A lot has been said in recent times about the prospect of change at my club, Melbourne Heart FC. A complete change in ownership has already occurred. The nature of the new owners – a large, wealthy and ambitious corporation – means that at least one avenue of future change has all but been snuffed out already: the prospect of shared community ownership of the club by the fans. It is difficult to imagine the Manchester City-Melbourne Storm consortium ever diluting their shareholding to give up some power to the little people. So a dream that had been kept alive as a tantalising future prospect by the original Heart ownership is one dream already dashed.
We move past the form of ownership of Melbourne Heart to the identity of the new owners. Manchester City FC now own Melbourne Heart FC (mostly – I disregard the Melbourne Storm delegation because it seems like they have little real power, or care factor, beyond a financial return on their investment). So what exactly does it mean for a football club to own another football club? Do they remain as two individual entities, much as two members of the same family can dress differently, have different skills, and hang out with different people? Or do they become part of the same entity – in other words, does Melbourne become a mere shadow or reflection of Manchester?
The changes on the cards are a name change – probably to Melbourne City FC – and a change of colours, FROM red and white, TO something else, most likely sky blue. In other words, a ‘brand alignment’ with the Manchester City model. This is undesirable in and of itself, in my opinion, because as others have said elsewhere, this leaves us as a mere plastic ‘brand’, the ‘mini Manchester City’ that the new owners so publically declared we would not become. It is hard to generate any kind of passion for a brand. People throw around the word franchise to describe A-League clubs, but if this happens it is what Heart would actually become – a franchise outlet of Manchester City. Who could get excited over the Burwood McDonalds, or the Footscray KFC? People might enjoy the food [football] and go there every week, but you’re hardly going to be jumping up and down singing their praises [for 90 minutes].
It seems that the general consensus among Melbourne Heart supporters is that a name change would be acceptable, with varying degrees of enthusiasm from different supporters. Some have never liked the Heart name; others are just willing to compromise on that particular aspect. However, far stauncher opposition is encountered when the topic of a change of colours is broached. The vast, vast majority want to #keepTheRedAndWhite. For some this is a deal breaker in their support of the club, for others merely a bitter sacrifice they will have to endure. Many are willing to compromise in the form of the away kit. I think I have only seen one person, out of hundreds, voice the opinion that a complete makeover is the best thing for our club.
And that’s what this would be. Let’s not kid ourselves. The club known as Melbourne Heart, that we have all grown to love, that we have stood by through some of the toughest times ever experienced by any A-League fans, that we have cajoled our family and friends into supporting – that club would be gone. If you change the owners, the badge, the name and the colours, all at once, and from the top down, without the instigation or at least approval of the fans, then that club is gone. It ceases to exist. It is replaced by a new entity. Perhaps that new entity ‘retains’ some of the staff of the old entity. But players, coaches, they come and go. Melbourne Heart has already experienced a huge amount of player turnover and three head coach stints in its four years of existence. These cannot be the things that define a club. The loyalty of a fan is to the shirt, to the badge, to the identity of the CLUB – the things that are meant to stay constant. As the old adage goes, “play for the badge on the front of the shirt not the name on the back”.
People have raised the argument that City bring with them money and (hopefully) trophies and success. I am unsure how much I buy into this argument, for one thing (it is reasonable to question how much impact money can have in a salary-capped league). But sure, let’s say for argument’s sake that the club starts winning a lot of games. People have said that it is unreasonable to welcome this with one hand and reject any change with the other. Well, to those people I say that that kind of success would feel hollow to me, like we sold our souls. I never asked for the richest club in the world to buy my club – I was given no choice in the matter. I am not prepared to make that kind of Faustian pact to buy success. For one thing, I have spent too long mocking European clubs for doing just that. For another, it would not be Melbourne Heart any more that was winning those trophies, so what would be the point? Taking joy in the wins of a team called Melbourne City playing in sky blue is taking joy in the wins of an entirely new team.
From a personal perspective, as a passionate Arsenal fan in the English Premier League, it would be very, very difficult for me to reconcile myself to supporting any echo of Manchester City, who are one of Arsenal’s main rivals for silverware in the league, and at whose hands my club has suffered considerable embarrassment in recent years. It will be a challenge for me to continue to support Melbourne Heart even in its current form, knowing that any success and profits it makes will directly benefit my other club’s rivals. But to fundamentally change the identity of Melbourne Heart, and to change it to ‘match’ City – this would be untenable for me. The Red and White was a huge part of the reason that I was attracted to the Heart in the first place, in no small part because of my pre-existing loyalty to Arsenal. To simply switch to a colour worn by several of our strongest rivals (Victory and Sydney; Chelsea, City and Tottenham to a degree) seems like a cruel joke.
