Melbourne Victory stuck in an existential crisis

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The axe falling at the biggest club in the land, Grant Brebner's exit from Melbourne Victory dominates this week's ESPN Australian Football Wrap. But beyond that there's the APL's plans, the Wanderers and much more.

Where to now for Victory?

"I sit here and the first thing that comes to mind is thanking the club for giving me the opportunity to be the head coach of this fantastic football club. It's been a privilege and an honour to be given the opportunity to do this."

A devoted clubman to the end, those were Grant Brebner's first words as he sat, ashen-faced and hoarse-voiced, next to Melbourne Victory chairman Anthony Di Pietro as it was confirmed he would be departing the club following its 7-0 thrashing at the hands of rivals Melbourne City.

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That he was willing to front journalists and cameras for the announcement is a testament to Brebner's character as a coach but, while fixing Victory in the state he inherited it bore all the hallmarks of a Sisyphean task, his performance, he admits himself, simply wasn't good enough.

His desire to do whatever he could to help turn things around, though, was never in doubt and whether it was fair on him to be brought in front of the cameras, even if it was with his blessing, to defend the club one final time is ... questionable.

Neither coach nor chairman was willing to divulge if it was a sacking, resignation or some unholy combination of the two but, regardless, Brebner's exit now shines a fierce spotlight on those remaining at AAMI Park: what do they do next?

Brebner is now the second full-time and third overall coach the club has tapped to try and replace long-time figurehead Kevin Muscat and not only have all three been unable to do so -- but results have gotten progressively worse.

The existential dilemma long postulated has arrived.

Its chosen champion falling on his sword, does Saturday's humiliation represent a deathblow to Victory's much-vaunted culture and way of doing things? As City break away and Western United looms ominously -- both in an on-field and infrastructural sense -- in their own back yard, is the "Victory way" a spent force in the modern A-League?

The onus is on the club to prove that it isn't dead, but if that is the case, does its consistent downward trajectory suggest those currently in charge of said culture's stewardship are unable to harness it or, perhaps worse, don't even understand what made it successful?

Di Pietro reiterated that a review was being undertaken into the football department during Brebner's dismissal, but questions must be asked if said introspection is going to be conducted in a manner that will reveal the harsh truths that are so desperately needed.

If so, will those lessons be heeded even if they come to the detriment of those remaining? Is the badge truly bigger than anyone at Melbourne Victory?

Who's next?

Former Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean, who signed on as Brebner's assistant in October 2020, will see out the season as interim coach -- with the appointment of a new full-time boss to follow as the club undergoes a full review of the club's operations.

As first reported by The Age, Wellington Phoenix coach Ufuk Talay looms as a likely target, perhaps the favourite, with the 45-year-old out-of-contract at the end of the season and having performed admirably since ascending to the Nix job.

"At the moment the focus is on Wellington Phoenix and finishing the season the best that we can," Talay said on Sunday.

"I'm currently here and what has happened there has happened there. I need to focus on what I need to focus on here."

John Aloisi remains a free agent after just losing out to Brebner during the offseason and, though Arthur Papas is now the coach of J3 side Kagoshima United, another former Ange Postecoglou assistant in Peter Cklamovski is available after being dismissed by Shimizu S-Pulse last November.

Western United assistant coach John Anastasiadis carries about as successful NPL record that one can hope for, has a deep understanding of the Victorian landscape -- an asset that helped Jeff Hopkins guide Victory to a W-League title -- and after two years under Mark Rudan out West, has done a good job plugging the A-League-sized gap in his resume.

Hopkins is another potential candidate, but to shift the Welshman over from a champion W-League team to basket-case A-League setup is both disrespectful to that program and risking spoiling the one good thing Victory has going for it right now -- something those at the club are aware of. Hopkins, as well as Football GM Drew Sherman, is also heavily involved in establishing a women's pathway at the club -- an area identified as a key focus.

Victory could even set their sights higher and speculatively see if Rudan was interested in swapping Tarneit for Southbank, or enquire if former Arsenal women's boss Joe Montemurro, who is leaving London to return home to be with family, is interested in re-joining the club he previously served as W-League boss for.

