I remember the good old days of Championship Manager (yes, before Football Manager) when, at the end of the first season, teams would be relegated from the English Conference and replaced by new clubs that had no players, no backroom staff and a mediocre budget.
Such a blank canvas was always a challenge that appealed to me; the opportunity to get in your own players without having to manage deadwood at the same time.
When John Van’t Schip was hired as Melbourne Heart’s inaugural manager for the start of the 2010/11 Hyundai A-League season, he was able to do just that.
Heart currently sits 3rd on the ladder, a fantastic achievement for such a young club, and their form suggests that things will only get better.
Speaking after his side’s most recent three points, a late 2-1 away win over Perth Glory, Van’t Schip explained Heart’s progress.
“I think it was a beautiful, ugly win,” he says.
“In the last year we’ve had these kinds of games and we had a draw or lost them. Now we are capable of winning these and that’s very important because we don’t always play good.”
The 48 year old Dutchman, capped 41 times for his country, enjoyed a strong playing career with both Ajax Amsterdam and Italy’s Genoa before cutting his teeth as an assistant to Marco Van Basten at Ajax.
Indeed, when Van Basten left the role of Ajax boss, it was Van’t Schip who stepped in as a caretaker for the remainder of the 2008/09 campaign.
On 12 October 2009, Van’t Schip headed to Australia to take the reins at Melbourne Heart, a side brought into the A-League with the hope of creating a city rivalry with Melbourne Victory.
The first derby between the two sides on 8 October 2010 attracted 25,897 fans, a game which saw Heart run out 2-1 winners.
Bad blood has already been seen with notorious hatchet man Kevin Muscat putting his mark on the fixture in derby two with a horrendous challenge on youngster Adrian Zahra which made headlines around the world.
Experienced internationals such as John Aloisi, Josip Skoko and Simon Colosimo helped stabilise the new club and they finished a respectable 8th, picking up eight wins.
The 2011/12 season has seen Heart come on in leaps and bounds under the guidance of Van’t Schip, despite a difficult start that saw them pick up just three points from the opening five games.
Aloisi and Skoko retired at the end of last year while Colosimo has rarely featured through injury. Instead youngsters such as giant forward Eli Babalj, tricky winger Aziz Behich and defender Brendon Hamill have been given a chance and have stepped up to the plate.
The real jewels in Heart’s crown at the moment though are, ironically enough, a pair of former Victory players.
Olyroos star Mate Dugandzic became the first player to move between Melbourne clubs when he switched to Heart preseason, while Brazilian Fred is back in Australia for a second spell after playing 17 times for Victory in the 2006/07 season.
A splendid run of form, which includes becoming the first side to beat Brisbane Roar at home since January 2010, has Heart comfortably in a finals spot heading into 2012.
This coming weekend it’s derby time again and, with Victory struggling for anything other than draws, Heart goes into the game as favourites.
Van’t Schip also believes that his side can cement their place in the top three or four on the ladder heading into the second half of the campaign, and that the football community in Melbourne will respond positively to their efforts.
“I think that the people in Melbourne appreciate what we are doing as a new club,” he says.
“They see that we have a different kind of way that we work with younger players and with the way we want to play.
“We respect everybody and respect the Victory as they are the biggest club in the A-League and it’s up to us to get there as well, and I think we’re heading on the right track.”
They are indeed on the right track and while it remains to be seen whether their current form can be sustained for the rest of the season, Van’t Schip can only be pleased with the progress made by his Heart side in such a short space of time.
This article first appeared on the Dutch football site Kick Ball Change.