I never followed Victory or the A-League before Heart came along, and if Heart were to disappear, I don’t know that I could continue to follow the league. It would be too painful. To be honest, I don’t love watching the football that the A-League produces anyway. In a lot of ways, my local NPLV side is more enjoyable to watch. What initially attracted me to the Heart was a desire to support Australian football, and the community-focussed, red-and-white underdog that was Melbourne Heart seemed like the perfect fit. What kept me at the Heart and eventually turned me into the crazy fanatic that I am today was the friends that I made and the very good relationship that the club had with the fans. But my conversion was not a quick process. Although I made a conscious decision to ‘be a Heart fan’ since the very beginning and attended the first game they played, it took until the end of season 2 for any kind of real passion to be ignited. Anything else would have been artificial. My love and loyalty for my club grew organically. To fundamentally change the thing I love and then tell me to support the new thing you put it its place, which looks very much like a thing I hate, is similarly not something that I can do at the flick of a switch.
I very much suspect that the good relationship that the club had with the fans, which I so admired, is gone now. How could Sheikh Mansour ever be as accessible as Peter Sidwell, who I’ve spoken to personally on several occasions? How can the faceless people who will surely pull the strings at the club now ever maintain that small community feel? Certainly, the relationship will suffer badly if the City group decide to blatantly disregard the wishes of the majority of current members. Particularly after specifically saying that they were “here to listen”, this would be somewhat of a slap in the face. Underdog status, too, is well and truly out the window. If the name and colours change as well, what is left? The friends I made? I still have those friends. I can see them any time I like. So there will be no huge magnet pulling me back to the new entity that Melbourne Heart might become. I was told today on twitter this makes me disloyal. Judge for yourself.
I am somebody who has poured the majority of my life over the last couple of years into supporting Melbourne Heart. My family think I’m crazy. Legitimately. I attend every game that is held in Victoria, no exceptions, with some away games to boot. I attend the Heart pub for just about every away game viewing, even though I rarely drink, just to partake in the atmosphere. I am an active supporter – I stand for 90 minutes every home game and passionately chant, scream and sing to support my team. For the last year, I have also been one of the two Yarraside trumpet players. I have played until my lips bled in an attempt to inspire others to keep the passion going, even at the nadir of Heart’s season when everyone was as deflated as can be.
I have played in 43C degree heat in Albury, when I thought I would genuinely pass out if I blew into my trumpet one more time. I have helped to paint tifos until the wee hours of a Saturday night, until my back and knees hated me and my eyes could no longer remain open, and then came back and painted again all of Sunday. I have been a co-host on the HeartCast, the official supporter’s podcast. I am on the committee of Red and White Unite, the Melbourne Heart Supporter’s Association. In this capacity, I have participated in direct liaisons with the club, given media interviews and organised events for supporters. I introduce everyone I can to Melbourne Heart and encourage them to become a fraction as involved with it as I am. I buy every piece of merchandise I can and wear it proudly. I met my partner through Melbourne Heart.
Melbourne Heart is my life, but if it is destroyed and ceases to exist, I will not be able to just ‘switch over’ and support the new club that replaces it. That is not a vacuum that is easily filled. Even if I do choose to keep attending the matches of a club known as Melbourne City that plays in sky blue (and I might, I’m not sure yet), it will not be with a fraction of the passion which I have for Melbourne Heart, and it will certainly not be because of any relationship with Melbourne Heart. I might – I stress, might – one day grow to care about a new Melbourne team. Who knows? But it will always be a relationship built on a foundation of mistrust and resentment at being ridden over roughshod and my club being swept aside like it meant nothing.
Please, Manchester City, please, Sheikh Mansour – if you happen to read this, I and countless others are begging you: please, do not erase our club. Please listen to us, the fans and members. This is not about ultimatums or fans having a tantrum over a little issue and threatening to walk away. Our colours are a fundamental part of our club, and without them, particularly alongside the other wholesale changes proposed for Melbourne Heart, many fans, me included, will feel there is nothing left to walk away from. Our club will have been taken from us. Melbourne Heart, the club that I love and am endlessly loyal to, will be dead. I have to believe it’s not too late to stop that.