Melbourne Victory fans, like most A-League Men (ALM) supporters, have quite become familiar with going without across the past two seasons -- mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its destabilising and sometimes paralysing effect on Australian football. For other voids, however, the virus is only able to claim partial credit; the complete absence of an actual competitive Big Blue rivalry between their club and Sydney FC falling into this latter camp.
When the traditional Australia Day meeting between the two old foes rolls around this Tuesday -- moved one day forward due to the Socceroos' clash with Vietnam on Thursday -- it will mark almost three years to the day since Victory last defeated their lighter-hued rivals: Ola Toivonen and James Troisi propelling a Kevin Muscat-coached team to a 2-1 win on Australia Day, 2019.
Since then, the two have met eight times, for a total of eight Harboursider wins.
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It's a damning form guide in isolation and yet, at the same time, fails to properly capture the context of just how abject Victory has been during this period. Under the guidance of Steve Corica, Sydney has scored 23 goals -- 2.8 a game -- during this run whereas Victory, led by a revolving door of coaches in the likes of Muscat; Marco Kurz; Carlos Salvachua; Grant Brebner; and Steve Kean, netted on just four occasions.
In 2020-21, as years of hubris came home to roost and the club capitulated to a first-ever wooden spoon, Victory failed to score a single goal in three attempts. At times, their attempts to keep up with their rivals looked so hapless it almost engendered a sense of pity and it was telling that towards the end of 2020-21, a young squad simply being able to prevent an embarrassment was considered something of a face-saving "win."
But especially in an ALM context, where a wooden spoon doesn't consign one to rebuilding in the second-tier and seeking promotion back to the top-flight, turnarounds can arrive mightily fast. And in 2021-22, "pitiful" is far from the minds of the Victory fans increasingly making their way back to AAMI Park. Instead, the phrase one would use, potentially with an expletive or two in front if you're a fan of an opposing team, is rising.
New coach Tony Popovic at the helm, Victory heads into Tuesday top of the ALM table and one win away from their first FFA Cup final since 2015. After just seven games, they are a single victory away from equalling their total from the previous season and only the Newcastle Jets possess a greater goals and assists per 90 minutes ratio than their 3.14. Just over two months into the season, oddsmakers have placed them alongside Melbourne City as favourites to take out the title.
However, though their nascent campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train, it's Victory's lone defeat this season that might best encapsulate the turnaround in perceptions that the fallen giants have undergone in 2021-22.
Riding high off the back of two straight wins to open their campaign, Popovic's side welcomed his former side Perth Glory to AAMI Park in round three, fully expecting to continue their momentum against a West Australian outfit at the beginning of a long East Coast road trip (if only they knew). They promptly lost 3-0.
Yet when the vanquished made their way over to the north end of the stadium to perform a conciliatory act of recognition of their fans -- something the holdovers from the previous campaign were quite used to -- they were not met by hostility but, instead, songs proclaiming that "Melbourne boys are still No. 1." Whereas the conclusion to Victory's woeful 2021-22 was marked by jeers, protests and the dwindling number of die-hards reduced to singing songs of legends that had long since left, the faithful were now signing for their team even in the face of a disappointing defeat.
Undoubtedly, strong on-field returns have served to bolster this shift in attitude; singing when you're winning is a cliche for a reason, after all. But perhaps more important to this metamorphosis is that there is a genuine perception that Victory's men's football department is united around a singular direction and vision for what the club wants to achieve -- one that stretches beyond paying lip service to a nebulous "Victory way." Further, there is a belief that while they are new to AAMI Park, those entrusted with this task have sufficient runs on the board at an ALM level to justify the faith. Such optimism goes a long way to giving heart in the face of short-term disappointment.
Admittedly, the presence of Popovic at the head of the program, with all the influence he demands as a result, also makes it pretty simple to initially fashion this unification in purpose. But with the presence of new director of football John Didulica and academy director Joe Palatsides -- the two reuniting at AAMI Park after previously working together at Melbourne Heart/City -- the club's fanbase has taken reassurance that there is a supporting cast of well-credentialed and well-respected figures that can supplement and coordinate well with Popovic in their own right, as well as ensure that if/when the coach seeks to try his luck overseas again, the club doesn't fall into the same quagmire that Western Sydney Wanderers and Glory did upon his previous exits.
This represents a significant change at the club as, while it ultimately took less than a week following the dismissal of Brebner for his three-year contract to be confirmed, there were initial questions, mostly of a philosophical nature, surrounding the possibility of Popovic making landfall by the Yarra. A number of these centred on if the club's brass would be willing to cede the type of control that the former Socceroo would demand should he take up the position or if we would be willing to take the job without these guarantees. Victory's precipitous state -- the fans at that point on the verge of outright revolt -- would serve to force the club's hand in handing the keys of the castle over to the incoming gaffer. CEO Trent Jacobs and football general manager Drew Sherman would exit in the months that followed and though chairman Anthony Di Pietro would outlast calls for his departure, he retreated into the background as the new crew took up residence at AAMI Park.
Elsewhere, whereas in previous years Victory has adopted somewhat of a siege mentality to its dealings with the outside world, there has been a decided shift in the club's external communications to better involve its fans in the running of the club and foster a collective spirit. The signing of Ivan Kelava, for instance, was announced via an interview between the Croatian goalkeeper and fan podcast For Vucks Sake, and Didulica himself has been a guest on the show that carries significant capital in the Victory fanbase. Beyond embracing the league-wide shift to memes and absurdity across its social media channels and fostering a connection to fans through the nameless and disembodied "admin" character, the club has also moved to source feedback on matters such as the music that is played at the ground after a win.
On some level, those steps are a level of window dressing that would count for very little if the house said windows were attached to was still on fire. But in the context of the past two years, in which fans increasingly felt ignored and taken for granted by a club brass more interested in maintaining its fastidiously maintained corporate prawn cocktail brigade, it's an important recognition of past mistakes and grievances.
Thus, with all these facets taken collectively, it's easy to see how Victory's fanbase, and the rest of the league, have been given to believe that the nation's biggest club is awaking from its stupor and is set to challenge for silverware once again. And while such touchpoints are not explicitly necessary on this road to redemption, Tuesday evening represents a significant opportunity for a psychological marker that the lean times of the past two years were being exorcised.
In recent years, Sydney FC's dominance in the fixture provided a stinging contrast of the mire that Victory had fallen into in recent years, an extra level of humiliation to a fanbase already experiencing an ignominious period. Thus, in much the same way that the 2-2 draw with Melbourne City in the Christmas Derby was physiologically important after the 6-0 and 7-0 thrashings of last season, points against a Sky Blues side increasingly staring down a crossroads of their own would be another spark of hope for Victory fans that it was walking the long road back to success.