The quest to re-establish Melbourne Victory as A-League 'benchmark'

If the adage "the bigger they are, the harder the fall" rings true, then no side in A-League history has experienced as spectacular a fall from grace as Melbourne Victory.

Victory quickly emerged as one of the A-League's heavyweights upon the club's founding as the competition's sole representative in Melbourne, securing Premiership and Championship doubles in 2006-07 and 2008-09, and packing out Olympic Park, AAMI Park and Marvel Stadium with passionate and partisan support.

Not only was there success on the field; for a period, their terraces became a major part of Melbourne's mainstream sporting zeitgeist as seemingly everyone looked to jump on the bandwagon.

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A cross-city challenger did eventually emerge in the form of Melbourne Heart, but Victory continued to carry itself as an A-League powerhouse and added two more titles and a Premiership in the years that followed. They were bigger and better than you, and they knew it. Yet pride, inevitably, goes before the fall. And this bombastic ethos saw hubris begin to set in at the club's AAMI Park headquarters.

Kevin Muscat, whose force of personality and ability to manage and guide expectations internally and externally helped to paper over cracks, headed to Europe at the end of the 2019-20 season, after serving as captain or coach at Victory since the club's birth. His replacement, Marco Kurz, proved a disastrous fit and lasted just 13 league games before Carlos Salvachua and Grant Brebner served as interims as Victory crashed to their worst-ever finish of second-bottom.

Having blooded youth in the hub-based run home, Brebner -- positioned in the Muscat mould as an individual who understood what it meant to be Victory, and bled blue -- was then given the full-time position for 2020-21. Nonetheless, the club's doldrums continued under the Scot, further exposing the rot in the foundations of its A-League program, and he was sacked following a 7-0 defeat by Melbourne City in April. Under caretaker Steve Kean, Victory's fans then watched City romp to a maiden Premiership and Championship double while their team limped to a first wooden spoon.

With so much of Victory's identity built around success, the downturn gave rise to existential questions about the club's identity and purpose in the evolving A-League landscape -- and the club's supporters and executives seemed each to have their own interpretation regarding the answers. Indeed, fans began to consider the club's corporate arm -- a symbol of power and institutional strength when tidings were strong -- was the most important facet of the club to the brass, and there was a level of gallows humour as postulations on the quality of the food and atmosphere of corporate functions emerged while the A-League side delved the depths of despair.

The club had reached a crossroads and the fans were on the brink of revolt by the time of Brebner's ousting, forcing under-fire chairman Anthony Di Pietro into a complete overhaul. Less than a week after Brebner departed, the club announced that former Western Sydney Wanderers and Perth Glory coach Tony Popovic would take the reins for 2021-22 with full control of the A-League program. Long-time chief executive and club servant Trent Jacobs departed in May, with Caroline Carnegie stepping in as managing director.

"It's the biggest club in the A-League," Popovic said.

"A huge club, that has had two years to which they are not accustomed.

"I love a challenge and this is a huge challenge to get the club back to the top; challenging for honours and winning titles. After speaking to [Di Pietro] it was very hard not to feel his enthusiasm and what the club means to him and everyone else involved.

"They want to get the club back on track and I was convinced to get on board.

"As a player, I was always very ambitious and full of belief. I had big dreams and I have always had that as a coach. Wanting to be the best you can be doesn't mean you can't do that where you are currently. I did five years at Wanderers, which was wonderful for me, yet I left a very good job in England to do that.

"That was a risk. I did it at Perth, a club that had never won anything in the A-League. That was a huge challenge. We won the Premiership.

"Coming to Victory, it's a club that's won four Championships, three Premierships, a couple of runners-up. It's full of great history of success. They have the most fans, who had become accustomed to watching their team winning games regularly."

In June, former Heart and player's union heavyweight John Didulica replaced football general manager Drew Sherman as Victory's director of football entrusted with overseeing the A-League, W-League, and academy programs. Perhaps more importantly, he and Popovic have been entrusted with providing an on-field direction that will supplement the club's off-field efforts to rediscover its soul.

