League leaders Melbourne City are on the cusp of securing the club’s first piece of A-League silverware if they can defeat the Central Coast Mariners at AAMI Park tomorrow night.
With just three rounds of the regulation season remaining, Premiership glory would be a just reward for the competition’s most prolific side this season.
But the road towards this potential historic success has been a chequered one, from the moment the franchise was first unveiled as Melbourne Heart 11 years ago - and it’s a ghost that’s haunted them ever since.
From attracting sub-par crowds, to being labelled as “plastic” and failing to deliver on the big expectations that came with the City Football Group’s takeover in 2014 - the Melburnians have found it challenging to stamp their authority on the competition in a truly meaningful way.
But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Signing big name marquees like Harry Kewell, David Villa and Tim Cahill have provided temporary sugar hits but not even an FFA Cup trophy in 2016 or seven finals series’ appearances have been enough to quell the sentiment that there was something “missing”.
The club have also given rise to some of our most promising Socceroos in Aaron Mooy and Daniel Arzani, in addition to fostering some of the country’s up and coming youngsters like the on-loan Moudi Najjar and Ramy Najjarine but that too hasn’t been enough.
Whether it was the lack of connection to the community, the absence of a distinct geographical location or the dominance of rivals Melbourne Victory - season after season the club appeared destined to be treated like an unimportant relative at Christmas.
So what has been behind City’s evolution and their ability to exorcise the ghosts of the past?
For City captain Scott Jamieson, it all surprisingly started with the publicly polarising Warren Joyce.
When the Englishman’s two-year managerial stint came to an end in 2019, an overwhelming majority of fans let out a collective sigh of relief.
Not only was the football uninspiring but freezing out the likes of highly experienced footballers, Bruno Fornaroli and Neil Kilkenny didn’t bode well with City devotees.
But according to Jamieson, there was much more to Joyce’s off-field legacy that eventually set the wheels in motion for the club’s revival.
“With Warren, a lot of people were critical of the way things were done on the eye in terms of football.”
“But he did a lot of work behind the scenes of really making a stand of what the club was about and that was making it known to every player and every staff member that walked in that it was about the team and the team environment came first - no individuals were bigger than the football club whether it be players or staff.”
“It was only added in terms of Erick behind the scenes. He had a very similar out-print of what he wanted and it was very similar to Warren but on the eye, the football was totally different and I think that has definitely transformed in terms of the public’s viewing but as a club, we started that when Warren came behind the scenes and it’s only grown.”
“People will say, ‘well you only say nice things about Warren because he made you captain’. Me and Warren probably had five to ten exchanges of conversations that weren’t pretty.”
“He dropped me a few times, he didn’t play me in a major semi-final so this isn’t coming from a place of me kissing Warren’s ass, this is me being super raw and honest and saying that he did a lot of things behind the scenes that people don’t see that made a change in the way that this football club did things.”
Under the guidance of former Paris Saint Germain manager Erick Mombaerts, City were able to reach their first-ever grand final, losing to the indomitable Sydney FC, which paved the way for one of Melbourne’s favourite sons in Patrick Kisnorbo.
Former captain of the club turned coach - Kisnorbo endured a rocky start to his A-League managerial career, but as he stares down the barrel of writing himself into the history books, the 40-year-old former Leeds United defender has done wonders in his debut year.
“PK [Kisnorbo], in regards to football and tactics has learned a lot off Erick, he’s said that he sees him as a mentor, so in terms of the tactical side and the DNA of our style, yeah that was implemented by Erick and has been carried on by PK but what PK does differently to Erick is his day-to-day persona, the intensity, the passion.” Said Jamieson.
“Erick was a very calm man, maybe that was him all along, maybe the language thing came into it a little bit but the message always got across but he never ranted or raved, he never really worked the emotional side of football where PK is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. Everyday you have to make it your dedication to be better, you have to want to be better.”
It’s also been no secret that the return of the competition’s golden boot leader and Socceroo Jamie Maclaren has been immense - finding the back of the net 25 times and becoming the quickest player to reach 100 goals in the history of the country’s national leagues.
Unsurprisingly, City are also leading the overall goalscoring and assists charts across the competition with 54 goals and 38 goal assists to their name.
It also helps that Craig Noone is the joint leader in assists, alongside Western United sensation Alessandro Diamanti.
So what have the City faithful learned from the past? For Jamieson, it’s about paying homage to the club’s history but also celebrating the present and what’s to come.
“The separation of a lot of Melbourne Heart fans that jumped off when Melbourne City took over was pretty sad. I guess they thought that it was their football club taken away.”
“My own opinion on the whole thing is, I understand there’s been some hesitancy about that but as a club we’ve definitely acknowledged our past as Melbourne Heart but we’ve evolved, we’ve grown into Melbourne City and my time at the club 100% has been about trying to gain the trust back of the fans."
And according to the City left-back, winning trophies is one way to do that.
“I know the club’s won an FFA Cup and that’s been super but the feeling I get from supporters and the general public, winning a Premiers Plate or a Grand Final just solidifies more of that proper trophy as such.”
“For us to win the minor Premiership would definitely go a long way in regards to justifying certain things for fans over the years that they’ve probably questioned but to also celebrate our past with Melbourne Heart but also our present with Melbourne City.”
For a football club that’s long been accused of being ‘soulless’ over the years, Jamieson doesn’t hesitate when asked what he feels the club’s identity is now.
“I think of two words as a main base and that’s humility and steel.”
“I talk about humility being that yes, we do have the best facilities and yes we have been given a lot of things because of the backing but truly as a club, I think we’ve started respecting and appreciating and understanding the work that needs to go into trying to be the best team and best club in Australia, it goes with appreciating what you’re doing.”
“The steel comes from the graft of putting in everyday. Ever since I’ve been at this club and I am sure prior to me they’ve always worked hard, but mentally and collectively because of this whole team and club first mantra, when an opportunity arises for a player, if a player come out of the team and then a player goes in - the opportunity of being tough mentally and having that steel has been created by putting that mantra first.”
“You look at our football style and that style of being able to dominate teams through possession and creating chances and the real potent attack we have starts from a tough defence but, I like to see us as a team that likes to control the games with and without the ball and then being ruthless.”
And so, it seems the club who were once hailed as being full of potential, are finally living up to it.