The 23rd of January 2014 could well be the most significant day in the Hyundai A-League’s short history as news broke that Premier League giants Manchester City were part of a consortium to buy Melbourne Heart.
The takeover, which gives the 2011/12 Premier League Champions a controlling 80% share in the club, is believed to be worth around $11 million and will come into effect from the beginning of the 2014/15 season which will get underway in October.
“Manchester City and their Australian partners have made a strategic investment and I welcome them to our growing competition. It’s another sign that the world is taking notice of Australian football,” said Football Federation Australia (FFA) CEO David Gallop of the takeover.
“Manchester City and their partners will bring a high level of expertise in football and sports business matters and that can only strengthen the Melbourne Heart and the Hyundai A-League as a whole.”
The opportunity to delve into the Australian market was too good an opportunity for City’s owners to refuse after they already made great inroads into the United States by picking up the Major League Soccer franchise license for New York City FC.
Now that the dust has settled after the initial furore created by the announcement, it’s as good a time as any to sit back and take a look at what we can expect from Heart’s new found status as Australia’s richest football club.
Melbourne, Australia’s sporting capital
Anyone who has been to Melbourne knows that it is up there with the very best when it comes to sporting events.
With the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), AAMI Park, Etihad Stadium and Rod Laver Arena amongst others located in close proximity to the Central Business District, enthusiasts can lap up some of the best showpiece contests around, including the AFL Grand Final, The Australian Open in tennis, a Formula 1 Grand Prix and horse racing’s Melbourne Cup.
One thing that Melbourne has lacked, however, is a proper football rivalry in the A-League era.
Melbourne Heart came into the league in 2010 but have always been in the shadow of Melbourne Victory, a team with two titles to its name and more than 20,000 registered members (season ticket holders). By comparison, Heart’s average home attendance this season is 9061.
Heart’s failure to win a single league game in the 2013 calendar year did nothing to suggest that they could reach the lofty standards set by their neighbours. Things have improved over the last few weeks, and Heart are currently unbeaten in their last six games with five wins and a draw, but they are still propping up the table with seven rounds to go thanks to an abysmal start to the campaign.
All of that mediocrity is set to change with Manchester City’s backing, and the potential is there to raise Heart to a level where they can compete with Victory both on and off the field.
"We are excited about the opportunity to make Melbourne Heart one of the most successful football clubs in Australia and throughout the region,” said Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano last month.
"We believe the strong sports culture of Melbourne combined with the football and commercial expertise within our consortium will make for a powerful combination both on and off the pitch."
Of course, there will be plenty of bandwagoners climbing aboard the Heart/City bandwagon, and the challenge is to turn them into regular game go-ers and diehard fans.
If this is successful then the Melbourne Derby, which already pulls in crowds of around 45,000, could become one of the must-see games for fans around the world.
Do you really see a team owned by Manchester City playing in red and white, the current colours of Melbourne Heart? I can’t, especially when NYCFC appear to be going down the path of sky blue too.
The rebranding of Melbourne Heart is sure to be a hot topic as the current A-League season draws to a close and the City-led ownership really begins to take hold.
Let’s be honest, “Heart” is a crap name. However, it can be slightly excused when it is linked to the red and white colours. Should the expected shift to blue happen though, the name will have to go with it and the much mentioned Melbourne City is a perfect fit.
The case for keeping the red and white look is based on the fact that they are the official colours of the City of Melbourne. Personally I see an agreement being reached whereby blue is used for the home kit and the existing colours are used for an alternate kit.
Probably not coincidentally, a trademark application for Melbourne City FC was lodged with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) on the 16th of January by a group called MHFC Holdings Pty Ltd, and the domain MelbourneCityFC.com.au has also been purchased.
There have been some objections from Heart fans who don’t want to see their club’s identity completely overhauled but in a franchise system that is simply the nature of the beast.
The only potential stumbling block is an outraged amateur football club who have been called Melbourne City FC since 1991.
They made comment via Facebook, saying "We will not surrender our club name”, but a friendly word and a crossing of palms with silver should sort that one out.
When the Western Sydney Wanderers were added to the league in 2012, FFA allowed them an extra visa player; seven as opposed to the usual six.
This move was met with objection from other clubs who at the time felt it gave the Wanderers an unfair advantage in a league where a salary cap is supposed to ensure equality.
While Heart already have a squad in place, there have been some comments doing the rounds with regard to the possibility of Manchester City loaning players to them in a similar fashion to NYCFC.
“We will have the ability to take four players on loan from the club here, so I’m looking a lot at the younger players, and the U-18s and the U-21s at the moment,” said NYCFC’s inaugural coach Jason Kreis last week. “And also the players that are out on loan.”
Will FFA put restrictions in place or will City be able to send as many players as they like to the A-League outside of the salary cap?
The Manchester City association should also help the club attract a better standard of foreign player than Michael Mifsud, who was signed at the beginning of the current season.
Malta’s record scorer, with 39 international goals to his name, rose to prominence when he bagged a brace as Coventry City knocked Manchester United out of the English League Cup in September 2007.
However ‘The Maltese Mosquito’ has done next to nothing of note in the A-League and has recently been dropped after scoring just once in 14 games.
A name along the lines of Alessandro Del Piero, who has been a big win for Sydney FC since joining in 2012, would be much more beneficial both on and off the field.
Harry Kewell, the ex-Leeds United and Liverpool man who was voted Australia’s greatest ever player last year, has helped raise Heart’s profile despite missing the start of the campaign through injury.
Promising Australian Aaron Mooy has already confirmed that he will move to the club from Western Sydney at season’s end and he won’t be the last to do so.
Now is the perfect time for a big club such as Manchester City to tap into Australia’s growing interest in the round ball game as attendances continue to rise around the country; eight of the ten teams are currently experiencing higher average attendances than 2012/13,
A Free to Air TV option for Friday night games has made the action more accessible to a wider audience, while BT Sport shows games in both the UK and Ireland every weekend.
Australia will host the Asian Cup in January 2015, a major international tournament that is sure to capture the interest of the host cities as fans from participating countries flock to these shores.
We are currently in a holding pattern with regard to any confirmation of changes to Melbourne Heart, with the new owners preferring to wait until the end of the season before releasing the specifics.
Until then, we can continue to enjoy the action on the park, safe in the knowledge that the usually dull five month offseason will have at least one big news story to keep us entertained.
Neil is on Twitter @neilsherwin.