Empty seats spelled out the word “Marvel” as Melbourne Victory prepared for their seventh kick-off of the night. It was an appropriate backdrop to a 0-6 scoreline in favour of Melbourne City. It was the nadir of Victory’s proud 16-year history.
This was a moment. An “I was there when” moment. Perhaps, for City fans, it will be remembered as the moment.
Despite myriad competitive advantages, City have laboured in their development. The football has been too ponderous, decision making too conservative, and their ability to crumble in big games too predictable. All that was forgotten on Saturday night when Patrick Kisnorbo cried havoc and let slip his dogs of war.
“This is how it feels to be City,” Manchester United fans used to often sing, to the tune of the Inspiral Carpets’ Madchester anthem. “This is how it feels to be small. This is how it feels when your team wins nothing at all.” It is sung less nowadays, a reflection of the power shift in that city. Six-nil, and the current trajectory of both Melbourne clubs, suggests the noisy neighbours are once again winning the shouting match.
The scoreline in the derby was dramatic, but not unfair, and not even that unpredictable. After an injury-disrupted start to the season, City have been easing through the gears. Victory, by contrast, have played like what they seem from the outside: a collection of strangers.
Home fans booed angrily at the final whistle. They then targeted their venom towards their club’s players who had completed the routine post-match trudge over to the knot of active supporters.
Grant Brebner stood on the edge of the pitch in a daze, shell shocked. A few brief whispered words were exchanged with assistant Steve Kean and general manager of football Drew Sherman. All three, along with football operations manager Paul Trimboli, chief executive Trent Jacobs and chairman Anthony Di Pietro, are in for a chastening week. “It was humiliating,” Brebner later admitted.
“Decaying,” was how Victory legend Archie Thompson described his club. “This didn’t start this year, it started a few years ago,” he said. It’s an opinion that has long done the rounds - that Kevin Muscat overachieved, masking strategic issues behind the scenes. Since his departure the wheels have just about fallen off.
The process to secure Muscat’s long-term replacement has been disastrous, beginning with the ill-fitting Marco Kurz, and continuing, two years later, with a club legend eroding his reputation; suffering ignominy after previously stating he did not want the role. Recruitment, especially of the highest-profile visa signings, has been embarrassing. And the club’s footballing strategy would hardly be identifiable were it not for the 193cm Frenchman up front, deployed with all the subtlety of a drunk swinging haymakers at closing time.
Once a byword for how to run an A-League franchise, Victory are at risk of unravelling. Founding investor Richard Wilson has had enough, putting $5m worth of shares up for sale and slamming the board he’s departing on his way out.
“We are an elite club but we are not being run in an elite way at the moment,” Wilson said. “It is about a lack of leadership over the past few years and the way the club has slid down is the responsibility of decisions taken by the board and the senior management, in my opinion.”
Asked how one of the competition’s giants had fallen so far so fast, a crestfallen Brebner could only reply, “I can’t put my finger on it. It’s something we need to continue looking at because it’s not a position anybody in this football club wants to be in.”
In this context, City perhaps did their rivals a favour by demolishing them so comprehensively. A result this seismic demands a reaction, perhaps accelerating or enhancing whatever plans were already in development.
Dramatic turnarounds in fortune are not hard to locate. Tony Popovic and Mark Rudan, for example, have both proven themselves transformative in quick time with two A-League clubs, while Alen Stajcic is in the process of delivering one of the more remarkable coaching seasons at the unheralded Central Coast Mariners. Whether the appointment of a different first-team manager alone is enough of a long-term solution remains to be seen.
But this is not Victory’s first crisis, nor Di Pietro’s. Back in 2015, he spoke to The Herald Sun about how he helped return Victory to glory following a brief slip in standards a few years previously. “If you have a very clear strategic plan you can do it,” he said. “We set ours up when we were losing money, eating into our capital base, not winning on the park. We thought, let’s sit back and look at what we want to do, who we want to be, let’s recalibrate.”
It’s time for another recalibration.