Derby a Heart-warming tale
Heat's David Williams scores a goal against cross-town rivals Melbourne Victory. Photo: Wayne Taylor
IT HASN'T taken long, but the Melbourne derby has quickly become the A-League's marquee fixture.
Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United might be the competition's most fervent interstate rivalry, but there is nothing quite like a spat in the same town between two clubs for the title of top dog.
The passion displayed in the Sydney-West Sydney game last weekend showed how the rivalry is beginning to build in the harbour city, but it has some way to go to match the drama and intensity that Victory and cross-town rival Melbourne Heart have generated the seven times they have met.
When Football Federation Australia wanted to open the season with a bang this year, it scheduled the Victory v Heart clash as a stand-alone fixture the night before the rest of the campaign kicked off – a decision that clearly illustrates its status as the jewel in the fixture calendar.
It's a cliche that in such highly emotional circumstances the form book tends to fly out the window, but it's also a truism.
How many times over the decades have the lower-placed teams in big-city rivalries risen to the occasion and struck a blow for the underdog by winning the derby.
Once it used to be said – in the pre-plutocrat days, when clubs could not simply buy a roster of superstar players – that London teams always struggled to win the English league simply because of the number of local derbies. There are usually four or five London sides in the top division at one time, which means the title-chasing teams can tend to drop points they would otherwise have been expected to pick up.
Heart leads 3-1 on the Melbourne derby scoresheet and the red and whites have, by common consensus, had the better of the three drawn clashes.
Heart chief executive Scott Munn says the club certainly puts huge store on the derby: it's a way for Heart to state to the footballing public what it is and to define itself in opposition to the biggest club in the country.
"History shows that Victory have been very successful. They won those championships when we didn't exist, so we can't match that. But the one way we can match them is on the pitch, particularly in these derby games. It was something John van 't Schip (Heart's first coach) was very keen to promote to the players, that when you get the big moments in your career you have to take the opportunity, especially when everyone is watching.
"Success in the derby only brings the same three points, but it gives us status and helps us to build support and obviously it's good for sponsors and fans."
John Didulica, Heart's football operations manager, says he can't quite be sure why his club has fared better than its better-funded, better-supported rival.
"We have played some excellent football in some of those games we have won, but whether the wins have come for tactical or emotional reasons, I don't know. Maybe our guys get up for the games, although we wouldn't want to think we focused on this one game more than any other."
The huge interest in the derby suggests, says Didulica, that the FFA erred in its initial one-team, one-city strategy. "It's proved to be the biggest game. It's shown that there should have been two teams in Melbourne and Sydney from the start. The people who made those decisions for one team, one town didn't understand the nuances of football, that it's about rivalry, passion.
"These derby fixtures are the lifeblood of the competition, and the fact that we went five years without them probably held the game back a bit. Look at the size of the crowds. Of the top 20 all-time A-League crowds outside the finals, the seven derby fixtures would probably be in the top 10, definitely the top 20."
So why does Heart seem to lift?
"It's natural that when you have got a rival, you want to do better," Didulica says. "We are competing every day for hearts and minds, corporate dollars and everything else. Perhaps that gets through to the players and they are more intense, perhaps they take responsibility for ownership and building the club, and beating Victory is an easy way to do that. We don't train or prepare any differently. The way the coaches set up is the same as every other week. But it is undeniable that playing in front of a sell-out crowd will motivate people.
"We haven't had the luxury of a five or six-year headstart building up our brand and image. So one of the easiest reference points for us is to do well against them on the field. The challenge is to leverage these results into a larger profile and a bigger membership base."
Victory doesn't say much about its poor derby record, but it is something that rankles deeply. After all, the navy blues are the biggest noise in soccer, not just in Melbourne but nationally, so they expect to put their upstart rivals in place.
New coach Ange Postecoglou was bitterly disappointed when Heart won the first game of the season, 2-1, and is anxious to set the record straight on Saturday night.
"You are aware of what it means," he said. "The round one defeat hammers it home. I understand how important it is for our football club. The supporters want desperately to win, everyone involved in our football club is desperate to win, as am I.
"I would just prefer to win in style. I like the aesthetics. But I understand that a good-looking performance with no result isn't going to satisfy anyone but me, so we need to win tomorrow night."