Soccer

When it comes to cash, City Football Group has plenty to kick around. Now the owner of Melbourne City may, finally, be able to add the A-League’s biggest title to its collection. By Jack Kerr.

Success at last for Melbourne City

Melbourne City’s Tom Glover saves a shot on goal during the A-League match against Melbourne Victory at a crowd-free AAMI Park last Sunday.
Credit: Quinn Rooney / Getty Images

The City Football Group doesn’t always get what it wants.

An exclusive European Super League for the uber-elite of club soccer? City Football couldn’t back-pedal fast enough once the details became public and the public became enraged.

A Champions League title? The group’s showpiece club, Manchester City, did, at last, reach the final this season, then tied itself in tactical knots to lose 0-1 to Chelsea, a team it had outpaced by 19 points in the Premier League.

But these are rare exceptions to soccer’s golden rule: who spends wins. And at spending, the City Football Group (CFG) is exceptionally good. This is, after all, a sheikh-led organisation primed for the purposes of transforming cash into cachet, elevated to “Richer than God” status in the title of one unofficial biography. By most standards, the CFG has been exceptional at winning too.

This season’s Premier League title is Manchester City’s fifth in a decade of absolute dominance in England. Pumped up on royal Abu Dhabi petrodollars, it has, among other honours, become the only team to claim 100 points in a season and the first men’s team to claim England’s domestic treble (FA Cup, League Cup and Premier League titles).

But to win the Champions League – the silverware Sheikh Mansour craves most – is requiring CFG to spend the most precious commodity of all. Time.

By industry standards, you might even call CFG the ideal of patience. Since buying the club in mid-2008, it has swapped coaches just three times. Chelsea, on the other hand, has had 13.

CFG has also shown – or has had to show – that same patience in Australia, where its local outpost, Melbourne City, has only this year won its first A-League silverware.

“It’s been a long wait to secure that minor premiership,” says Des Buckingham, Melbourne City’s assistant coach, reflecting on an 11-season journey through which the club transformed from fumbling, awkwardly named debutants to one of Australian soccer’s dominant forces both on and off the pitch.

When CFG bought the team known as Melbourne Heart in 2014, its players were using wheelie bins for ice baths. Now the team’s state-of-the art training facilities include a circular changing room, specially designed in Manchester to encourage a sense of oneness within the squad.

The transfer of control of the A-League from Football Australia to the clubs themselves – a move lauded by nearly all corners of the game – has been driven in large part by CFG, while the national body itself is now run by one of its former executives.

Then there’s its game-changing investment in women’s soccer, which one industry insider (who was not authorised to speak on the record) calls the group’s “most important step” in Australia.

“It was transformative not just for the club – it was transformative for the W-League,” the insider said. “And transformative for women’s sport in Australia more generally.

“They mirrored what they were doing in the A-League in the W-League context. No compromises. That then snowballed. Other W-League teams had to step up, and after they won their first title, AFL clubs were lining up to ask, ‘Okay, how do we do this?’ ”

With six trophies, Melbourne City’s women’s team is easily the best investment CFG has made outside Manchester. (CFG has a stake in 10 clubs internationally.)

Now the men’s team is finally putting in the performances long expected of it. While it did win the FFA Cup in 2016 – a knockout competition that required just a handful of flashy performances from the likes of Tim Cahill – it’s only this season that the team has been able to put together a months-long campaign required to win the minor premiership.

It has been so dominant that it lifted the Premier’s Plate at home with three games in hand. The victory signalled a team that has finally been able to win grittily and win consistently.

“The big, noticeable thing for me coming in,” says Buckingham, who moved across from Wellington Phoenix between seasons, “was there’s a really clear way of doing what we do here now in terms of the playing style.”

It’s something that began last season under Erick Mombaerts – the Frenchman who took the reins after two patience-testing seasons under Warren Joyce – and has continued under Patrick Kisnorbo, the former women’s team coach who took charge when Mombaerts returned home, six months into the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a seamless handover that speaks to a change of tone at the club, where an air of fragility has been replaced by one of assuredness.

“It’s now about trying to build on this,” Buckingham says, on the eve of the first finals campaign they enter with home-ground advantage (lockdowns permitting).

The only thing missing throughout all this has been crowds befitting the soccer they are playing and the ambitions they harbour. Even in a season where they occupy opposite ends of the table, Melbourne City live in the shadow of Melbourne Victory. On that Saturday evening in mid-May when they lifted the Premier’s Plate, barely 10,000 hometown supporters were in attendance.

It’s part of the reason the team will decamp from their training base in Melbourne’s north, built less than a decade ago, to a new hub in the city’s booming, sprawling, south-east, where the club believes it can tap into local support. Whether it is profligacy or a determination to spend the money to make this project work, it’s a move few other clubs could make as easily.

The resources at hand are, naturally enough, among the things Buckingham has noticed since arriving at Melbourne City. While every club can monitor players’ individual data performance metrics, in a cash-strapped, salary-capped competition, being able to really dig into those numbers can give crucial advantages.

“Our physical data suggests that when we do certain things so many times, there’s a good chance that we’ll get a positive outcome,” Buckingham says. “We always collected a lot of that data at Phoenix, but here, there’s more that goes on and I think that’s just down to the resources we do have and the time that we do put into that.

“Our process is around trying to make sure that we hit those targets more often than not, because the evidence now suggests to us that if we do, we’re going to win a lot more than we lose.

“The outcome should take care of itself. Though sport doesn’t always work that way.”

If those results do come over the next two weeks, they will come despite three of the team’s key players – defender Curtis Good, midfielder Connor Metcalfe and Golden Boot-winner Jamie Maclaren – being in camp with the Socceroos.

Winning the title in absentia might not exactly be a dream come true, but as Manchester’s performance in the Champions League final highlighted, this is not a club that can take finals success for granted – no matter how good the season that preceded it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2021 as "Capital city".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Jack Kerr is a dual Australian Sports Commission Media Awards winner who writes about the business of sport.