Popovic hoping to restore smiles after pitch invaders ‘hurt football, hurt Melbourne Victory, and hurt our code’

Generally in football clubs confronted by a period of upheaval, the line is that they’re blocking out the outside noise and only focusing on themselves, especially if the crisis doesn’t originate in the football department. But after the week that Melbourne Victory has had, A-League Men coach Tony Popovic admits that it’s been impossible to shut it all out.  

The violent pitch invasion that forced the abandonment of last Saturday’s Melbourne Derby between Victory and Melbourne City has dominated Australian football discourse and received widespread mainstream coverage across the past week; adding to the rancour that was already swirling around the Australian Professional Leagues’ move to sell hosting rights to the next three ALM and A-League Women (ALW) games to New South Wales. 

Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic
Image Credit: Melbourne Victory

Launching Operation Astute to investigate the pitch invasion, 29 people have been arrested by Victoria Police, while 36 people in total have been identified. Both those numbers are expected to rise in the weeks ahead, with hundreds of Victory supporters and other members of the public contacting the club and VicPol to aid in the identification of those that entered the field of play.

On Friday, Football Australia handed down the first of what will likely be numerous sanctions on the club: restricting attendance to the club’s home fixture on Jan. 6 to members only and preventing its members or supporters from purchasing tickets to away games against Western United on Boxing Day, Central Coast Mariners on New Year’s Eve, and the Original Rivalry against Adelaide United on Jan. 14. 

Away active ends will be closed and tarped off for those away games, and both home and away active ends will be closed and tarped off for the fixture against Roar. Football Australia still investigating the conduct of their fans, City will also cordon off home and away active ends until otherwise advised. 

Victory’s measures are in place until Jan. 15, 2023, and it is expected that Football Australia will hand down further sanctions to the club in the new year, which could include additional restrictions on crowds, the loss of home games in the regular season or finals, the docking of competition points and fines. 

See Also: Melbourne Victory sanctioned for fan violence

Against this chaotic backdrop, Popovic has been charged with somehow preparing his side to take on the defending ALM champions on Monday afternoon. Victory’s players released a statement on Tuesday, stating their intentions to help restore faith in Victory and Australian football. 

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Speaking to reporters on Saturday, the Victory boss said that his side had trained strongly throughout the week and that their focus on Western was strong but admitted that the events of the past week couldn’t be avoided. 

“We’re not naive enough to say that it’s not something that we’re thinking about or that it’s not on our minds, but the players have trained extremely well,” he said. “They know that what we can do is train well and try to play as best as we can on Boxing Day against Western United, which is a big game for our football club. 

“We have to remember that apart from a very small minority, we’re a football club with the biggest membership base in the country. 23,000 members. Now those 23,000 members I’m sure are disappointed that they can’t come on Boxing Day and cheer on their team. 

“So what we can control is that while they’re at home, we can put a smile on their face by showing a true Melbourne Victory performance and make them proud over this Christmas period.”

While City keeper Tom Glover required hospitalisation after suffering lacerations and a concussion after being hit by a thrown bucket during the pitch invasion, no Victory players sustained any injuries during the events of the Derby.  

See Also: A-League fans moderate stance but continue to protest APL grand final decision

“The next day everyone’s a bit shaken up, that night everyone’s shaken up,” said Popovic. “You’re there to play a big Darby and I thought the first 20 minutes was a very good game of football, it was a great battle. 

“We were enjoying being out there and playing. It’s what the players love to do, what we love doing as a football staff. 

“Those actions by a very small minority; they hurt football, they hurt Melbourne Victory, and they hurt our code.”

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Having only played 20 minutes of the derby, Victory’s players are largely fresh coming into their Boxing Day clash with Western, with Popovic reporting no fitness concerns with any of the players that featured during that brief cameo on AAMI Park. Long-term injured players Tomi Juric and Mat Spiranovic have both resumed training with the main group and will now focus on building up their fitness. 

After a shaky start to the season that saw them sit bottom of the league heading into the World Cup break, Western’s 1-0 win over Western Sydney last week means that John Aloisi’s side has now won two of their past three games. 

Beginning to show hints that they are finding the defensive fortitude that carried them to so many 1-0 wins in their championship-winning season – as much as that storyline irked Aloisi as the season progressed – a win for Western on Monday would lift them to within a point of the top six. 

“When they hit the lead, they’re very hard to break down,” said Popovic. “I think in general they’ve been playing well recently. Probably the results have been a bit mixed for them. But their performances have looked like Western United performances.

“We expect the same again. We expect a tough game from the champions. They’ll have some confidence but we will also be confident going into the game.”

In other news, Victory’s Twitter account was restored on Saturday afternoon, almost 24 hours after it mysteriously vanished off the social media site in the wake of Football Australia’s announcement of club sanctions. 

While conspiracy theories were quickly offered surrounding that timing, the real cause, JDL Media understands, was rather more benign and not even related to Victory at all: an error by the social media site incorrectly identifying the club not as a registered business but, instead, as a child under the age of 13, which, being against Twitter’s terms, led to an account suspension. 

After spending the evening convincing the platform that they were, in fact, an 18-year-old football club, Victory’s account was restored to life and their previous follower and following activity are expected to return to normal in coming days. 

Enjoying Joey’s coverage of Australian sport? Your support helps keep it possible.
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Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory


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