Off the field, Melbourne City – or perhaps more accurately its ownership group – is riding high.
In a move long agitated for by individuals within the City Football Group (CFG), the 2019-20 season will see the A-League, W-League and Y-League’s ownership transferred from the auspices of Football Federation Australia (FFA) to the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA).
In hindsight, the purchase of the entity known as Melbourne Heart by CFG ahead of the 2014-15 season serves as one of the major landmarks on the road that eventually led to the fall of the Lowy dynasty and the independence of Australia’s professional football leagues; the United Arab Emirates and Chinese owned group providing much-needed leadership as the professional clubs began to pull towards a unified vision for reform.
Now, with victory seemingly secured, it is no coincidence that Melbourne City vice-chairman Simon Pearce – identified by John Stensholt of The Australian as the most powerful figure in Australian football – was one of the leaders of a presentation given to A-League clubs surrounding a “100 days” marketing blitz that would accompany the launch of an independent A-League.
That these off the field victories have arrived should come as no surprise.
World football has been forever transformed by the approach that the CFG has taken since it emerged onto the landscape with the purchase of Manchester City; Australia just the latest nation to have its footballing ecosystem forever changed by Abu Dhabi-based hands.
On the field, however, the side now known as Melbourne City faces perhaps the most important season in its history: one in which it has much to gain but, perhaps, even more to lose.
The Melbourne A-League landscape heading into 2019-20 has never been a more open one: every entity within it finding themselves in various states of flux.
City’s crosstown foes Melbourne Victory enter the season without the intense figure of Kevin Muscat present for the first time in club history; the championship-winning captain and coach having left the club at the end of the 2018-19 season.
Though many Victory fans have welcomed the appointment of former Adelaide United boss Marco Kurz as his replacement – pointing to his relative success with limited resources in the City of Churches as an indicator that he will be able to excel in the comparative opulence of the Victory setup – his ability to adjust to the massive expectations that come with the Victory job remains an open-ended question.
While history suggests that Victory will inevitably lift silverware once again, the chance to, at least temporarily, supplant the four-time A-League champions as Melbourne’s dominant side is there in 2019-20.
Looking across the West Gate Bridge, A-League newcomers Western United present one of the great mysteries of the coming A-League season.
In Mark Rudan, the expansion side possesses a coach that has already proven capable of leveraging an A-League squad into something greater than the sum of its parts, and the group assembled underneath him possesses a capable mixture of veteran talent and young performers. It’s a squad that has the potential to compete in the finals but could also, lacking in any form of continuity, find itself near the bottom of the table.
How many fans United will be able to get through the gates of GMHBA and Mars Stadiums, or convince to watch them on the telly, remains an open-ended question but there can be no doubt that United, as a shiny new entity, is well placed to hoover up any unsatisfied or new A-League fans in Victoria’s West.
Ultimately, though, both Victory and United could run into enough problems to allow City – who, unlike their two Melbourne rivals, has already completed its squad building for the coming season – to emerge as the best performing side in Victoria in 2019-20 and begin to win back a fanbase that became increasingly disillusioned in the waning days of the tenure of former Head Coach Warren Joyce.
Despite, when examined under the cold and impartial perspective of winning percentage, serving as the most successful run that a manager has had in the club’s history, the tenure of Joyce as City boss was one that wore the patience of the fanbase down to a nub.
The ruthlessly pragmatic approach to on-field action and brusque handling of matters off it espoused by the Englishman gave him very little margin for error: the line between benevolent and a tinpot dictator razor thin.
Unfortunately for Joyce, by the end of his tenure he found himself increasingly perceived the City fan base at the latter; the departure of fan favourites such as Fernando Brandan, Neil Kilkenny and Bruno Fornaroli, the uninspired approach to football and lack of silverware sounding the death knell for his reputation amongst Melbourne’s sky blue denizens and, eventually, his tenure.
In replacing Joyce with Erick Mombaerts, City’s brass has bought themselves a short reprieve from the rancour of their rapidly dwindling supporters and, perhaps, begun the process of healing the relationship with both those that remain and those that have lapsed.
If Mombaerts can deliver on his lofty declarations of playing the “City way” – which, regardless of Mombaerts’ actual intentions, evokes images of Pep Guardiola’s otherworldly Manchester City sides of Ange Postecoglou’s run’n’gun Yokohama F. Marinos – then City could begin the much-needed process of winning back goodwill.
Should the APFCA’s promised “100 days” promotional push succeed, such a style would also go a long way in ensuring that any new fans of the competition would find themselves gravitating towards City.
However, should Mombaerts fail to deliver results (especially if he does so whilst delivering football more reminiscent of League Two rather than La Liga) then it could harken a fracturing between City and its fanbase that is potentially irreversible.
For Mombaerts has arrived in Melbourne not just as a new coach – he has arrived steeped in the ethos of CFG itself.
The Frenchman, a former boss of Yokohama F. Marinos and in more recent years a consultant with CFG, made it clear in his introductory press conference in Bundoora that the allure of staying under the CFG umbrella was one of the key facets in attracting him to Melbourne City.
Continuing on, Mombaerts then nailed his – and CFG’s – colours to the mast when he said, “We are in a group, CFG, and we want, I want, to set up our City style of play; this offensive style of play.”
The message for the City fans couldn’t be clearer.
Whereas Jon van‘t Schip was a holdover from the days of Heart, Michael Valkanis a caretaker and Joyce a product of the old school British game, Mombaerts is a disciple of the CFG: he comes with a mindset that represents their vision for the club.
Should Mombaerts eventually prove a false prophet, the relationship between fan and the club’s ownership group could become untenable.
Though they are more likely to attract more Victory fans thanks to the sheer weight of numbers, the siren’s call of Western United is ready to welcome disillusioned City fans in the West.
Victory’s proven track record of success can offer trophies and triumph over pain and frustration.
The looming prospect of a nationwide second division could prove an influential lure towards those that still maintain a soft spot for Australian football’s traditional clubs.
Whether City can do enough on the field to ensure that these exoduses remain hypothetical remains to be seen.