I am a member of Melbourne City and was a foundation member of their predecessor Melbourne Heart so I'd like to think my thoughts posted here reflect someone who has a passion for the club and cares about its current situation as well as its future. This Sunday evening, our boys make the trip over to New Zealand to hopefully knock over Wellington and make some noise in the finals. However, this is not about the result on Sunday. This is about the past and more importantly what the future should hold for Melbourne City FC.
The reason why I joined the Melbourne Heart (now City) bandwagon is because of what they represented. It wasnít that they were not Melbourne Victory. From the inaugural coach John Vanít Schip with his Dutch Total Football philosophy and commitment to promoting youth talent to its community grassroots connections, all the way to introducing Australians to current-day Socceroos such as Aziz Behich, the then Melbourne Heart was all about building a philosophy and culture from the bottom-up. None of this splashing the cash to attract local or overseas big names who would only stick around for 12 months, maybe get injured and then leave. For the first few years, the club did make some progress especially on the field making the finals in their second year. Off the field, the club was financially sustainable. However, there were signs that all was not well.
Firstly, the crowds attending Melbourne Heart were (and continue to be) desparingly poor, which was a little bit surprising given the sporting nature of Melburnians and the fact that football has always been a hotbed here. Was it the quality of football that was turning people away? The quality of Melbourne Heart players? Who knows. The other sign that things weren't going all that well was the fact that Melbourne Heart was (and, it has to be said, continues to) always play second fiddle to Melbourne Victory. Not just in crowds, but also sponsorships, media coverage, membership etc. How to fix this?
Well, after 2 years as head coach, John Aloisi replaced John Van't Schip and with it, subtle changes started to take place. As an outsider looking in, it appeared as though the then Melbourne Heart shifted it's focus away from developing youth and more towards recruiting experienced players with the goal of winning championships. While a noble and justified objective, I believe the club slowly started to lose its identity as a result of this shift in focus. What followed was frankly a couple more years of mediocrity, both on and off the field, culminating with the news in early 2014 of the owners of EPL powerhouse Manchester City taking over ownership of Melbourne Heart.
Following news of the takeover and the subsequent change in name and colours, expectations amongst A-League followers as well as Heart supporters was that the financial muscle the club now had would naturally lead to success, instantly. While the next few weeks will determine whether this season has been a success from a purely results point of view, what about the other aspects associated with running a football club that matters? Well, crowd numbers and membership has increased but there is still a way to go to catch up to Melbourne Victory levels. Off the field, its quite apparent that the club is in a strong position financially with the recent opening of the Melbourne City Academy and, of course, the financial backing of Manchester City. The one area though which I believe still needs to be addressed is the issue of the club's identity. Six years ago, it was reasonably clear what Melbourne Heart stood for. What about Melbourne City? What do they truly represent or want to be known for? Followers of the A-League (as well as non-A-League fans) can readily identify with what Western Sydney Wanderers stand for (primarily representing discrete geographical location made up of soccer mad fans). The same can be said for international football icons like FC Barcelona and Liverpool FC. Why is this important? Because this I believe will drive further growth in match-day attendances (see the constant full houses at Wanderers games this season even though they have had a disappointing A-League campaign), memberships, sponsorships, media coverage and, ultimately, sustained success on the field.
So, in the case of Melbourne City, what do they want to be known for? Does it want to be the club that attracts the youngest, brightest talent across the country and instil in them a philosophy, a culture? Does it want to be the club that spends its way to success, the whatever it takes approach? Something else entirely? I don't have the answer but it desperately needs one.