Identity Games: Is 2020-21 the year that Melbourne City overhauls Melbourne Victory?

Full story first published in SBS’ The World Game:

Set to write its latest chapter at Marvel Stadium this Saturday evening, the derby between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City is, ostensibly, the oldest between two residents of a major metropolitan city in the A-League.

Yet despite its head start and Melbourne’s self-styled reputation as the nation’s sporting capital, meetings between City and Victory have come to be overshadowed by the battle that rages between Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers; largely due to the narrative and geographic foundations that the latter has forged – red vs blue, east vs west, bling vs sweat and more – and that the former has consistently failed to foster. 

Nothing, especially in Australian football, is ever written in stone, though, and Victory’s sudden brush with mortality, City’s looming move to Casey, and Melbourne’s shifting on-field power dynamics appear to be sowing the seeds for growth.

Should everything break their way, it could also allow City to begin to challenge Victory for Melburnian ascendancy. 

Their rivalry may be barely over a decade old, but such a scenario would be almost unthinkable given where it began. 

Unlike the Wanderers, who were born with a clear region, identity and purpose in mind; City predecessor Melbourne Heart never truly established a home or distinctive identity when they were born.

Victory’s tendrils, based on unchallenged incumbency, already stretched into every corner of Melbourne and their identity, deliberately, was centred upon being a ‘club for all Victorians’.

Without a home region, there was very little for Heart to wedge. 

A Heart training base was established on the Bundoora campus of La Trobe University but efforts were never truly made to establish the club as a team of the North.

The club’s inability under either the Heart or City identity to secure A-League trophies did little to aid in their challenges and even gave rise to the derisive ‘Hearting It’ phrase – used to denote when a club had let slip an opportunity they should have taken – that still lingers. 

But last campaign, City won their way through their first Grand Final, whereas Victory crashed to their worst-ever league finish of second-bottom.

And while City has started slowly in 2020-21, Victory has started even worse: the proud club bottom of the A-League table heading into Saturday evening’s derby, playing an uninspiring brand of football and possessing a league-worst goal difference. 

Whereas Victory coach Grant Brebner has come under pressure, focus has increasingly shifted towards his board and executive; perceptions rising that inertia, complacency, overconfidence and a diminished focus on football had handed the Scot a poisoned chalice.

They’re still the biggest and, by far, best-supported club in town, but Melbourne’s navy blue contingent is experiencing a moment of hitherto unknown weakness and introspection – just when the landscape of professional football in Melbourne is being re-written.  

Last year, Western United’s entrance to the A-League as a third Melbourne-based side gave the city its first clear geographic divide between its teams: the Green and Black side declaring that they intended to become the club of everyone “West of the Westgate”. 

“I think that’s where City kind of struggled with their identity and understanding,” Western coach Mark Rudan said earlier this year.

“Where they’re coming from and where their fan base should be and [not] being clear and concise on that area like we were right from the outset — we’re a team from the West.”

Perhaps to solve this conundrum, City announced last December that the club was relocating its training-base and academy to Casey Fields in Melbourne’s Southeast, and would also be staging youth and W-League fixtures in the area. 

“I think it’s a brilliant move,” former Socceroo and Dandenong City coach Sasa Ognenovski told The World Game.

“If they can get a stadium built out there, which I think there is talk of, it’s quite a different thing. Not a lot of people from that region drive into the city to watch football.

“So if there’s a stadium in Dandenong I’m pretty sure that it’ll be close to capacity every week just because of its proximity, just because you can drive down the road or catch a train to Dandy station. 

“That whole Southeastern region has nobody to follow. They would have followed Victory just because there was only one team in town and now you’ve got three. 

“Melbourne City still doesn’t really have an identity. If they can build that, build a stadium and make the Southeast their real home and their real hub I think that the sky’s the limit for them.

“Financially we know they’re very sound. But if they can get a supporter base that truly loves the club I think it’s a step in the right direction not just for City but for football in the county. 

“We see them as rivals, City and Victory, but it’s not that fierce rivalry of the Western Sydney and Sydney FC.

“It’s not that, it’s a derby but it’s just a sort of derby. But if they have to come to Dandenong and play and there’s a tribal thing with Melbourne City and Dandenong then there’s a different derby, it can get a bit more serious and the rivalry can grow properly”

As part of the shift, City partnered with Team 11 – a Dandenong-based expansion bid that shifted its focus to working to bring an existing A- and W-League presence to the region when it lost out to Western.

Community engagement and partnership had been at the core of Team 11’s expansion push, and such efforts are now a key part of the efforts of local government and councils to build lasting relationships and partnerships with City, and for the club to begin to integrate itself with the existing footballing ecosystem they now inhabit. 

For now, talk of a stadium in Dandenong remains the realm of wishful thinking; City would be fully supportive of a stadium in their new home region but has thus far remained tight-lipped on the matter in favour of talking up their existing commitments.

It’s understood that much of the Victorian State Government’s appetite to partner on a proposed venue in the region would likely depend both on the state of its balance sheet as it recovers from COVID-19, it can be convinced that the proposed venue would add to the social and cultural capital of the Dandenong area and provide jobs in construction and the sports services sector.

The potential for a City powered by a Southeast fandom to become the biggest club in Melbourne will therefore likely remain moot until said stadium moves from conceptual to reality – and Victory would have to remain stubbornly asleep to allow it also – but the potential for it is now greater than ever. 

And Saturday evening’s contest, the first meeting between City and Victory since the move was announced, could very well come to be seen as when the process started – especially if City’s and Victory’s on-field fortunes continue to diverge.

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