City and Victory prepare for a Christmas Derby dripping in emotion, just not the kind anyone had anticipated

By Joey Lynch

Derbies, the prevailing wisdom goes, are about more than just a football match. They’re supposed to be about pride, belonging, and the desire to represent your tribe against that most contemptible of foes: a familiar one. Eleven players on the field take on the added responsibility of not just needing to win a sporting contest, but becoming avatars of an idea and a culture that has become part of thousands of supporters’ identities. 

Perhaps most of all, these games are supposed to be about emotion. They mean something more not just because the two combatants happen to share a location, but because of the way that they make all those involved feel. Derbies matter because, quite simply, the emotions they elicit give those involved little choice but to care. 

On Saturday evening, one of Australian football’s biggest local feuds will once again go ahead – the Christmas iteration of the A-League Men’s Melbourne Derby between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory. It’s occupied a special place in both sets of fans’ hearts since its inception, since City were running around not as an all-conquering force but, instead, an occasionally hapless Melbourne Heart. 

But this year, however, much of the ire that the two supporter groups normally save for one another is instead being pointed in the other’s direction; two enemies united in the face of what they see as a greater and even more odious foe: the league itself. 

Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic

As one would likely expect given their hometown, devotees of City and Victory have been incandescent with rage over the Australian Professional Leagues’ (APL) decision to sell hosting rights to its men’s and women’s grand finals to Sydney for the next three years – albeit fan sentiment across the nation has been largely unified against the concept. 

After initially positioning the partnership with Destination NSW as a win for fans, the APL and the majority of its members have increasingly pivoted in recent days under a firestorm of criticism. Now, much of the reasoning is being centred on the economic hardships they find themselves in as the leagues emerge from two seasons devastated by COVID, as well as what they say was a disastrous balance sheet they inherited when the leagues’ were unbundled. 

The $140m in capital acquired by selling a stake in the leagues to private equity firm Silver Lake is understood to be ring-fenced for specific projects and not for day-to-day operational costs, and The Age and Sydney Morning Herald has reported the APL has received less than anticipated from its broadcast deal with Network 10 and Paramount+ due to failing to meet a clause in the contract to attain a requisite number of subscriptions to Paramount+. 

This pivot, however, has bought little sympathy from fans, the malcontent seeping throughout the discourse now feeling like it is less about the deciders themselves and more about the breakdown in trust between the leagues and their supporters. 

And with the eyes of the nation now nominally set to be on the Derby, the fixture to be broadcast in prime-time on free-to-air TV, members of both City and Victory’s active supporter groups have signalled that they will stage a walkout in the 20th minute of the contest to demonstrate their discontent. One of the leagues’ biggest and most vocal fixtures is now set for 70 minutes of near silence. A return to COVID-like conditions that nobody wanted. 

This unity of their supporters, however, isn’t reflected by their clubs, adding yet another dimension to Saturday.

Victory has broken ranks with the APL since the announcement that the grand finals would be moved to Sydney, becoming the only club to publicly call for the decision to be reversed. Chairman Anthony Di Pietro, despite initially voting for the move in his role on the board, resigned as a director of the APL on Tuesday and released a statement alongside his club’s managing director Caroline Carnegie that advocated for an about-face. 

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Coach Tony Popovic has joined them in this and said that he respects and understands the protests by fans and their plans to stage walkouts

City, however, has stood alongside the APL in pointing to the financial necessity of reaching an agreement with Destination NSW, releasing a statement on Wednesday saying that “the reality is, in order to create a fully sustainable competition, the decision made by the APL is necessary and has been agreed by the majority of club owners.” Its vice chairman Simon Pearce was also amongst the five club representatives on the APL board that voted for the move. 

This has left City interim coach Rado Vidosic in a somewhat awkward position in the face of his own fan’s anger – especially since it has been left to he and his players to field questions from the media since the decision was made. And that’s to say nothing of this pressure being heaped upon an already challenging period: Saturday’s derby being just his second game in charge of City’s men’s side after being shifted over from the A-League Women program to cover Patrick Kisnorbo’s departure for a job with another CFG-affiliated side in Ligue 1 club Troyes.

“We were briefed by the club and we are fully supporting the decision that our club makes,” he told reporters on Friday. “That’s probably as far as I would go with that. That is way beyond my pay grade to make those types of decisions. 

“But we support our club and we love our supporters and I think the club is looking at all the other options that we can provide the supporters. We’re going to do everything in our power to be in the Grand Final. Not just to be in it, but to win it. 

“I’m just a coach, I’ve just started my coaching here with the men. I cannot comment on anything like that. That is way beyond my pay grade. 

“We are here to do our best on the field, we are here to prepare for the game. We are here to try to motivate the players to perform the best that we can. Anything that happens around us, is out of our control. 

“I can’t comment on that. I would love for [fans planning a walkout] to stay, I would love for them to support us as they did for the past years, they’ve been a very important part of our evolution and our winning trophies and development. 

“But I can’t comment on that, unfortunately.”

Melbourne City attacker Marco Tilio

Beyond all this, though. Beyond the rancour, corporate speak, and threats of a mass revolt, it can be easy to forget that, at some point, a game is going to take place on Saturday evening. For three points and everything. And it’s a pretty big one, a contest that both sides could quite do with winning. 

In their first game without Kisnorbo and looking to incorporate their three World Cup Socceroos Mat Leckie, Jamie Maclaren, and Marco Tilio into their side, City suffered their first defeat of the season last week – going down 2-1 to Sydney FC at the Sydney Football Stadium. 

Though they possessed enough of a points buffer to ensure they would still be top of the table at the end of the round regardless of that loss, a second one on the bounce on Saturday would leave the door open for Western Sydney Wanderers, who visit Western United on Sunday, to leapfrog them in the table. 

Aiden O’Neill will return from suspension for Vidosic, who also anticipates that his Socceroo triumvirate will be better for having had another week in the training track – Maclaren able to equal Andy Keogh consecutive ALM games with a goal mark should he net against Victory. Florin Berenguer will not be available but is steadily increasing his participation with the main group at training. 

“We are hoping to have one of our strongest line-ups … everyone is ready,” Vidosic said.

“We need to be ready, it’s going to be a fiery game and we need to be even more enthusiastic than them.”

Popovic, for his part, is also expecting those that took part in the 1-0 win over Macarthur last week to back up against their local rivals and is set to welcome back captain Josh Brillante for the encounter. Fifth on the table with that win over the Bulls, Melbourne’s navy blue contingent can rise as high as third with a triumph on Saturday, as well as gain some measure of revenge for their defeat in her season’s first derby. 

The striker largely absent from the first team with fitness issues this season, Victory continues to take a cautious approach with Tomi Juric’s return to football, while Matt Spiranovic remains on track for a January return. 

“Dangerous is the word I would use,” Popovic said of City.

“With the line-up that they have, they can score at any moment.

“I saw the game last week and Sydney played very well, but you always felt City were a chance and that’s what the top sides can do.

“We want to show that we can stop their attacking threats tomorrow and show the quality that we have to cause them some problems at the other end.”

Indeed, on the field, it’s shaping as a memorable occasion. Unfortunately, though, it appears Saturday’s contest is already guaranteed to be notable off it. 

Enjoying Joey’s coverage of Australian sport? Your support helps keep it possible.
You’re seeing this advert because this is an unpaid, self-published piece.

You can support his ongoing work by buying him a coffee

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory / Melbourne City

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