Melbourne City crashed out of the A-League finals in a fashion befitting their underwhelming season, but not in the manner expected.
Editor’s note: This piece was written just prior to Joyce’s departure from Melbourne City. The headline has been modified to reflect this, but the body of the piece has been preserved to retain the author’s original voice.
Adelaide United stole the headlines courtesy of Ben Halloran’s late goal in extra time, but it was goalkeeper Paul Izzo’s brilliance at the other end which denied City the opportunity to travel to Perth for Friday’s semi-final.
City – so often characterised by a reactive, ponderous game style under maligned coach Warren Joyce – contributed fittingly to a thrilling finals contest.
Sure, it wasn’t the open, fluid attacking style we saw the week prior – when Joyce’s boys thrashed fellow finalists Wellington Phoenix 5-0 – but it was certainly a more adventurous performance than many may have expected away from home in a cut-throat elimination final.
But was it enough to save Joyce’s job?
If the fans have their way, the answer will be a resounding ‘no’.
But as far as the club hierarchy seems to be concerned, close enough is almost certainly good enough.
This season, Joyce alienated his best and most reliable performer, but in doing so, established a clear and authoritative regime in Bundoora.
The mercurial talents of Bruno Fornaroli would have made a crucial difference in the finals, but Joyce will feel that was a price worth paying to rid himself of a player he did not believe would buy into the culture he has worked so hard to establish.
The problem is that said culture is so devoid of personality and flair that it’s a wonder anyone still bothers to turn up.
Joyce’s teams work hard, but without the results to vindicate all that hard work, what’s the point?
In all seriousness, how many Melbourne City games from this season stand out in anyone’s memory?
The demolition of the Phoenix and a 4-3 thriller against Western Sydney are the obvious candidates for pure entertainment, while an early-season 3-0 win over battlers Newcastle demonstrated early promise.
The frustration for fans is that the high notes actually indicate that there is a quality team the coach is doing an excellent job of hiding.
Maybe there’s a good coach in there somewhere.
Joyce delivers on his mandate of providing consistent and quality opportunities to promising young Australian (and sometimes foreign) footballers.
Daniel Arzani remains the stand-out, but this season has seen solid improvement from the likes of Riley McGree, Nathaniel Atkinson and Ramy Najjarine.
Despite this, City has to make a decision about the sort of club they want to be at some point.
Will they continue to plod along as the competition’s nearly men? Or unleash their untapped potential on the rest of the competition?
Joyce does not seem overly keen on saturating his team with star power. Indeed, the majority of the foreign and marquee spots in his squads are often taken up by defenders.
Admittedly, Ritchie De Laet and Bart Schenkeveld are the sort of players that almost every other Aussie club would jump at the opportunity to sign.
But the attacking signings – with the exception of Fornaroli – have been much more miss than hit.
Florin Berenguer failed to score a goal in his 18 appearances, and while Shayon Harrison arrived with a big reputation on loan from Tottenham, he is unlikely to be a long-term solution for the club – nor has he shown the consistency required to make a difference if the team is serious about turning from perennial finalists to premiers or even champions.
The club will hope a fit Jamie Maclaren will solve these woes, but Joyce has done little to convince anyone that he is the man to deliver more silverware to a club desperate to join the winner’s circle and make an impact in Asia.
It’s bizarre then that Joyce seems safe.
There is almost something to be respected about the club’s patience and willingness to support its head coach.
But surely even City’s patience must run thin sooner rather than later if they are serious about fulfilling the sizeable ambition flaunted when the City Football Group traded the red and white of Melbourne Heart to sky blue.