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.


James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.

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.


James: 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 90s.

Tony: So, the idea for Melbourne Victory came about in 1997 when Australia was trying to qualify for the 1998 World Cup in France.

James: This is Tony Ising.

Tony: I was instrumental in the development of the Melbourne Victory brand and establishing the club as a consortium, applying for the license for the Hyundai A-League.

And really, Melbourne Victory was born in the aftermath of the failed World Cup qualification against Iran. 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.

James: 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 led much of the best talent to 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 Tony was already thinking ahead of the game.

Tony: I was always an advocate for the sport but I noticed every time I talked about soccer everyone was embarrassed about it. It was the most maligned sport in Australia and it was, instead of a badge of honor it was really a badge of shame. The sort of preconceptions and misconceptions that came along with it. It sort of irked me a little bit. I just wanted better for the sport, I thought the sport could do better.

James: Tony’s idea was set aside for nearly 7 years. But when the NSL ended and the A-League introduced as its successor, his model for a mainstream club turned out to be the perfect fit for a new era of Australian football.


James: Through a mutual friend, Tony was introduced to Alen Rados.

Alen: My name is Alen Rados and I’m one of the initial founders of Melbourne Victory.

James: The pair teamed up to bring the Melbourne Victory vision to life.

Alen: And so we got together and it was like a house on fire, we both got on and we both ended up on the one page.

Tony: So from that initial meeting, Alen Rados became, essentially my partner in crime, So that business plan of Melbourne Victory was actually taken to market by Alen. He’s a terrific bloke who would just knock on any door, he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

James: They began pitching their plan to potential investors around town and initially, they did get a lot of rejections.

Alen: Every blue chip marketing director, every CEO, every Chairman of the Board of any company that we spoke to told us, they said ‘it won’t work’, ‘it’ll never succeed’.

James: But they were persistent and 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 but didn’t have the available funds.

Tony: Because Glenn couldn’t bring the money to the table we then went to Geoff Lord…

James: Lord is a successful businessman in Melbourne and already had experience in the sports industry.

Tony: Geoff Lord had a plan that would inevitably see us lose control. I think at the time we knew that was eventually gonna happen and it turned out that’s exactly what transpired. But Melbourne Victory wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Alen Rados but similarly, Melbourne Victory wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Geoff Lord. Geoff Lord brought the money to the table, he got a team of investors together to fund the five million dollars required for the inaugural license. He took control of the club as a result and that’s essentially how the club started.

James: After years of sitting on the idea, all of a sudden Tony’s concept was finally coming to fruition, all in a relatively very short period of time.

Tony: It started to escalate from a bit of a pipe dream to becoming reality. That process of finding investors, finding people that wanted to come and support from an investment point of view, you’re looking at a space of about six months, knocking on doors around town trying to get the money. And then it was a very rapid process from - I think it was, I think I left my job in October 2004 to setup the backend of the club, the backroom - before we played the first game in August so it was less than 12 months to get everything together.


James: From hiring admin staff, to finding a training ground, every aspect had to be considered. As for the football department itself, it began with the appointment of Gary Cole.

Tony: Gary Cole’s appointment was quite coincidental because he worked in Geoff Lord’s business in Belgravia Leisure.

Gary: Gary Cole. I was the initial Football Operations Manager and first full time employee of Melbourne Victory Football Club.

One of the things that I guess, helped Melbourne Victory, Geoff Lord knew nothing about football. You know, what he knew about it you could essentially write on the back of a postage stamp. And he’s a very wise and successful businessman so he handed over the responsibility of setting up the football department up to me.

James: After a formal interview process, Ernie Merrick was appointed as the clubs inaugural Head Coach.

Gary: And Ernie was left field of course because he wasn’t in the NSL, whilst he had done that, he’d become, essentially one of the few full time football coaches here in Victoria at the VIS.

James: That’s the Victorian Institute of Sport.

Tony: It all kept coming back to Ernie because our philosophy was all around Melbourne and Victoria and local players, local development. And Ernie’s decade at the VIS just meant that he knew all the players that had developed through the system and had gone on to play in Europe.

It was all about local talent. We had the youngest squad in the first season and that was a deliberate ploy by Ernie to get young, local players.

Gary: And we worked really, really hard to bring back Victorian players. So you think about the players that we brought back from Europe - Kevin Muscat, Danny Allsopp, Archie Thompson - there was, you know that was a plan to go and do that.

James: While Gary and Ernie completed their recruitment process, the clubs backroom was also being finalised. The board was in place, temporary training facilities were secured at a local private school and Melbourne’s Olympic Park chosen as the team's home stadium.

These basic elements are perhaps the easiest part of building a brand new club. The real challenge is building a fan base....

Tony: You know, you need to identify your market, you need to identify who your demographic is, you need to identify your target audience. And I think the success of Melbourne Victory, it wasn't born as a result of the money generated. If you look at the money that Geoff Lord brought to the table, I mean that satisfied the A-League’s requirement for a license fee, it paid peoples wages, that’s the lifeblood of a club. But Geoff Lord’s money didn’t come up with the brand strategy that engaged people.

