10: Melbourne Victory: The Foundations

2004 saw the demise of Australia’s National Soccer League, which existed in various forms from 1977 as the top level of the game in the country. It made way for a new national competition, which commenced in 2005 - the A-League - consisting of eight foundation clubs.

One of those clubs was to be located in Melbourne, a city with the most competitive sports market in Australia. Naturally, the governing body were concerned about the viability of a new Melbourne team. But the establishment of Melbourne Victory would become one of the A-League’s biggest success stories.

Starting a professional football club from scratch in the modern sports environment is no easy task. But the concept for the Victory actually arose in the late 1990s. In the aftermath of Australia’s failure to qualify for France 98’, Tony Ising knew that for the local game to mature, changes had to be made.

We had to stop putting all of our eggs in the World Cup basket. Every four years we’d try and make the World Cup and think that Australian soccer’s gonna flourish off the back of it.

Prior to 2006, Australia hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1974. Despite producing many quality players, the NSL was a semi-professional league which to led much of the best talent eventually moving overseas. This was just one of the reasons why the NSL never achieved mainstream status. The A-League’s intention was to change that.

But back in 1997, Tony was already thinking ahead of the game - perhaps too far ahead. He sat on the idea for nearly seven years. When the NSL ended in 2004 and the A-League was introduced as its successor, Tony’s model for a mainstream club turned out to be the perfect fit for a new era of Australian football.

Through a mutual friend, he was introduced to Alen Rados who had previously been a director with former NSL club, Melbourne Knights. The pair teamed up to bring the Melbourne Victory vision to life and set about finding investors.

Initially, they did get a lot of rejections but Alen wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. One of the first people to show genuine interest was Glenn Wheatley, a well known talent manager and executive in the music industry. He loved the idea and wanted to be the clubs first Chairman, but he couldn’t bring the money to the table.

Tony and Alen then turned to Geoff Lord, a successful Melbourne businessman with experience in the sports industry. He took some convincing but eventually agreed to take on the project and got a team of investors together to help fund the A-League’s license fee and the money required to compete in the new national competition. After years of sitting on the idea, all of a sudden Tony’s concept was finally coming to fruition. They now had less than twelve months to get everything in place, in time for the very first match in August 2005.

Melbourne Victory’s first full time employee was Gary Cole who was appointed Football Operations Manager. He was tasked with building the football department which began with hiring a Head Coach. Following a formal interview process, Ernie Merrick was given the top job.

The clubs philosophy was all about local players and youth development. They would have the youngest squad in their inaugural season but they also brought back experienced Victorian players like Kevin Muscat, Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson.

This fit with Tony’s brand strategy which was all about one club for the entire city of Melbourne and the state of Victoria. It inspired the club's name and the traditional colours of navy blue and white. From the very beginning, it gave the club a clear direction and an identity people could connect with. Geoff Lord was also adamant that the Victory was to be Melbourne’s club, the people’s club.

That philosophy would be put to the test in their first ever home game against Perth Glory at Melbourne’s Olympic Park. The response from the public went beyond their expectations and the match sold out on the day. Six weeks later, their much anticipated home game versus Sydney sold out 24 hours in advance with over 18,000 people witnessing a 5-0 win for the Victory.

In the end, Melbourne Victory’s debut season didn’t quite go to plan, finishing second bottom in the league. But the club stuck by their strategy and Ernie Merrick for the following season, to be crowned Champions. When it comes to silverware, the club have since gone on to become one the A-League’s most successful. But above all, the way Melbourne Victory has connected with the fans is perhaps its greatest achievement.