By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A COVID-19 outbreak has made Melbourne a ghost-town but Western United hope to breathe life into living rooms of locked-down fans when the A-League newcomers start their maiden playoff campaign on Sunday.
United were little more than a concept in late 2018 when they were accepted as an expansion club, with no players, staff or colours to rally supporters around.
Now, every Australian with a passing interest in the game know the men in green and black, and many will back them to beat three-times champions Brisbane Roar in Sydney for a place in the semi-finals.
"We’re really proud of where we're at when you consider, probably 18 months ago, we didn’t have a name or colours -- much less fans, players, staff or a training field," coach Mark Rudan told Reuters in an interview.
"So I think it’s quite remarkable, to be honest, to see where we are right now.
"We want to go all the way. There’s a lot of belief and confidence in this squad right now."
A wild A-League season has challenged all 11 teams, with COVID-19 causing a near four-month disruption.
Few have had it tougher than United, however.
They had to play their last six games on the road and squeezed into three-and-a-half weeks after being forced to evacuate their home state of Victoria due to a fresh outbreak of COVID-19.
They managed to win four of them, including a 2-1 upset of pace-setting champions Sydney FC, a credit to the staff and the professionalism of players like evergreen captain Alessandro Diamanti.
At the age of 37, the former Italy midfielder has thrown heart and soul into his new club and re-signed for two years in July, even as a procession of European players returned home during the shutdown.
Diamanti leads a core of warhorse recruits, including 35-year-old striker Besart Berisha, the league's all-time goalscorer, and 38-year-old central defender Andrew Durante.
The seasoned trio have not only set standards for younger players but also instilled a winning mentality, said Rudan.
"Diamanti still has ambition even at his age. He wanted to be part of what he called a project at a new football club and have a say in building it as well," said the coach.
"From day one, he’s been a competitor. He still gets angry if he doesn’t win at training or even in a card game. You want that spirit."
A former journeyman centre-back, Rudan may be United's other recruiting coup.
The 44-year-old spent years toiling as a manager of semi-professional sides but found instant success in his first top flight job at Wellington Phoenix.
He led the New Zealanders to the 2018/19 A-League playoffs, their first in four years, before United lured him home.
Phoenix's long-serving captain Durante, goalkeeper Filip Kurto and midfielder Max Burgess followed Rudan to the western suburbs of Melbourne and have been valuable contributors for their new team.
Rudan's former club, also exiled from their home because of COVID-19, will bid for a semi-final place of their own when they meet Perth Glory in Sydney on Saturday.
United are looking to emulate Western Sydney Wanderers, who reached the A-League's title-deciding 'Grand Final' in their maiden season.
Like the Wanderers, United's fans are drawn from blue-collar neighbourhoods and migrant communities.
"They may not be the most affluent but there’s still a lot of successful people that live in the West because they’ve worked hard for all they have," said Rudan.
"When they watch us, we want them to see a bit of themselves in us."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Kim Coghill)