Gary: And I think it became evident with how we wanted Melbourne Victory to be set up, to set a new direction. And we understood that building foundations was something very important. To be able to have the opportunity to build one from the ground up is a remarkable opportunity and don’t come around that often. So you know, we didn’t do things off the cuff, there was a lot of thought that went into it.

Tony: As someone who’s involved with marketing, to see that come together at Melbourne Victory, I couldn’t be prouder of the way all the different business units came together to form a club out of nothing.

James: The brand strategy that Tony refers to 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.

Tony: Geoff Lord, from our very first press conference said, “this is not Geoff Lord’s club, this is Melbourne’s club.” And we really pitched, not just to our stakeholders, our internal stakeholders, who all subscribed to the model. Not just to the fans, but the biggest thing we did was selling this story to the media. And selling the club as Melbourne’s team, as the people’s team, not as a plaything of Geoff Lord. I think Geoff Lord handled that really well.

Gary: We took people on the journey with us, you know. There was a great sense of camaraderie.

We had to set a culture. What you learn is that culture, that team culture that survives, which grows, and very important that it grows through the club, is based on behaviours. The amount of feedback we had about the way our players behaved off the park was first class. Now, don’t get me wrong. Did we make some mistakes? Yes. Did players cock up? Yes. But by and large it was good because there was a culture set up to be the best that we could be.

Alen: You’ve gotta embrace yourself into the fabric of the city and that’s what we always did from day one. It was kind of woven and cemented, in terms of our marketing, our outreach programs. We wanted Victory not to be standoffish, to exist in isolation somewhere and cater to a small segment of football supporters. That epitomises Melbourne and I think we’ve reflected that in the culture, in the soul of Victory.


James: The true test for any new club is getting fans through the gates, when all the initial hard work is put to the test.

Tony: At absolutely no stage had I convinced myself that this was a success, that it was gonna work. I was confident and hopeful, but it was until, really, it wasn’t until that first home game against Perth Glory.

Richard: We were all very excited when we started the season cause nobody really know how it would be. And first home game against Perth it was sold out, so a lot of big crowd there and everybody was really happy and excited to play there. So these were memories you will never forget, yeah.

James: That’s inaugural player, Richard Kitzbichler.

Alen: That initial game just proved to us that, it confirmed everything. It confirmed that people are hungry, they want it and they want it in spades. And not just that they want anything, they want quality.

Tony: And then a few weeks later we played Sydney, famously at Olympic Park, we won 5-0. We sold that game out 24 hours in advance. That was when I realised this thing is gonna work.


Richard: I really enjoyed it, going over there and to build up something really new, a really new club from the beginning so it was very exciting.

It means a lot cause it’s something completely different from what I did before and it’s still a big point in my life, I think. I often thinking about Australia, how it was, I really enjoyed it and I think it’s got a bright future.

James: In terms of results on the pitch, 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 its greatest achievement.

Tony: What makes Melbourne Victory so successful is not that it's a franchise of the FFA, but the fact that we got the marketing mix right, we got the brand strategy right at the start. And I think the people that support Melbourne Victory are as emotionally connected, if not more so to Melbourne Victory as a club than any supporter of any of the old national league clubs. I mean, I’ve met people that have got tattoos, Melbourne Victory tattoos!

And people say, “Oh you don’t have a soul” or “it’s not built by the members”, and all that. I think Melbourne Victory was born from the terraces, but in order to survive in the modern sports environment you need to be professional. And I think the processes we put in place, the calibre of people that we recruited has set the club up for its long term success.

Gary: It is a business, but it is a club and clubs take time to develop.

We certainly paid a price, in terms of the commitment that we made, the investment that we made, personally and professionally into the club. But immensely proud of what we achieved, you know I think we helped build the foundations of a sports club that’s going to be around in a hundred years time.

Tony: The thing that gives me the greatest satisfaction is walking through shopping malls and the number of kids I see wearing Melbourne Victory gear, every time, guaranteed will bring a tear to my eye. I mean, this is an illustration of the way the club and the A-League has captured the public’s imagination, the way that the previous leagues didn’t and couldn’t.

Alen: Every time I see a car whiz past me and there’s a Melbourne Victory sticker on the back window, it puts a smile on my face. Every time that I see someone with a scarf, on a Wednesday, on a non match day, wearing a Melbourne Victory, that puts a smile on my face.

Tony: I love that people love the club. I love that the club has made such an impression on people’s lives. To this day I get people in the street hugging me, thanking me for creating Melbourne Victory.

Gary: What matters is, that this is a real club and you put on the blue, white and silver and you cheer for the team. And that for me is football world over.


James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. Many thanks to Tony Ising, Gary Cole, Richard Kitzbichler and Alen Rados.

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Music featured in this episode comes from Fabian Measures, Josh Woodward, Chris Zabriskie, Sound Like an Earful, Scott Holmes, David Mumford and Chris Collins under Creative Commons.

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