Manchester City’s money is a game changer Down Under

by Neil Sherwin

Negredo CityFootball fans in Australia are buzzing today with the news that Premier League giants Manchester City have bought an 80% share in Melbourne Heart for a reported $12 million.

Rugby League side Melbourne Storm are part of a consortium that will own the remaining 20%, and both are looking to capitalise on Australia’s growing interest in the round ball game.

Manchester United and Liverpool played friendlies in Sydney and Melbourne respectively last year, with the latter attracting over 100,000 people to the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

“Football has moved into the mainstream of Australian sport and is ideally placed to benefit from the boom in football across Asia,” said Football Federation Australia boss Gallop in a statement.

“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.

“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 … A-League as a whole.”

The news of City’s arrival could turn out to benefit the league’s other nine clubs as it is sure to mean additional interest in the league from overseas.

BT Sport already carry A-League games live in the UK and Ireland, and further demand for games can only be good news when it comes to negotiating the next television deal with domestic broadcasters.

The first thing to know about Heart, captained by former Leeds United and Liverpool man Harry Kewell, is that they haven’t been very successful since their inception.

They have made the A-League finals just once in three seasons, and recently equalled the league record for games without a win (20).

The club’s attendance average so far this season is 9,967, up on the 2012/13 figure of 8,560, and they play in arguably the country’s best stadium for football, the 30,000 capacity AAMI Park.

There has been an attempt to create a rivalry with the city’s other club, Melbourne Victory, but that has struggled to get off the ground due to the huge gulf in both success and crowds.

Victory have claimed two championships in eight seasons so far and their average attendance is a league-high 22,815.

The first item on City’s agenda appears to be a rebranding of the club, with an application lodged for the Melbourne City FC trademark last week and rumours are circulating about a possible friendly in Melbourne in May.

A change of identity would see a shift in Melbourne’s A-League makeup as it would be an end to the red/blue contrast between Heart and Victory.

It will be interesting to see how existing Heart fans react to any rebranding, though a lack of history should make the process a lot smoother than, say, Hull City or Cardiff City in England.

Of course, it makes perfect sense for the club colours to change to fall in line with the New York City FC project currently underway in Major League Soccer.

While Heart have not quite hit the lows of now-defunct sides Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury, this move, if nothing else, gives them a long term future in the league and plenty of reason to be optimistic about on field matters taking a turn for the better.

In a league that operates within a salary cap, it is imperative that clubs get as much value as possible from their signings, and Manchester City have already promised to give Heart (or whatever they become) access to a massive network of scouts.

“We have a network of 36 scouts, who will now be looking for players for Melbourne as well,” City CEO Ferran Soriano told The Daily Telegraph.

As the money men behind City have proven since acquiring the club in 2009, they’re in it for the long haul, with huge developments currently underway in Manchester around training facilities and a youth academy which is set to open later this year.

Plans are also afoot to increase the capacity of the Etihad Stadium from its present 48,000 to 61,000.

Heart can expect to benefit from access to all City’s superior setup, with the club expected to spend some of its offseason in England.

Soriano was keen to stress that City’s owners see this as an important move for them, and are determined to make it a success.

“A very important thing here is that we’re here for the long term,” he said.

“It’s not one year or two or three, so if you ask anyone whether football in Australia is going to grow and develop, I think the answer is absolutely yes, very significantly.

“The numbers of people who like and practice football are self-evident. The question is whether it takes two years or 10 [for the game to grow quickly], but we know we’re going to be here for ten years so we don’t care which. We prefer if it goes faster, but if it doesn’t we’ll still be here.”

Similar promises have been made with the New York franchise, where City’s partner are the Yankees.

While the initial reaction to the takeover is the expectation that money will be thrown at big name coaches and marquee players, initial moves Stateside suggest a more conservative and sensible approach.

Last month saw Jason Kreis announced as the team’s inaugural manager, a young coach at 41; comparing him to Ange Postecoglou wouldn’t be too far off the mark in terms of their development.

Kreis cut his teeth with Real Salt Lake and built a strong side over the course of seven seasons and they made it to MLS Cup, the competition’s Grand Final, in December only to lose on penalties to Sporting Kansas City.

While there is a strong possibility of a big marquee name coming in to spearhead the club’s challenge in 2014/15, the new owners are likely to surround themselves by people who know the A-League.

It won’t be an easy task turning Heart into one of the A-League’s big hitters, with the likes of Brisbane Roar and the Western Sydney Wanderers streets ahead on the park.

The foundations are very much there though and it’s hard not to be excited about the potential impact this move will have on football in Australia, irrespective of who you support.