It's February 2022, and Chris Ikonomidis has just thundered a half-volley home to seal a 2-1 FFA Cup Final win for Melbourne Victory. Life is good at AAMI Park and getting better. The club's A-League Women's side will go on to win their second successive championship just months later, while the men will notch up a record unbeaten run on the way to finishing second in the A-League Men and an appearance in the semifinal -- a loss to eventual champions Western United in which director of football John Didulica still grumbles over the officiating.
Forged at NPL Victoria club North Geelong Warriors, Didulica is a big believer in football's power to affect change and unite communities. On the morning of Victory's FFA Cup Final win, he was watching the Afghanistan Women's Team (AWT) conduct their first training session in Australia after fleeing the Taliban; the start of an epic two-year journey that, with Victory's ongoing logistical and financial support, has resulted in successive promotions in Victoria's state leagues and a continuing push to lobby FIFA to facilitate their return to the international stage.
That the session fell on the same day as Victory's Cup triumph was, he feels, serendipitous and illuminating.
"One thing that stayed with me always is that trophies are a currency to do great things," Didulica told ESPN. "Ultimately, the objective of football is to transform people's lives and trophies, playing winning football, is the best currency to be able to do that."
But if trophies are football's currency, Victory are a bit hard up at the moment. A year after the Ikonomidis strike, they were crashing to second bottom of the A-League Men table in 2022-23 -- the third time in four seasons they finished in the bottom two. A violent pitch invasion at the 2022 Christmas Derby turned the club into a pariah and led to them being slapped with significant financial penalties and crowd restrictions -- which, if not for Victory's pushback, may have been a complete banishment behind closed doors. It cost a club in an already uncertain financial position millions in actual and potential earnings.
Supporters, already disillusioned with the state of the A-League following the controversial Grand Final decision, melted away as Victory slogged through the rest of the season.
Sitting in the Victory offices, Didulica muses over if there would have been the same level of buy-in for the AWT against a backdrop -- albeit club managing director Caroline Carnegie, speaking to ESPN a day later, is quick to clarify there would have been no hesitation.
"You only get the real exponential outcomes if you're winning games and football and what you're showing on the big stage inspires people," Didulica reflected. "Something that's really dawned on me in the last couple of years through the journey is that there's this huge connection between achieving the things that football can achieve, success on the park is critical to telling that story."
The importance of recording a strong 2023-24 season, across the entire club, is clear. The A-League Women's program and academy appear to be on track but results have to turn for Tony Popovic's A-League Men side.
The transfer window now shut, the offseason has seen the departure of high-price marquee Luis Nani, Cadete and former captain Josh Brillante, amongst others. Daniel Arzani, Frenchman Zinedine Machach and Adama Traore, again, are in. Mid 2022-23 additions Bruno Fornaroli, Connor Chapman, and French defender Damien Da Silva return while Jake Brimmer will be back from injury.
The core, then, largely remains the same, but it is also worth noting that there's a decent contingent of the unit that tasted success in 2021-22. Inherently, this doesn't have to be a bad thing. What is notable about Victory's 2022-23 campaign was that they weren't as abject as one would normally expect a side languishing at the bottom of the ladder. Victory had the league's best defence and, per FotMob, allowed fewer expected goals (xG) conceded than any other. While age could be a factor, Da Silva and the re-signed Roderick Miranda are arguably the strongest centre-back pairing in the league.
To hear Didulica describe it, the preferred approach this season isn't so much a hammer and anvil approach as it is that of a whip and anvil. There's a vision of a rock-solid defensive foundation -- a fit Jason Geria and Paul Izzo should also help in this regard -- combined with an attack fielding talents capable of changing a game in one sudden, violent moment.
Any sort of panache and finesse in the midfield and attack would be welcome given that this was the anchor that hung from the team's neck in 2022-23. Victory's 1.1 goals per game were the second worst in the league and their finishing was poor to the point they underperformed their xG by nine goals -- the biggest deficit in the league. Discarding stats for the eyeball test alone, the side at its worst was turgid: slow, ponderous, lacking in inspiration, and, worst of all from a Victory perspective, terrible to watch -- especially when asked to have the ball. Finding a way to fix that will define Popovic's season.
"I think we needed to try to bring in some really inventive players," Didulica said. "That was a big focus of ours, to bring in players of a good age and who had a real indefinable quality about the way they play.
These recruiting efforts, according to Didulica, have been made difficult at a time when the increasing "delta" between a global football economy that is seemingly ever-growing and an Australian one in which money is increasingly scarce. Leagues that previously couldn't compete for Besart Berisha, Thomas Broich, and Milos Ninkovic now possess growing war chests. Additionally, clubs are increasingly "warehousing" talent -- especially in emerging markets -- in academies and multi-club ownership groups.
With Victory's work for the offseason done, their roster will be rounded out by prospects from Joe Palatsides' academy such as Jackson Lino and Jordi Valadon and Australian youth internationals Fabian Monge and Ryan Teague. Victory historically hasn't exemplified bringing through and consistently playing young prospects from its academy but, as the rest of the league is rapidly discovering as well, that's the reality of the A-Leagues' current lot.
"We have to start with the aspiration that no achievement is out of our reach, that has to be the championship," says Didulica.
"You can't say that if you don't win the championship is a failure or because little things are outside your control and sometimes influence it, but we need to set up to win the championship. That's what we're aspiring to do. And we're confident that we can do it.
"Where it lands, ultimately we'll see and whether the seeds of disappointment will be judged once we're reflecting on how well we did or didn't do.
"Part of success is can we bring young players through? That can be a great success as well. So you can't be too binary in defining how your season goes."
Didulica isn't wrong about varying ways to measure success. But the terraces filled with passion are where nuance goes to die. So much of Victory's identity is centred around winning. It's not supposed to be about geographic ties beyond Victoria or some kind of political or cultural creed. Victory is supposed to be about being the biggest and the best: winning trophies and entertaining. It is what everything flows from.
That's why the coming season is so important. The club, from a symbolic and perhaps a literal one, can't afford another disastrous season near the foot of the table. Popovic's assistants bore the brunt of a poor season a year ago -- a new supporting cast has been installed for this campaign -- but in the last year of his contract, something has to give.
"If we're not winning trophies, that's a problem for us," managing director Caroline Carnegie told ESPN. "It's critical that we get the football side right and everyone's conscious of it. And that's what we're working hard to do.
"We should never shy away from it. We can't get away from it. We are a football club. So if our football side is not successful, it is hard to deliver on everything else. But if you're only successful in football, and you don't make some of those other touchpoints, I don't think you have the impact that you should have as a football club either.
"We're never going to shy away from that we want to be successful on the pitch and we haven't been where we want to be. The last 12 months were terrible, on and off the pitch for us. And there's no use saying but we did all these other wonderful things because ultimately, our call was to be successful football so that we could deliver on the rest and we missed on that."