City seek a title seven-years in the making

The 2020-21 A-League Grand Final just hours away, Melbourne City’s players will head to AAMI Park this afternoon not just seeking a maiden championship but also to finally fulfil the promise that accompanied the arrival of City Football Group (CFG). 

Placed behind the eight-ball by the league’s insistence on giving its founding clubs five years of clear air to establish themselves in their respective markets, Melbourne Heart’s entry to the A-League never really presented the threat to Melbourne Victory that would have been hoped for. 

Unlike the arrival of Western Sydney Wanderers into the competition, whose early success and clear identity not only boosted their own fortunes and fanbase but forced Sydney FC to respond and evolve, Heart never really appeared capable of usurping their navy blue rivals — playing finals just once and finishing with the wooden spoon in 2012-13. 

But, gauche as the concept of global footballing brands may be, the arrival of CFG in 2014 gave rise to hopes that the footballing conglomerate would soon turn A-League’s lovable losers — whose players took ice baths in wheelie bins and, somehow, always found a way to lose — into a well oiled, petro-dollar fuelled winning machine. 

Yet reality is often disappointing.

Despite the recruitment of David Villa (for what turned out to be just a four-game loan stint), Tim Cahill and a foiled attempt to bring Frank Lampard Down Under, the transition from Heart to City failed to produce an immediate upsurge in results; the 2016 FFA Cup the lone piece of silverware delivered to the City Football Academy by its men’s team prior to 2020-21. 

See Also: A-League Grand Final sees Melbourne City and Sydney FC youngsters ready to shine

Yes, the club could now be counted on to reliably play in finals football but despite constructing one of the country’s leading academy setups and founding the most dominant women’s program the country has yet seen, its palette switch from red and white to light blue still left it in the shadow of Victory at A-League level. 

The arrival of Erick Mombaerts ahead of the 2019-20 season, however, combined with continued investment and clarity of purpose from a largely settled football department, ushered in a change. 

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Under their dapper French boss, the club broke through for a first Grand Final appearance and instituted the foundation for a style of play that continued into this season under coach Patrick Kisnorbo. 

Leveraging the resources born from its ownership, the club retained the core of that squad heading into this season and with the rest of the league still finding their way in a post-COVID world streaked away to a maiden A-League Premiership. 

See Also: How Melbourne City won its first-ever A-League Premiership

It was success-driven not just by difference-makers identified and lured to the club such as Andrew Nabbout, Craig Noone, Adrian Luna and Jamie Maclaren, but also products of that well-run academy such as Connor Metcalfe, Nathaniel Atkinson and Stefan Colakovski.  

Off the field, the club this year announced the relocation of its headquarters and training base to Casey in Melbourne’s Southeast, sealing a partnership with unsuccessful expansion bid Team 11 to leverage the local community and, potentially, give it a clear geographic point of difference with Western and Victory. 

Scott Jamieson celebrates one of his two goals this season
Image Credit: Melbourne City

And now on Sunday evening, the club has a chance to seal its rise to the summit of Australian football with a maiden A-League championship. 

“I don’t want to talk about what may happen if we don’t win or we do win,” captain Scott Jamieson said. “But, for me, I’ve been here four years now. I’ve seen the club at its lowest.

“In a way, we struggled and I’ve seen the club come out the other end and have seen a lot of positive feedback from key stakeholders in our club. 

“For us, it’s about winning titles and winning trophies but also building our brand and our community engagement. 

“As much as I probably don’t agree, I think winning does help that. You can definitely grow and fans can support your team if they’re not winning, but [trophies are] definitely key. It will go a long way, winning titles, and I don’t feel as though there’s anyone more hungry than us.”

City will, however, be sweating on the health of attackers Noone and Nabbout — part of an attacking triumvirate with Maclaren that christened itself NMN this season — heading into the game. 

Already bereft of Maclaren, Metcalfe and former Heart player Curtis Good due to Socceroos’ duty, the duo was absent from City’s win over Macarthur in last week’s semifinal. Nursing a knee and adductor malady respectively, the pair did train this week and loom as likely contributors to some degree – be it in a starting role or coming off the bench. 

“I don’t want to lift another trophy wearing a suit. I’d rather be lifting it in my playing kit,” Nabbout said.

“That’s the extra motivation for me to go out and contribute to the team success and what better way to finish it off than to lift the grand final trophy in front of our home fans.”

“The biggest positive we have is that we won without those two lads last week,” added Jamieson. 

“We’re not going into the game with something in our minds saying ‘we need them’. 

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“It would be amazing to have them but at the same time, last week we ticked a box stating that without five key players we were able to win games and win important games. If they’re there on Sunday they’re an added bonus and an important bonus.”

Maclaren, for his part, will be watching the game from hotel quarantine in Sydney after flying back to Australia last week and will be riding the highs and the lows with his side. 

See Also: Melbourne City, Sydney FC to square off in fitting A-League Grand Final

“I’m really looking to watching the Grand Final but at the same time, I’m not because I wish I was out there,” he said.  

“But I’ve got full relief in the boys to get that trophy and I believe in what we’ve done this year. It’s going to exciting and bring on Sunday in Melbourne.” 

Looking to step up and fill the absence of Maclaren and, potentially, Nabbout and Noone will be childhood Heart fan Colakovksi and Marco Tilio — who moved over from Sydney in the last offseason.

“I’m so happy that the final is going to be in Melbourne,” childhood Heart fan Colakovksi told ESPN this week. “Obviously to have that 15k fans.

“But, man, I’ve watched the club since the beginning, since that Central Coast game, our first ever game.

City captain Scott Jamieson and Sydney captain Alex Wilkinson

“We haven’t seen that much success in terms of silverware, so to be able to be part of the team that possibly is one of the greatest City teams, if we do win, it would be huge.”

But standing in the way of City’s quest for a breakthrough win is the killbots of Sydney FC. 

Forging what is the A-League’s first true dynasty in the year’s following the appointment of Graham Arnold, the Harboursiders will be seeking to make it a historic three Championships in a row under current boss Steve Corica on Sunday. 

Winners of three of the last four titles, the club’s success has been built on a model of consistency and commitment to excellence, and captain Alex Wilkinson — the most decorated player in Australian league history — says that the experience they bring into the game says their experience provides a major boon. 

“The fact that a lot of our players have played in big games and have played in finals series, played in grand finals, I think, helps us on the occasion,” Wilkinson said.

“There’s nothing quite like experiencing a Grand Final day and a grand final match. We’ve got a lot of players who have been in those situations and in cut-throat games so I think that’ll probably help us more than anything.”

“Anyone that plays any position [knows the job of the man next to him],” added Sydney’s defender and A-League Young Player of the Year Joel King, who speaks with refreshing candour in a league where so many young players are paralysed by a fear of saying ‘the wrong thing’. 

“I think I could play centreback and know where to be and what to do. [Anthony] Caceras has shown how versatile he is, playing as a ten or a six.

“We’ve been playing [Sydney’s system under Corica] for the last three years so everyone knows what to do, everyone knows what the other is doing so it makes it very easy for us on the field: it’s almost like second nature. 

“I think the quality of players that we have are too good. I think the players we have up front, I don’t think many teams could stop them in the A-League, that’s for sure, I think we’ve got better quality all over the field, really.”

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne City

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