Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate: Victory and City ready to light the fuse on another Melbourne Derby

There’s nothing like a derby. The familiarity between two sporting foes breeding the best form of contempt, a derby contest will reliably elicit emotions, passion, joy, and despair like no other contest. 

And with the Melbourne Derby on track to be one of the biggest fixtures since the COVID-19 pandemic, Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic and Melbourne City boss Patrick Kisnorbo want their side to bring the passion and aggression that will be both befitting of the occasion and likely required to win it. 

A night out from the 38th staging of the Victory and City/Heart rivalry, just a handful of tickets remain unsold for the occasion. 

With tickets for the game sold out, the contest could potentially be on track to best the 24,105 people that watched Wellington’s triumphant return to New Zealand during the 2020-21 season as the biggest crowd the A-Leagues has seen since the descent of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 — depending largely on how many Victory members take up their reserved seats. 

As a player, Popovic featured in notable derbies such as Sydney United and Marconi in the NSL and Crystal Palace and Milwall in England, as well in as rivalries such as Palace and Brighton and Hove Albion (yes, they’re rivals). As a manager, he also led Western Sydney into their first meetings with Sydney FC. 

“It’s a wonderful experience,” he said. “It actually reinforces why you do this job, why you love the job, and why you have so much passion for the job – whether that’s someone on the coaching staff, playing staff, or administrative staff. 

“We’re all excited about this game and the fans and our members feel the rivalry and the passion and in some respects, there’s a hatred towards your opponent. Because that’s what rivalries are. You want to beat your biggest rival – two teams in the same town and that’s how it is around the world. 

“For those 90-odd minutes, the fans want to feel with the playing group that passion and that desire to beat a big rival. I’m sure Melbourne City feels the same and that’s how it should be in terms of rivalries.

“We had a good experience with the game last year and this year we’re excited about the possibility of trying to get one over our biggest rival again.”

The year prior to Popovic’s arrival at AAMI Park, City had heaped embarrassment on what was an already ignominious, wooden-spoon ‘winning’ campaign for Victory: recording 6-0 and 7-0 wins in their opening two meetings, with the latter result costing Grant Brebner his job.  

In 2021-22, however, the empire struck back as Victory 2-2 and 1-1 draws at the start of the season before finally breaking through for their first derby win in seven attempts when Jake Brimmer’s seventh-minute opener was supplemented by a first-half Marco Rojas brace on the way to a 3-0 win. 

“Before last year we spoke about some humiliating defeats for Melbourne Victory over a couple of years,” said Popovic. “And last season we said we wanted to be very competitive with Melbourne City, we wanted to show them that Melbourne Victory was back on track, we did that in all three games and we had a wonderful result in our last encounter. 

“That, unfortunately, gives us nothing for this game…

“The rivalry remains, Melbourne City still remains a very good team and a top club. We feel we’re on track to being a top team again. We are a big club and the game is everything it should be.”

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That April encounter the first time that he had tasted derby defeat in his senior men’s coaching career, Kisnorbo acknowledged that his team had been outclassed on the day, but didn’t believe it was indicative of a new trend or a result that could inform analysis of Saturday’s contest. 

“I think it’s a different scenario,” the City coach said. “Especially the last game when I look at it, we had a few injuries and, again, I‘m not shying away that Melbourne Victory was better in the first half and in the game, there’s no doubting that; I’ll pay my respect for that. 

“But scenarios have changed, it’s a new season. So it really is different. I don’t go on the past, I just look to the game and treat it at face value.”

City heads into Saturday’s contest riding on a high, winners of their opening two games and top of the league based on goal difference. Last week, they headed to Lang Park and never looked in danger of having a glove laid on them by Brisbane Roar, even after Taras Gomulka earned a red card early in the second half. 

Gomulka’s suspension will force a reshuffle in a City starting XI that was unchanged heading from round one to round two, but Kisnorbo will be boosted by the return of Curtis Good to the squad. 

Victory, meanwhile, will enter the contest smarting after a round two defeat to Western Sydney in which they failed to register a single shot on target until second-half stoppage time. 

It was a performance that led to Victory’s players “copping it” from their coach, who zeroed in on a lack of intensity and aggression in their performance. 

“You’re always going to lose, unfortunately, a game of football somewhere along the line,” said Popovic. “After Sydney FC’s performance away from home, I thought we were disappointing [against Wanderers] in the aspects of our game that really have nothing to do with tactics. 

“Really, that desire to go and fight for the challenges and do the dirty work that Wanderers were willing to do, that we did against Sydney FC [wasn’t there].

“When that’s just five or ten per cent off on each player that makes a big difference because the margins are small in a game of football. So, they’re the areas that were disappointing for us. 

“[The aggression is] what we have to keep in check. That we have clear thoughts in our decision-making. We want to bring the aggression, of course, and I’m sure Melbourne City will bring it. In my experiences last year in all three games, the intensity went up, the aggression went up, and the passion and the emotion went up.

“So all we’re asking is that happens again and that we match our opponent in all of those aspects. And then we know we have to bring our best football to beat a very good team. And that’s a wonderful challenge, and that’s one that should excite us and one we should embrace, which we will.”

For Kisnorbo, whose hardman reputation as a player was bolstered by appearances in fierce rivalries such as the Edinburgh Derby between Hearts and Hibernian and Leeds United against everyone, aggression and intensity is something he will never try to train out of his team. 

“You can’t control the individual,” he said. “Sometimes the games are emotional. But I try and tell the players to do it in the right way. If someone gets booked ok, it’s a yellow card – I’m not going to get angry. Sometimes it is what it is. 

“Nobody goes out there to hurt anyone or be malicious. Sometimes there’s the wrong timing. But, I’ll never tell the players to stop or to not get booked because they don’t mean to get booked. It is what it is; I can’t control the player’s aggression levels because I encourage them to go out and be as hard as they can for 90 minutes.”

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory

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