Where does Melbourne Victory go following their ‘season-defining’ run?

Needless to say, this past month hasn’t gone the way that Melbourne Victory coach Grant Brebner envisioned it.  

On a sunny afternoon in late February, still smarting from an embarrassing 5-2 defeat to Brisbane Roar and a bruising 2-0 loss to Western Sydney Wanderers, the Victory coach fronted the media ahead of Newcastle Jets visit to AAMI Park to make a clear statement of intent. 

Needing to turn their season around and the Novocastrians looming as the first of five successive opponents that would be met on Victory’s home turf, the Scot declared that the coming fixtures were going to make or break his side’s season.  

“It’s going to be defining,” he said. “It’s absolutely going to be a huge, pivotal moment for us. We’ve had two games at home this year and we’ve won one of those games and the rest have been away from home. 

“We look forward to getting back on AAMI Park, getting out to Marvel and playing in front of our members and fans. If we can’t get up for that then there’s something wrong.”

A month on and four defeats later, the only possible takeaway is that something must have gone quite wrong. 

Despite the strong words of their coach, Victory promptly lost the opening game of their homestand to the Jets, with their home supporters breaking out into boos and chants of  “we’re f***ing s**t” and “you’re nothing special, we lose every week” in its aftermath. Brebner bluntly admitted under questioning that the supporters were “justified” in their jeers.

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Perhaps, in hindsight, more cruelly than anything else, the next fixtures actually offered some faint vestiges of hope as the four-time A-League champions downed Wellington Phoenix 2-0 and fell heartbreakingly short in a 4-3 thriller against Western United. They were still bottom of the table, but maybe there was a foundation to build on? 

But then reality got up, walked over and punched Victory in the mouth. And then it punched them five more times. 

Downed 6-0 by Melbourne City, their second-half capitulation in that fixture was so comprehensive that Macarthur FC coach Ante Miličić used it as a proverbial bogeyman when his side found themselves down 3-0 at halftime of their loss to City on Friday night. Sparking fan protests at the club’s subsequent training session, the defeat marked the lowest ebb in the club’s history and Brebner later admitted he was “humiliated”.

Faint hints of something that could be seen as fight were displayed in the first half of Saturday evening’s meeting with Adelaide United – Robbie Kruse continues to run himself into the ground every time he pulls on a Victory shirt – but promise, again, turned to deflation; the Reds overrunning a surrendering Victory outfit in the second half en route to a 3-1 win. 

When Kusini Yengi scored Adelaide’s second, lept the advertising boards and strutted, Connor McGregor-style, to taunt the few home fans that remained willing to attend their side’s games, the state of Victory was clear. Their A-League side in 2020-21 carries with it little intimidation, little prestige, little respect and, increasingly, little signs of hope. 

The past five games have indeed been season-defining. 

“I’ve always said as a player, I felt that I would fight,” Brebner said following the Adelaide defeat. “Absolutely in this position, I’ll fight. 

“And the players that want to come along with me, we’ll do it together and we will turn our fortunes around. So I don’t want anybody to sit here – and I don’t think anybody would feel sorry for me – but I’m here to fight and I want to get us out of this position.

“I sat here [after the City defeat] humiliated. Tonight I sit here really, really, angry that we’ve gifted goals to the opposition.

“We had some good players, performance-wise, tonight but – [and] I’ve always come in here and protected and stood by players – when you defend like that you’re in trouble.”

Having appeared almost despondent following earlier defeats, the demeanour of Brebner after the Adelaide contest presented a sharp contrast. His side having petered out in yet another loss – another defeat against a bitter rival – the Scot’s patience for shielding his players has clearly begun to wear thin; vexation radiating off him like a black cloud.  

Much has been written this season about how Brebner was appointed as Victory’s coach because of his deep ties to the AAMI Park. Though his coaching pedigree was not, and is not, without concern, his love for the club was considered to be beyond reproach and it was taken for granted that he would do all in his power to help turn the club around.  

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Given that emotional connection, it should therefore come as no surprise that fury is beginning to break through his veneer of professionalism as pressure mounts, losses continue to flow, and he continues to see the club he loves sink further and further into the mire. Doubly so given he was handed a task that is increasingly appearing to have been a poisoned chalice. 

However, though limited changes may be able to be made to the squad – Victory has shown a willingness to chop and change midseason in recent years – by and large, any turnaround will need to be engineered with the current group Brebner has. 

No doubt youngsters will increasingly see the field, but a significant cohort of the kids available to Brebner are already members of his matchday squad. Should he look to delve deeper into the ranks of his academy, he’s soon going to find himself attempting to pick youngsters that not only haven’t been training with the A-League side but, thanks to Melbourne’s 2020 COVID-19-lockdowns, haven’t played a competitive football match in almost a year. 

“There is an element of one or two players probably needing to go home tonight and look at themselves in the mirror,” Brebner said post-Adelaide. 

“We all do. We all have to go home and reflect and work out what we can do better. Those conversations and those players will remain inside the changing room.

“But make no mistake, I might sit here at times and come across as a nice guy but that’s slowly wearing off now. There will be players put on notice to perform because they are playing for contracts.”

Based on the displays put forward by Victory’s roster this season, any hope of a mid-season turnaround that leads to an unlikely finals berth – even with the contracted nature of the 2020-21 table – can all but completely be discounted; a battle to avoid the wooden spoon a far more likely outcome than a battle for sixth. The quality just to do otherwise just hasn’t been shown. 

But it takes no talent whatsoever to track your man from one side of the pitch to the other. To attempt to lay a tackle. To make a run that draws a defender away so your teammate has space or to get up and immediately chase after being dispossessed. 

Following the 6-0 loss to City, Fox Sports’ footage showed a Victory fan who had stayed to the end but, grim-faced, still gave his side a thumbs up. The love for the club couldn’t have been more clear.

Beyond the much-needed analysis, soul searching and reform that needs to take place at an organisation level in the months ahead, Victory, right now, owes it to fans like that to show fight and determination in their coming fixture against Sydney FC and the rest of the season. 

They might even find themselves winning a few games here and there as well. 

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