Given Melbourne City’s quirky history of near misses and outright underachievement, it seems fated it should play its first A-League grand final in a sparsely populated stadium.
Although as snarky fans of cross-town rivals Melbourne Victory would be quick to point out, this will not be an altogether unusual experience for the counterculture club.
Melbourne City’s (nee Heart’s) progression to Sunday’s decider against Sydney FC at the Western Sydney Stadium is 10 years in the making, a landmark occasion for a club still seeking to forge its identity.
Without a geographic catchment area or an obvious link to the game’s local heritage, Melbourne City has mostly been defined by what it is not — its large, successful and boisterous neighbour Melbourne Victory.
In this regard, I have some personal experience through a son who was taken regularly to Melbourne Victory games — including the 2007 and 2009 grand finals — but who remained stubbornly indifferent to the local giants.
Then Heart was created and his contrarian nature was besotted by the red and white stripes. We became regulars in the first season in 2010/11 and have pledged our allegiance to the club’s usually quixotic cause ever since.
The benefits? It is easier to get a seat and the fan base is pleasingly exclusive; the kind of “real football fans” who sniff at anyone who doesn’t attend State League C Division games on freezing winter nights or can’t name Hungary’s 1954 World Cup final team.
Such football hipsterism makes for great banter. But it can also be limiting when your large and established rival enjoys the kind of success that attracts mainstream media attention and packs stadiums.
Promisingly, Melbourne Heart’s original mission statement included a pledge to play “attractive football”. So we keenly awaited the formation of Barcelona beside the Yarra.
Instead, we got a team that would push the ball around the park pleasantly for 80 minutes, plant nine clear-cut chances into Row Z then have their defensive frailty exposed by a criminally negligent back pass in extra time.
This kind of performance tends to create cult figures. None was more emblematic of Heart than Michael Mifsud or the “Maltese Messi” as he became known.
Mifsud was a nimble striker whose timing was so oddly incoherent that when he left his mother’s womb a linesman appeared in the maternity ward waving him offside.
His lone goal in 14 appearances surely set some sort of world record for goals scored in proportion to opportunities created.
In 2014, Heart fans were met with the same kind of Old Testament fate that has befallen the English Premier League supporter whose club is purchased by a foreign magnate or Middle Eastern royalty.
The City Group’s purchase of Heart seemingly guaranteed instant success underpinned by Abu Dhabi oil billions. But being cast as the A-League’s nouveau riche offended the sensibilities of fans who defied the re-branding by retaining their candy stripe shirts and Heart banners.
And unlike other clubs who benefitted from rich foreign ownership, Melbourne City was a eunuch in a bordello. It had potentially vast resources but competed in one of the few football competitions with a salary cap.
Immediate success not forthcoming
So how would Melbourne City benefit from its newfound wealth? Fancy new training grounds were built. But, as club officials would excitedly explain, it was all about the algorithm!
Melbourne City had access to the City Group’s vast recruiting network. Punch in your request and the computer would spit out a Spanish midfielder, a Belgian goalkeeper or a Uruguayan striker to fit your needs.
That Uruguayan striker was Bruno Fornaroli who typified the more upmarket recruiting. Although, for his all goal-scoring feats, Fornaroli might best be remembered for peppering his victory speech after the 2016 FFA Cup final with expletives added to his notes by a prankster.
The initial seasons under the City Group did not greatly change the club’s fortunes but we soon discovered foreign ownership came at a price for those too attached to their club’s brightest stars.
Aaron Mooy, an astute purchase from Western Sydney Wanderers, controlled the midfield with unusual class and assurance that set off an alarm in the City Group computer.
So Mooy was sent to head office in Manchester before being sold to Huddersfield Town for an amount that almost matched the entire licence fee paid for the Heart. Good business, but cold comfort in Melbourne.
Managers have come and gone. In two terms John van ‘t Schip honoured his mandate for attractive football but couldn’t provide a backbone; Englishman Warren Joyce somehow managed to make City less attractive yet equally unsuccessful.
Enter Frenchman Erick Mombaerts, whose stylish millinery immediately appealed to our Euro-snob sensibilities; even more so the resilience he has brought to a famously flaky franchise.
Wednesday’s semi-final win was Melbourne City’s history in reverse. Western United dominated the midfield but bombed its early chances, while City defended determinedly before cashing in.
This thanks largely to Jamie Maclaren, the Golden Boot winner whose imposing strike rate makes him the anti-Mifsud.
Now Melbourne City has the chance to forge a new identity.
A title before a small crowd during a season when viewing figures have plummeted might not make seats at City games any harder to obtain next season.
But as champions City would no longer be the team that isn’t Melbourne Victory.