Speaking to ESPN in his first interview since commencing as director of football, Didulica explained his vision for Victory.

"What we're committed to doing is being as reflective of our fans as possible," Didulica told ESPN. "That's the sensibility that we need to build throughout this club.

"The foundations of Victory were such that it bled through the veins of, we'd hoped, every Victorian. It was never anchored to one geography, it was never anchored to one approach to the game. It was always something that was expressed as being open for every single person that had a passion for the game to get involved with. That's not something that we wish to walk away from.

"Our aspiration is to set benchmarks across men's, women's and academy [programs]; making sure that we're now applying the same emphasis that we've done historically to our A-League team across to the women's program and the academy program.

"From my perspective, I think it's correct to suggest that Victory had put all its eggs in the win-at-all-costs basket. I don't think [that's] mutually exclusive from also taking huge pride in the way you manage your women's program and the way you manage your academy program.

"In fact, having those standards in your A-League program means you have a greater capacity to ensure that's being integrated across those other programs."

But with much of Victory's W-League Grand Final-winning core re-signed for 2021-22 and coach Jeff Hopkins already established as perhaps the nation's best, Didulica's first task has been overseeing a rejuvenation of an A-League roster that has been in the cellar for the past two seasons.

Matthew Spiranovic, Jason Davidson, Josh Brillante, Brendan Hamill and Chris Ikonomidis have signed on at AAMI Park, and key contributors such as Robbie Kruse and Leigh Broxham have been retained. Youngsters Ben Folami, Nishan Velupillay and Zaydan Bello will return.

"There's no magic wand," Popovic said.

"We've got to work hard on the training pitch. If we can become consistent, we can turn it around quickly; and if you do that you know you are challenging for honours. But we need to do it week after week.

"The gap is big but there is no reason why we can't close it very quickly and be challenging [teams at the top] on the park regularly."

"We're not here to deliver glitz and glam; go to Sydney FC if you want that. What we're after is good footballers who can deliver." Melbourne Victory director of football John Didulica highlights the club's vision

Victory, who began their 2021-22 preparations with a win over Victorian National Premier League side Box Hill, also recently announced the capture of Spanish midfielder Rai Marchan and Croatian goalkeeper Ivan Kelava for the coming season. With Jacob Butterfield, Callum McManaman and Rudy Gestede all exiting the club during the offseason, the pair join Kiwi attacker Marco Rojas as foreigners on the club's books; Victory can add two more foreign players for the coming season should the club opt to pursue them.

"There's no doubt [international recruitment is] challenging now with the impact of COVID," Didulica told ESPN.

"From our end, there was an emphasis on getting the right Aussie talent into the club. We needed to identify talent that was international in positions where we felt we couldn't get the exact Australian player that we wanted. It's never about the profile [of signings]. It's about finding the right player that is going to complement Tony's vision for how he wants the team to play.

"One of the things I've always loved about Victory fans is that they've been great students of the game. They haven't needed a big name to get them through the turnstiles: what they've been after is good football, successful football, and a great energy within their team.

"I look back and I sometimes scratch my head at who [Victory] made marquees, but they made them marquees for a reason. When they brought in Bes [Besart Berisha], he wasn't going to put extra bums on seats but what he guaranteed was that they were going to be challenging for the title every year -- and that's what Victory fans expect, and that's what we're here to deliver.

"We're not here to deliver glitz and glam; go to Sydney FC if you want that. What we're after is good footballers who can deliver. If that comes with a name, fantastic. If it gets a bit of time in the retail media, that's great.

"But ultimately we need to make sure the players we bring in are going to make sure that the 25,000 members we hope to attract will come back the following week, and aren't just happy to tick the box and say we've seen Player X; they want to come back and see a winning team that's playing good football."