This feature is part of A Tale of One City
You don’t have to journey very far back to encounter the last thrilling Melbourne derby. Just last week, in fact, as Victory overcame City 3-2 at the Etihad Stadium. The hero was Besart Berisha – once again – as the Albanian striker plundered his sixth goal in five games to maintain an exceptional individual record in this fixture.
The game was much more entertaining than the majority of games so far in what has been a somewhat muted start to the A-League season, and recaptured the imagination of the 40,000 fans inside the Etihad. There are certainly more historic and more recognised derbies in world football, but there’s a growing sense of mutual dissension in this game that is making it the outstanding one in the A-League season.
The Melbourne derby may not be able to boast the history of The Big Blue rivalry between Sydney FC and Victory, which has captivated audiences in Australia’s two largest cities since 2005, but don’t be surprised if you hear more and more about it as the seasons pass by.
Victory have tormented their rivals mercilessly of late, preceding the most recent triumph with a 3-0 drubbing in the A-League semi-final in May. Going into a game of this magnitude as clear favourites was always going to be a practically unshakable advantage but Victory managed to complete an excellent season against their rivals in adding three to the eight goals they’d already smashed past them over the course of the campaign.
For City, it was another dark trip to the Docklands Stadium – where they have managed only one victory – as Kevin Muscat’s men swept them aside with regular sequences of hypnotic attacking football, to which the City defence simply had no response. Watching the entire match back, it was an absorbing affair, despite the eventual one-sided scoreline. The Etihad Stadium was bunged and a superb atmosphere poured out of the modern-looking terraces, with both sets of fans contributing to sense of fervour and delirium that was enhanced by the fact that a spot in the A-League final was on offer.
Then, after 17 minutes, the inevitable happened; a Berisha goal. From a City perspective, how they conceded the goal was unforgivable. For a striker who has happily reduced their back line to a shambolic mess in recent meeting was allowed a criminal amount of time and space in the box to nod home a cross from just six yards out. Following that, the Victory fans upped the decibels as they sensed blood, and another scalp of their rivals.
Surprisingly, City were the better side after the goal, scrambling admirably to source some inspiration from somewhere. They came within a whisker of an equaliser and bombarded the Victory area with crosses as they looked to engineer an unlikely shift in momentum. Aaron Mooy, by far City’s creator-in-chief, was beginning to pull the strings in a compelling first-half and was almost the architect of yet another goal when his whipped free-kick forced a smart diving save from Lawrence Thomas. But, just as City were gaining a foothold on proceedings, Victory struck like a dagger to the heart, with a crashing volley from Kosta Barbarouses.
It knocked the wind out of City, rather understandably, whose impetus had been emphatically shattered by their rivals. Archie Thompson, the inimitable A-League striker of 13-goal infamy against American Samoa, tapped in an easy third to wrap up another victory for Kevin Muscat’s men. Although the scoreline far from reflected a fairly even game, it smacked of a familiar frustration for a City side that was still recovering from an identical defeat three months earlier and a haunting 5-2 demolition at the start of the campaign.
It is true that since Melbourne Heart became City in January 2014 after being taken over by Manchester City, they have struggled to form an identity. They switched from playing in the red and white of Melbourne Heart to a Sky blue representative of their Premier League owners. Although their away kit had a closer resemblance to the red and white of their previous side, fans were understandably uneasy about this transition.
It felt similar to when Cardiff City changed from playing in all blue to all red. It just didn’t feel right. It felt as though it was forced by a higher being with the fans being rendered irrelevant and powerless. There was a Facebook group started in poorest of their change to sky blue. Called ‘No Navy On Our Home Strip’, its mission statement read: “We welcome CFG investment in our club and rebranding, but we cannot have a navy blue stripe on our home strip, a colour associated with our crosstown rival.”
Some of their unease was lessened by the introduction of red supporters scarves for the 2015-16 season, but there were still murmurings of discontent, especially when disgruntled sections of the fan base unfurled a banner before Heart’s win over Sydney FC, reading, “Our club, our colours.”
“It’s important to hold on to a few things that are part of the identity of the club as you progress forward,” said Cameron Osterlund via The Guardian, president of the Red and White Unite supporters’ group, “And the colours are a big part of Melbourne Heart’s identity. A new name is one thing … but I know the colours are something 95%, or probably 99%, of the supporters would not want to see changed.” It was a clash of colours, essentially.
Melbourne could not stand to see a team in blue, while the newly-established Manchester City’s supporters’ group in Melbourne would not abide a team turning out in red – the hated colour associated with Manchester United, of course. In October 2014, Athas Zafiris penned an impassioned protest piece on shootfarken.com entitled ‘Does an insect have a heart? The early evolution of Melbourne City FC’.
His argument is fascinating. After watching City’s first home game at the AAMI Park, he claimed not to have watched Melbourne City, not even to have watched Melbourne Heart. Instead, he said that he had watched Melbourne Pupa FC. As he goes on to explain, a pupa is the stage of an insect’s life when it undergoes the transformation from larva to imago.
AAMI Park, which already has a larva like appearance, felt like a big pupa last Sunday. The stadium filled like it never did for a Heart game. In among the red and white, splotches of sky blue appeared. Some Heart fans had already changed to imago sky blue of Melbourne City for the occasion; other fans turned up in larval red and white; some turned up without colours because they didn’t know what to wear; others just turned up to see an exotic Spanish star attraction temporarily injected into the pupa in the hope that they too will become part of the imago.
It was fascinating stuff from a fan who was witnessing the transformation of his football club into something externally different, but ultimately similar at its core. That’s because he claimed to have witnessed a side trying to unshackle themselves from a crippling reputation as underachievers. They may be slowly abandoning such a label, but they still struggle to match up to their rivals, Victory
City’s struggles are starkly contrasted in the success of Victory, and their manager Kevin Muscat. The Victory manager is well-known in English football circles, mainly for his spells with Crystal Palace and Wolves, while he also had a spell in Scotland with Rangers.
Muscat was once branded “the most hated man in football” by Martin Grainger of Birmingham after the former’s crunching tackle on Stan Lazaridis. Muscat was notorious for his uncompromising approach to tackling, seriously injuring players like Craig Bellamy and Christophe Dugarry too. His reputation was drawn into even sharper focus under the microscope of the Melbourne derby in 2011 though when, in his first match back after a suspension for elbowing an Adelaide United player, he recklessly scythed down Heart player Adrian Zahra.
The tackle sent shockwaves around the world and was widely condemned as one of the most shocking in football history. Strong statements indeed, and it helped Melbourne Heart supporters cement their main target. Muscat is the perfect man for City fans to hate. After six seasons as a player and two as manager he is the embodiment of Victory, and their success under his tutelage has only served to widen the gap between the two sides.
Muscat’s Victory have not been emblematic from the playing style that made him famous – they play vibrant, attacking football full of endeavour and have been recognised as the ultimate advertisement for the A-League, with City occupying somewhere near the opposite end of the spectrum.
The rivalry, especially with the rebranded City only emerging a little over a year ago, is very much still in its formative years. However, if City can abandon a sense of inferiority to Victory, there is every chance the Melbourne derby could become one of the premiere footballing events in the southern hemisphere. Growing fanfare and commercial prospects – thanks largely to the cash of City – can help this derby become the blockbuster ticket in the A-League.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11