Australia’s sporting climate is one that rivals many countries across the globe. With worldwide competitors in rugby union, rugby league, cricket, swimming and their own Aussie rules football, it is perhaps surprising that football falls by the wayside. Despite a few notable exports, Australian football has struggled to capture the attention of the majority but is trying its hardest to change that.
Since the creation of the Hyundai A-League in 2004, Australia’s premier football (or soccer to Australians) competition has gone from strength to strength. After the demise of the National Soccer League (NSL), the A-League signalled in a new era for Australian football; one they hoped would capture the imagination of the AFL-mad nation. Originally comprising of 8 franchises, it has since expanded to 10: Sydney FC, Western Sydney Wanderers, Brisbane Roar, Newcastle Jets, Perth Glory, Adelaide United, Wellington Phoenix, Central Coast Mariners and the two Melbourne sides, Victory and City.
With Melbourne Victory having featured from the outset, it wasn’t until the 2010/11 season that Melbourne City, originally Melbourne Heart, joined the league. It was a move that excited both fans and stakeholders alike, as the A-League could finally boast its first inner-city derby. Donned in their original white and red colours, Melbourne Heart represented the true growth of Australia’s footballing culture.
Unsurprisingly, this did not go unnoticed. Worldwide fans and investors were starting to take an interest in the A-League which saw an influx of household names join: Alessandro Del Piero, Robbie Fowler, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono all made the move down under.
But Melbourne’s newest team were floundering. In their first four seasons, Heart reached the final series (finishing in the top 6) just once, and in the 2013/14 finished bottom of the table in 10th. Heart were failing to offer that true competitiveness in Melbourne, compared to Victory who reached the finals series three times in the same period. It was in the interest of both the league and club to take some action – enter City Football Group.
In 2014, Melbourne Heart was rebranded to Melbourne City by the group, who eventually took full control of the club in 2015. The Manchester City and New York City owners looked at the A-League as an opportunity to expand their ever-growing sporting empire, and who better to buy than a Melbourne club, new to the league and floundering at the bottom? Melbourne City suddenly overnight became the richest team in the A-League, much to the envy of onlookers from the rest of the league.
Melbourne City had suddenly transformed into a force to be reckoned with on the field. In their first season under the City name, former Baggies player Robert Koren and veteran Damien Duff joined, whilst City exercised their Manchester and New York connections by pulling off the huge signing of David Villa on loan. This season, they boast former Aston Villa ‘keeper Thomas Sorensen and Australian legend, Tim Cahill. The scales had now tilted massively in their direction, as it usually does with huge financial backing. Ever since their financial windfall, Melbourne City have never failed to make the final series.
But there is a dark underbelly to the City rebranding. Despite only featuring for four seasons previously, Melbourne Heart were synonymous with their red and white home kit. City Football Group had other ideas. Immediately, the owners changed the colour of their home kit to white, sky blue and black, and will move to full sky blue for the 2017/18 season, after Sydney FC, who play in a similar colour, blocked the proposal originally. City Football Group were obviously keen to have Melbourne City play under the colours of the brand, but in doing so, essentially ripped the heart right out of the club. Red and white has since been relegated to the away kit, despite protests against the kit change from fans.
Fans had a right to feel uneasy, despite all the perks that came along with City Football Group. City Football Group had taken their identity; a catastrophic thing to do to a club, whether it has been running for 4 or 104 years. No longer were they fans of the new Melbourne franchise, now they were fans of Manchester City’s Australian money-makers. Melbourne City are the youngest sibling in a family of three that is only going to expand.
With focus always going to be fully on Manchester City, and the popularity of MLS football sky-rocketing, Melbourne City will fall to the bottom of the pile.
Sure, the money and increased success is an undeniable perk, but at what cost? Just like the youngest sibling, they receive hand-me-downs from their big brothers as City loan them players they have no use for; they have anything promising snatched from them like a toy, as City took advantage to sign Aaron Mooy and loan him out to Huddersfield; and when it comes to pocket-money, Melbourne’s financials will never rival Manchester or New York.
It is by no means all bad for the club, and certainly not for City Football Group. As they have done with Manchester City, they have paid close attention to the development of the club, opening the City Football Academy in 2016, along with founding Melbourne City Women’s in 2015. City Football Group clearly have one eye on the future for their clubs, perhaps a future where Melbourne City will not be so reliant on their big brother.
Until then, there is no choice but for fans and on-lookers to accept it. Whilst still sharing AAMI Park Stadium with their city rivals and going through drastic changes at the club from top-to-bottom, it is going to take time to see whether Melbourne City, and the A-League as a whole, can flourish into a more powerful football force.