Eugene Galkekovic.
Yet, with the likes of Jamie Maclaren, Scott Jamieson, Harrison Delbridge, and Atkinson (although the teen has been linked with a move to Perth) all under contract and the youngsters blooded under Joyce likely ready for further responsibilities, the cupboard will not be bare when City’s new gaffer walks through the door.
Furthermore, whilst it’s a regular refrain at this time of year, the resources of the CFG means that, even if the bank isn’t likely to be broken, a global scouting network can be leveraged by the new boss to find diamonds in the rough.
City’s well reported stockpiling of talent in their academy also means that there is a new generation – Gianluca Iannucci, Josh Varga, Jordan Bos, Luke Duzel, Mitch Graham, Nick Hatzigeorgiou, Bradley Chick and more – all ready and eager to seize their chance.
Any new head coach will need to implement a system that not only gets results but also – in order to placate City’s increasingly frustrated fan base – more accurately reflects the free-flowing and attacking ethos espoused by CFG.
Indeed, with new Melbourne based franchise Western United entering the league in 2019-20, the need to endear themselves to existing fans, win back old ones and even entice new ones will be vitally important for City in the season ahead.
A new coach will need to be willing to embrace the increased communication and outreach begun by the club in recent months; actively buying into both the club’s and the city’s spirit.
Most importantly: they will need to win.