New guard at Victory have their work cut out
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These are interesting times at the A-League’s powerhouse club Melbourne Victory. The club has been seen an example to other clubs in its stability and outlook.
The club retains the last surviving inaugural coach in Ernie Merrick, and while some commentators are criticising the playing culture in the wake of Kevin Muscat’s tackle on Adrian Zahra, it cannot be denied that Merrick in conjunction with Gary Cole have run a very progressive football department.
Not only has it brought in the likes of Fred and Carlos Hernandez amongst others but also has been the first to look meaningfully towards South East Asia in the acquisition of Surat Sukha.
Off the pitch, Melbourne Victory along with the Central Coast Mariners have been excellently run and have managed to maintain both profitability and a high membership base. To show for this good quality stability, Melbourne Victory have two championships, two premierships, a pre-season cup and an extra grand final appearance to boot.
But the first era is now drawing to a close. Former CEO Geoff Miles, who joined the club in the A-League’s second season, left his post on December 31, 2010 after a successful four-year stint. He was always going to be a tough act to follow given the way he had earned respect from Victory fans, despite some controversial times.
Melbourne’s inaugural chairman Geoff Lord has effectively announced he is stepping down from day-to-day affairs, having been given the respectful yet purely ceremonial post of “honorary chairman”.
Mention also needs to be made of the movement out of the club of Tony Ising, the man who effectively made way for Trent Jacobs following structural reform at Victory following the failed title defence of season three.
The new guard will comprise of Richard Wilson as CEO and Anthony Di Petrio as chairman.
Wilson will have just two months to oversee a squad overhaul and guide the transition from the Muscat phase into a new era. During his initial months, he must also contend with various problems engulfing the club, on and off the park.
Off the park, there is a question as to why the fan base at large has become much more apathetic. It is true to say that the new Heart franchise has cannibalised and trimmed a few thousand fans, but Victory still managed to secure over 18,000 members for the 2010/2011 season.
Despite this, crowds have progressively dipped below not only the 18,000 mark throughout the season, but now at the point where some attendances are well below the figures the club was attaining in its inaugural season. Victory averaged 14,000 in that season – with the lowest crowd being 11,000 on a Monday night against the old New Zealand Knights – despite having in the region of 6000 members.
Contrary to the absurd suggestion on the Fox Sports broadcast at the end of the match against Gold Coast at AAMI Park, and what some uneducated Sydney based commentators would like to contend as part of their own agenda, this has nothing to do with the so-called ‘Muscat culture’.
Putting aside the argument that the ‘culture’ existed during the boom years and obviously wasn’t a turn off, the real reason relates more to the issues that come with a lack of general admission areas in the club’s seating plan and a general sense of apathy in the A-League fan base as a whole given the “novelty” has worn off.
The crowds had been stagnating long before the tackle on Zahra and the poor crowd for the match against Gold Coast.
Then there is the matter that relations with the last organised group to remain in the somewhat relatively famous North Terrace area – the Blue and White brigade – seem to have finally collapsed after years of sustained tension with active fans. The North Terrace for Victory’s last home game of the season was completely empty, the atmosphere eerily silent given the irregular chanting of the south end fans.
Wilson’s predecessor Geoff Miles had to contend with a standoff with North Terrace active fans basing themselves on level three of Docklands stadium during the A League’s third season.
Miles managed to reach an agreement (that was controversially overturned by the FFA on the basis of a security review that was conducted on their behalf) but Wilson is in a more precarious situation.
The debate amongst the football media in recent years has not given much focus to the detrimental impact that both the FFA’s security strategy via the Hatamoto consultancy firm and the policing profile adopted at A-League matches, has had on the fan experience for A-League attendees (active and otherwise).
What sets the latest situation apart from season three is that aside from the predictable partisan responses coming from mostly Sydney, and a smattering of Heart fans known to exist, and despite the simplistic reputation lumped on them as the apparent source of all the league’s crowd problems, there is some solidarity with the North Terrace from some active fans of other clubs such as Brisbane, North Queensland and even from fierce rivals Adelaide United.
There was even the astounding phenomenon of the Adelaide United ‘capo’ calling out for the “FFA to leave the Victory fans alone” on his megaphone in the 55th minute of the Adelaide versus Wellington match.
In an article on FourFourTwo.com, the new Victory administration through Trent Jacobs released a statement declaring, “We are aware of issues with our supporter groups, but will be working through those direct with them.”
The new guard will have their work cut out to be effective in these talks, and the task will be made more difficult given Wilson has already gotten himself offside with many fans given what was perceived as the ill considered patronising demeanour and tone of an email the club sent out to all members.
The omens of a quick and truly effective solution are not looking particularly good. This is not good for Melbourne Victory, for the A-League, or for football in Australia.
There is the question of how Di Petrio will engage the FFA. Geoff Lord was known to have his clashes with the FFA over a range of issues, but will Di Petrio have the will and capacity to take on the FFA on behalf of the clubs interest and that of its fans?
Melbourne Victory may be a powerhouse club going as it approaches the end of the 2010/2011 season. Whether that will still be the case from the 2011/2012 season onwards remains to be seen.