From the outset Sydney FC versus Melbourne Victory was destined to become the biggest clash in the A-League.
However, considering the progress of the Melbourne derby since the arrival of Melbourne Heart, and the success of the A-League’s inaugural ‘Sydney derby’ in round three, there is a perception that rivalries may now be local, rather than national.
Rivalries and derbies are an important part of any sporting competition. For the A-League, they are vital. As the competition grows and clubs gradually become institutions, rivalries and derbies engender much needed feeling and passion. Perhaps more importantly, they attract crowds and media attention.
Indeed, the potential for another local derby was one of the driving reasons for the FFA’s support for a club in Western Sydney. Yet it is by no means the first time that Australian football administrators have looked to derbies to build the domestic competition.
In the old National Soccer League, the proliferation of small, community based clubs meant that local derbies were a feature in every state.
In 1984, after the ASF lost its major sponsor, the league even tried a new ‘conference’ format. In part it was due to the influence of the North American Soccer League, but primarily the conference system was designed to encourage regular local derbies, and above all save on travel costs.
While the intentions were good, the experiment failed badly.
Watching Penrith City take on Bankstown City in Seven Hills may have been considered a ‘derby’, but it attracted little interest within the community. Crowds dipped as low as the hundreds as clubs played out of suburban grounds.
The fact that many of the NSL clubs were based in an ethnic community as well as a geographic location did, however, add extra feeling to some of the fixtures.
Matches between Heidelberg Alexander and South Melbourne Hellas, for example, were heralded as ‘the Greek derby’, while Footscray JUST versus Melbourne Croatia or Sydney Croatia had its rivalry entrenched in incestuous, age-old Balkan politics.
The conference system was mercifully scrapped after just a few seasons, never to be resuscitated.
With the introduction of the A-League, one-team one-city became the catch-cry, and local derbies became a thing of the past. In this new environment, Sydney versus Melbourne was heralded as the new big ‘derby’ match.
Eight seasons on, with A-League expansion likely to be put on hold following the demise of North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United, there are now four true ‘derbies’ in the A-League – Melbourne Victory versus Melbourne Heart, Sydney FC versus Western Sydney Wanderers, Central Coast Mariners versus Newcastle Jets, and Sydney FC versus Central Coast Mariners.
Each have their own distinct history, while the newest addition – Western Sydney and Sydney FC – looks promising. However, it will take a long time to topple the ‘Big Blue’, which has an eight year headstart.
To Grant Muir, one of the leaders of Sydney supporter group ‘the Cove’, playing against Melbourne Victory is ‘quite literally the biggest game of the regular season. In a successful season, beating them is the icing on the cake; in a poor season it’s a shining beacon of joy.’
Last season, the two clubs stole the headlines as high-profile Socceroos Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton returned to Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC respectively.
This week is the first of three Sydney-Melbourne clashes this season. With ex-Victory players Sebastian Ryall and Fabio Alves likely to start for Sydney, and former Sydney boy Mark Milligan the lynchpin of Melbourne’s defence, both players and fans have a point to prove in gaining first bragging rights.
Notwithstanding the history of the ‘Big Blue,’ the rivalry has its genesis in the broader social and sporting landscape.
As the two biggest cities in the country, Sydney and Melbourne hog the national spotlight, jostling for top position.
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating once quipped ‘if you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out’, while Melbourne intellectual Waleed Aly dismisses Sydney’s aesthetic appeal as ‘a clue to Sydney’s vacuity. Sun and beauty very rarely coexist with intelligence.’
In this context, the ‘Sydney derby’ pales in comparison. With thousands of Sydney FC fans hailing from the Blue Mountains and the western suburbs, it is too early to tell what actually divides the two clubs.
To Muir, manufacturing rivalries is a mistake. ‘These things need to take their natural course. In the end, real rivalries are about history between fans and clubs.’
The ‘Big Blue’, then, is a tangible and truly national contest with its roots in a state and city-based rivalry dating back to pre-federation Australia.
The original and the best, could there be a more appropriate rivalry in Australian football?