What the Melbourne derby teaches us about the A-League
Melbourne Heart in a-league. AAP images
The Melbourne derby is far and away the best thing to happen to the A-League over the last two seasons. And that’s saying something given the positive developments that came into force this season.
In terms of atmosphere, traction and buzz, it already ranks alongside finals football, if not exceeds it – and the rivalry is still only a season and a bit old. The stats don’t lie: five games in, the lowest crowd was 23,059 in the second encounter, with 16 goals scored across all those matches.
The derby is better than any advertisement/promotion Football Federation Australia could dream up.
Ultimately, its success proves the one club per market model the A-League was founded on was flawed, and that a city such as Melbourne can sustain two clubs, with the rivalry between the two helping to pump up the weaker/smaller.
If anything the success of the Melbourne derby should push the case for a western Sydney team, giving Sydney FC a rival to play off, which, unlike Heart and Victory, would have a distinct geographical base.
Rivalries are what the A-League needs; matches with meaning. It was also in evidence in the Queensland derby hosted by Gold Coast United on Boxing Day, where a crowd of 6927 was over double their usual, measly average.
The one club per market model means the rivalry is out of kilter somewhat; Victory had a five-season head start on Heart that included two premierships, two championships and three grand final appearances.
But points of differentiation will emerge and grow: Victory is more associated with Etihad and Heart with AAMI Park (why it’s important Etihad stays in the mix); hopefully the two clubs will become synonymous with two distinct football cultures and styles of play; and the more matches they play the more the rivalry will grow and create a necessary divide in Melbourne.
Some have suggested there is a geo-political divide the rivalry could exploit; Heart representing Labor to north (and west) of the Yarra and the Victory the Liberals to the south (and east).
But as the AFL found after it moved its Melbourne clubs into two city stadiums, suburban and geographical divides in the city don’t really foster modern day sporting rivals. If the AFL were invented from scratch today, could it really have nine suburban Melbourne teams truly representing their geographical bases?
Perhaps the best point of difference was, in fact, that one club existed from day one and the other was the intruder that butted in five seasons later; and that is the real sticking point that will divide fans.
Some think the A-League should build on this and one day prompt a third Victorian club. Geoff Lord takes this to the extreme with his recent claim that former NSL greats South Melbourne should be instated into the A-League, with Heart moved out to Geelong or the outer suburbs.
But the premise for South Melbourne or another new club is based on Heart being undeserving of their status in Melbourne; some claiming their crowd average of over 5000 is a grave concern.
But those people forget the difficulty of Heart’s task; going up against the established Victory. Now that they are in and the rivalry is building, Heart should only grow – and it’s up to both Melbourne clubs to aggressively attack and carve up as much of the Melbourne market for themselves.
In the aftermath of Heart’s 3-2 derby win and four-goal victory over Sydney FC in Sydney, the talk in the Melbourne media is that the second-year club is now out of the shadow’s of the Victory – in a season in which we thought the Harry Kewell-studded Victory would crush Heart into submission, on and off the pitch.
Heart should take inspiration from NBA franchise, the Los Angeles Clippers, who relocated to Los Angeles in 1984, just as the established LA Lakers’ ‘Showtime’ era began. The Clippers lived in the Lakers’ shadow for decades until a gun draft pick (Blake Griffin) and trade (Chris Paul), combined with a poor season for the Lakers, gave new life to LA’s “second team”.
Melbourne Heart could be on the brink of something similar, and the A-League is better for it.
Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.