Opinion

Why pick on Phoenix and let Melbourne City off the hook?

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The presence of Wellington Phoenix in the A-League does not sit well with many Australian pundits whose finger of indignation should instead be pointed at a club much closer to home: Melbourne City.

As the battling A-League seeks to establish a proper identity of its own, one wonders if all clubs are afforded the same treatment by Football Federation Australia.

Three years ago FFA came down hard on Phoenix, whose licence expires at the end of next season, for their failure to meet expectations on and off the field and to a degree the club has since responded positively.

Is headquarters prepared to tell City's rich owners, who are believed to be among the strongest opponents of promotion and relegation for the A-League, to lift their game and meet the desired metrics, including those surrounding crowd figures?

The organisation founded as Melbourne Heart in 2009 would prove to be a worthy challenger to crosstown big guns Melbourne Victory.

Heart-Victory clashes drew huge crowds and showed FFA what level of colour, passion and drama city derbies can bring to any league.

And when the City Football Group acquired full ownership of the club in 2015 and renamed it Melbourne City, the move was seen as clear proof of the A-League's potential and a seminal moment in the A-League's development.

The Abu Dhabi-based conglomerate owns Manchester City, who have become a football behemoth that could end up landing an unprecedented quadruple in less than two months.

With money no object, who or what could possibly have stopped them from dominating the Australian scene? It has not quite panned out that way.

City have an FFA Cup triumph in 2016 to their credit but it is a paltry return for a club that aspires to be a giant of the domestic game, up there with Victory and Sydney FC.

As modest Phoenix continue to leave their mark on the competition with their eye-catching attacking football at home and away, City are doing nothing to dispel the notion they are a club with no identity or culture and a team that is frustrating its followers with its boring football.

The fans, understandably, are not happy and are voting with their feet.

City's average home gate this season is 8805, marginally higher than Phoenix's 8550.

But if you take away City's derby against Victory that drew 24,306 (mostly Victory) spectators in Round 9 and consider that Phoenix played their Round 20 home game against Sydney FC in Campbelltown which drew 5115 spectators you begin to realise that as far as crowd metrics go City leave a lot to be desired.

City rate better on television but not by much and this metric could be reversed if both teams continue to provide the same level of entertainment.

This sorry state of affairs has been apparent in the latter part of City's brief existence: The men from La Trobe occasionally showed promising signs but they never took the next step up.

This season City's stocks have taken a dive even though on paper they have a decent side. The team lacks the cohesion, ambition and self-belief that was evident in John van't Schipp days.

There is unconfirmed talk of some players complaining not so privately about a toxic atmosphere and hating to go to training. No wonder agents are swarming with offers from other clubs.

In their last outing City were unceremoniously dumped 3-0 by Western Sydney Wanderers, a defeat that left them in sixth place on the ladder.

"The club's identity issues have always been there but the fans now have an existential crisis about the dull football offered by Warren Joyce," says writer and prominent City fan Athas Zafiris.

"Rather than offering free tickets to families as a reward for going to a 'restaurant' chain that serves bland junk food, City should get rid of a manager that serves bland junk football."

A former club player said he felt Heart or City were always playing catch-up with four-time champions Victory.

"The club did not do enough to engage with their fans and should have worked more to attract new supporters," he said.

"It was almost as if they were resigned to the fact they would always be the other team in town."

Phoenix used to be a club that few in Australia had much time for. Yet having given coach Mark Rudan a chance to show what he can do at A-League level they are winning many friends on both sides of the Tasman because of their gung-ho approach and ability to punch above their weight.

Perversely, Phoenix are now seen as an integral part of the A-League. More so than moneybags Melbourne City, the CFG offshoots few people in Australia care too much about.