“I understand the fans and agree” – Popovic backs fan anger over A-Leagues grand final controversy

By Joey Lynch

Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic has backed supporter anger over the A-Leagues’ decision to stage its next three grand finals in Sydney, saying that he “understands” plans to walk out of this weekend’s Melbourne Derby in protest of the decision and that he hopes the move can be reversed. 

Controversy and fan anger over the decision by the Australian Professional Leagues’ (APL) decision to sell its men’s and women’s deciders to Sydney has shown no signs of abating since its announcement on Monday, with the players’ union Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) joining the fray on Wednesday evening when it released a statement in opposition to the move and calling for reform of the sport’s governance.

Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic

Despite voting to approve the deal in his capacity as an APL director, Victory chairman Anthony Di Pietro resigned from his position on the organisation’s board on Tuesday, signalling he couldn’t reconcile his conflicting loyalties to the leagues as a collective and Victory by saying that to “act in the best interests of Melbourne Victory and football in Victoria, I needed to resign as a board member of APL.” 

Victory has since become a notably strong voice in opposition to the sale, and is the only A-Leagues club that has called for its reversal.

As part of a wave of discontent from active supporter groups across the league, both Victory and Melbourne City fans have announced their intentions to stage a walkout at the 20th minute of this Saturday’s men’s Melbourne Derby – traditionally one of the league’s biggest fixtures and scheduled to be this week’s prime-time, free-to-air-game.

“I understand the fans and agree,” Popovic told reporters on Friday morning. “From experience, I’ve had four grand finals experiences, home and away. What our code brings here is something unique. The team that earns the right to play at home can create an amazing atmosphere and it’s special for those fans. 

“It’s also special for the opposing teams and clubs and fans that travel to a hostile environment. It’s something special that we have in our game and we agree with the fan sentiment. We do as a football club and the chairman has shown that as well. So do the players. 

“There’s a derby on, we’d love to see them stay for the whole game and support an amazing game. But we also understand our fans and we respect their right to make their voice heard. If [walkouts are] the decision they make we respect it and totally understand it.”

After initially trying to promote a vision of a ‘festival of football’ and a chance to forge new traditions, the APL has increasingly pivoted to the financial necessity of the partnership with Destination NSW as justification for the move; pointing to the economic hardships forced upon them by the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 projects that will grow the leagues’ footprint and not for the club’s day-to-day operational costs.  

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

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 5cbec633ae2b882fff068659_ko-fi_horizontal.png

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday morning that the APL also received less cash than anticipated from its $200m broadcast deal signed with Network 10 and Paramount+ due to failing to meet a clause in the contract to attain a requisite number of subscriptions to Paramount+. 

Nonetheless, opposition to the move has continued to snowball.

Players, too, are increasingly raising their voices, either by sharing the PFA’s statement or posting on their own social media pages. This includes Victory players including, but not limited to, Josh Brillante, Leigh Broxham, and Maja Markovski. Adelaide United captain and Socceroo World Cup standout Craig Goodwin revealed to Network Ten on Thursday that he had refused to answer a question spruiking the decision.

“We give the players full support,” said Popovic. “But first and foremost, the players agree and support the fans. 

“I think we’ve seen clearly from our chairman, he’s pushing hard and working hard to try and get the APL to reverse the decision. Our fans have voiced their concerns and they’re showing in voice and, ultimately, they want to show in their actions tomorrow how they feel about it. 

“Our players have spoken about it, they fully understand it, respect it and most importantly, they agree with it.”

In a late-night Tuesday evening release following crisis talks over fan reaction, the APL reiterated its commitment to its partnership with Destination NSW, although it was forced to reissue its statement after some clubs that have taken issue with the decision objected to their representative’s names being added to the document. 

Owners again met in Melbourne on Thursday, although this quarterly meeting was planned before the firestorm engulfing the league was lit. 

“The decision has been made,” said Popovic. “Since then, we’ve voiced our opinions on what we feel about that decision. Our chairman has clearly done that as well. 

“Our chairman is working hard in the background to try and get the decision that we all want – to try and get it reversed. 

“But all we can do is focus on the derby and make our voices heard, and we’ve done that.”

Di Pietro’s resignation and stance, however, has been criticized by former Victory director Richard Wilson, who departed the club’s board after multiple disagreements over the club’s trajectory in early 2021.

“[Di Pietro] has run for cover behind the fans after voting in favour of the three-year money grab,” he told The ABC

“He’s wordsmithed a statement seeking to diminish his culpability and tendered his resignation from the board after seeing the backlash.”

Elsewhere, Central Coast Mariners boss Nick Montgomery said he was surprised by the lack of communication surrounding the grand final announcement. However, the 41-year-old said that all he and his players could do was focus on their fixture with Sydney FC this Saturday. 

Mariner chairman Richard Peil released a statement Wednesday indicating that the first he had heard of the deal was on Sunday evening and that his club, not holding one of the five seats for clubs on the APL board, didn’t vote for the initial decision. 

“It seems strange the lack of communication and how quickly it came out without many people knowing about it,” Montgomery said. 

“I’m not really engaged in too much of it. It’s way above my pay grade. I’m sure the powers that be will all have discussions and hopefully by the end of it, they can come to an agreement that’s going to be beneficial for football in this country moving forward.

“I don’t concentrate on fan [walkouts]. I can only concentrate on putting the team out tomorrow and trying to get three points at home. What will be, will be. As players and coaches, you just get on with it because we’ve got a job to do.”

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

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 5cbec633ae2b882fff068659_ko-fi_horizontal.png

Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory


One thought on ““I understand the fans and agree” – Popovic backs fan anger over A-Leagues grand final controversy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s