The announcement that the Melburnians – Melbourne City’s active support group – will ‘retire’ at the end of this weekend’s Melbourne derby is the latest sign of the club’s struggles to come to grips with its identity.

The club formerly known as Melbourne Heart has been on this road since the day it ditched its red-and-white for the sky blue of Manchester City.

Perhaps few will sympathise with the club’s off-field plight.

For many in Melbourne, the very creation of the Melbourne Heart was little more than an obvious attempt to create the A-League’s first big-city derby and perhaps even try and curb the utter dominance of Melbourne Victory within the city.

With no geographic ties to a particular region, or any particular identifying factors – other than the red and white colours – it would be fair to say that the Heart introduction could have been a little more thought through.

These lessons were certainly well-learned for the introduction of the Western Sydney Wanderers.

Despite this, for an admittedly small number of people, Melbourne Heart still represented something special.

For me, it was the chance to be a part of a new football club and be a part of something new from the start.

Personally, I was instantly attracted to the red and white, I was impressed by the appointment and philosophy of John van’t Schip and I enjoyed being a small part of the passionate Yarraside terrace group.

The football, for the most part, was not great.

Derby days aside, there were not an awful lot of good performances. Other than the memorable derby wins, I can honestly say the only matches at AAMI Park which truly stick in my mind for the football alone was when Heart dismantled the Newcastle Jets 3-0 in November 2011 on the way to the club’s only A-League finals appearance as Heart, and a 3-2 win over Brisbane Roar in January 2013.

But still, we rocked up every week. Not in great numbers but enough to make a bit of noise and have a good day or night at the football. Everything changed when the club was taken over by Manchester City and other local parties in mid-2014.

Most things changed for the better. The club was suddenly able to compete financially for some of the league’s best players. Aaron Mooy had already agreed to join the club before the rebranding, but he was joined by 15 new players over the course of the new season as the club completely changed its squad and became an instant competitor for major honours.

Spanish legend David Villa arrived for a guest stint, Damien Duff signed from Fulham, Robert Koren arrived from Hull City, followed by former Socceroos Josh Kennedy and A-League heavyweights Erik Paartalu and the late and great Liam Miller.

Such talent was simply unimaginable as Melbourne Heart - but the change came at a cost.

The club would change its name to Melbourne City and would eventually wear the sky blue of their parent club (following a brief argument about the precise shade with Sydney FC).

For the FFA and the club’s ownership, this was a pretty small price to pay to have the richest football group in the world invest in one of its clubs and its premier competition.

Ironically, the FFA would also pay the ultimate price as those same investors they so eagerly waved into their competition would go on to play a big role in the political infighting which ended with the ousting of Steve Lowy, a new-look FFA board and likely independence of the A-League.

For some fans, the changes were a big price and would not be easily compensated with the hope (but very rare fruition) of big-name signings and the club’s first piece of silverware with the FFA Cup in 2016.

At the time, I recall a mixed reception from some fans.

Some said that “only the colours were changing” and “it was still the same club”. Others were happy to acknowledge the change but accepted it as a price to pay in the hope of better players and football.

Others, like myself, walked away for good.

Personally, I could never get on board with the changing of name and colours – especially to that of City and sky blue. I could not understand how anyone could argue that this would still be the same club.

Sure, it would be an immensely better team and prospects of success would be far greater, but this was in no way, shape, or form the same club I was sold on in 2009.

How could it be? If you can’t even count on your club’s colours and name, then what can you count on? How can anyone expect fans to develop a lifelong affinity to a club that can put a price on its very identity? You simply can’t expect fans to stick around, especially in the absence of a proper marquee and winning silverware.

The result is an organisation lacking soul and the dwindling of the club’s active support is a testament to that.

Some may argue that Melbourne’s second club never boasted those qualities, but that would be a disservice to the hard work those first fans put into creating a fantastic community of supporters – regardless of how small - around the club.

It would also be a disservice to the likes of Scott Munn and others at an executive level, who went to great lengths to communicate with supporters, from fan forums to invitations to training to general stakeholder engagement on social media and other platforms.

Some of those people remain involved at the club to this day, but a new structure and oversight have clearly taken the focus away from the fans.

Without the star marquee talent a club of City’s resources should be delivering, or silverware to compensate, there is seemingly little left to cling onto for the club’s ever-decreasing supporters.

Factor in a new club in Melbourne’s west, which may already resonate more strongly with City supporters sitting on the fence and thus far “unclaimed” football fans purely on geographic grounds and it’s a dire outlook for the club to contemplate.

Whether or not the club cares or even needs the overwhelming support of the masses is another matter. With such incredible wealth behind them, and as a mere cog in the greater Manchester City machine, one gets the feeling that City’s involvement in Melbourne is not solely focused on mobilising potential supporters.

The Melbourne City experiment has and can still bring great things to Australian football. The facilities the club’s players enjoy are absolutely first class and the avenue they can offer promising Australian footballers into Europe’s elite should not be doubted.

Furthermore, the people behind the club have arguably been one of the most effective agents for change (whether you agree with those changes or not) to enter Australian football in recent years, and will play a huge role in the future.

Unless the club gets to grips with its own identity and is willing to be brave enough to become more than just a branch of Manchester City’s ever-growing influence in world football, the club will become a mere shell that even fewer supporters will be willing to invest their passion in.

Categories: Opinion | A-League | Football Life

melbourne city, city football group, melbourne heart

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