V for Victory in Melbourne
Fans of Australia's Melbourne Victory have spent this week savouring two early Christmas presents: a first-ever A-League Premiership title and a place in the 2008 AFC Champions League.
Both were secured with an historic 4-0 win over New Zealand Knights that emphatically confirmed the Victoria outfit's supremacy, with 13 points separating them from nearest rivals Sydney FC , last season's champions, with four rounds of matches remaining.
Founded just two years ago, this fledgling club are in the midst of writing a fairy tale success story that becomes more fantastic by the week. Its on-field achievements and large, dedicated fanbase are already the envy of its A-League rivals, with an impressive average attendance of 28,946 belying the club's short history and erstwhile low profile.
That figure was swelled considerably by a record-breaking crowd of 50,333 for the visit of Sydney FC at the Telstra Dome, a figure that so impressed stadium bosses that they invited the league leaders to move the remainder of their fixtures there from their original, more modest home, the Olympic Park.
Ironically, the one exception - due to a clash of dates with a Robbie Williams concert - was Sunday's title-clincher, watched by 'just' 15,563 as a result, and an ever-increasing demand for tickets has forced the club to hastily revise plans for a new, permanent home. The Melbourne Rectangular Stadium had been due to open for the start of the 2008/09 season with a maximum capacity of 25,000, but it was suggested earlier this month that if this cannot be increased to 30,000, the proposed arena may be abandoned altogether in favour of continuing at the 56,000-capacity Telstra Dome.
This, of course, is the kind of dilemma that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of A-League founders back in 2004, and Football Federation Australia Chief Executive John O'Neill was quick to praise Melbourne's success. "It's fantastic," he enthused. "The Victory has really got its act together this year. Clearly the message is if you're doing well on the park, people will come."
The club has certainly provided a consistently attractive 'product' for its paying customers this season, this after an inaugural campaign that ended with a disappointing seventh-place finish - and calls for the head of coach Ernie Merrick. The Scot kept his job, however, thanks largely to the faith of Melbourne's chairman, Geoff Lord, and Merrick has since repaid that belief several times over with a clutch of shrewd signings - and a winning run that lasted from February to October.
The players on whom Merrick's side's success has been built include a fellow countryman, former Manchester United, Hibernian and Dundee United midfielder Grant Brebner, while the seasoned Australian international Kevin Muscat continues to prove an authoritative and inspirational captain.
Up front, another Socceroo, Archie Thompson, is partnered by Danny Allsop, a 28-year-old former Manchester City striker who became the first player in A-League history to reach double figures with a brace in Sunday's 4-0 win over the Knights.
Yet it has been widely suggested that Melbourne's line-up is likely to become considerably more star-studded over coming seasons as foreign-based Aussies keen on a move home take note of the club's rapid rise. "I know there are international players, Socceroos and ex-Socceroos, that want to come back," Merrick said recently. "With this tremendous atmosphere, with this crowd and our results, we are getting calls now (from players and agents). We are getting players who want to return to play in this A-League and to play with Melbourne. And the more high-quality players we can bring back, the better."
For the moment, however, Merrick and his players can satisfy themselves with basking in the glory of their remarkable achievements thus far. "It's a great accomplishment to win the Premiership," the coach reflected. "Throughout the world, the league title is the ultimate prize, so we're very proud of this achievement."
Melbourne can now look ahead to a well-earned break over Christmas before returning to face the club's next challenge: the end-of-season Finals Series play-offs between the A-League's top four.