Reports of foreign coaches being interested in jobs can be misleading -- newly unemployed Jose Mourinho would probably be willing to coach in the NPL if enough money was thrown at him -- but candidates from an A-League patented "Worldwide Search™" cannot be discounted -- especially if Victory feel they need to make a splash.

Most intriguing is former Western Sydney Wanderers and Perth Glory Tony Popovic; the 47-year-old still unemployed after his exit from Xanthi. He brings an indisputable record of building success on both an A-League and continental level but also a number of dilemmas.

The former Socceroo has a clear desire to coach in Europe -- as should any ambitious Australian coach -- and has pretty much done it all in Australia, meaning that there is a high chance he would exit Victory mid-rebuild and mid-contract should an offer materialise. In order to execute his vision at AAMI Park, he would also demand the keys to the castle in a manner that those at the club, history suggests, would be loath to hand over.

Though highly effective, Popovic's ultra pragmatic, defensively-minded approach sits in almost direct contrast with the entertaining and attacking identity Victory has fashioned for itself amongst staff and fans.

Like an aristocrat posing atop a pony as they are painted astride a proud Arabian warhorse, reality frequently doesn't live up to vainglorious internal perception, but the inquietude that would come with the clear ideological conflict between Victory's prefered style and Popa-ball would present a significant challenge to be overcome -- especially in a league where it can feel like metrics are just as important as winning.

Indeed, underlying angst, as ESPN's Ante Jukic explored, was already at the heart of Marco Kurz's exit from the club, the German outsider unable to overcome the institutional conflicts that arose between his and Victory's approach.

Enter the Digital Age

The creation of a digital platform that will serve as a "home of football" is on the agenda for the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) as it continues to establish its independence.

In-house media arms, inevitably, face significant challenges surrounding independence and journalistic integrity, but the plans nonetheless come at a critical time for the game in Australia; the midweek announcement by SBS that it was discontinuing its The World Game platform dealing another body blow to an ever-shrinking specialised football media.

Consumers are now just as likely -- if not more so -- to consume a match via highlights or mini-match package rather than the full 90 minutes, viewing habits and the way that sporting content is consumed has shifted and the young audience that disproportionately makes up the Australian footballing public at the fore of that movement.

This phenomena also extends to non-match days, with non-traditional and digital forms of media increasingly challenging the more established parties.

"We are going down a path of building a digital home of football," APL managing director Danny Townsend told ESPN. "Where we have a first-party data record of every fan that's on that platform, we understand their preferences and we serve them content that we know they like.

"And that's going to allow us to not only drive engagement, it's also going to give us flexibility on the breadth of football content we can serve them up -- be it video, be it editorial, or be it audio.

"It's going to be an exciting future for football fans in this country because the fragmented media market at the moment means they're unable to go to one single place to find football and the football hub is going to be key to that.

"We're already talking to [foreign] leagues to ask who is their content distribution partner in Australia?

"Yes, their live content -- their 90 minutes of content might be on BeIN sport -- but how can we work with them to get their message out there?

"It's not just about A-League or W-League football. It's about football, and we want football customers engaging in one place and getting a better experience than they've ever had before."

Good Football Thing of the Week

Andrew Nabbout didn't mean this. But it's very pretty.

Supporting the game's lifeblood

According to the APL, the rejuvenation of active support also sits high on their list of priorities in the wake of their independence.

Football has long suffered from perceptions of it being a foreign, ethnic-charged interloper into the traditional, anglo-dominated sporting scene in Australia. Its fans have too often received differing treatments and perceptions compared to other sports around the country -- governing perceptions tainted by the actions of hooligans half a world away and decades old.

In pursuit of a mythical "casual fan" football officials, at a federation and club level, have had a rocky relationship with a cohort that would ostensibly be their key constituency; leading to falling crowd numbers and deep mistrust at A-League fixtures in recent years.

"[Supporting active support is] a critical part of our strategy," Townsend, who also serves as Sydney FC CEO, told ESPN.

"If you look at the strength of our code over others, it's that fan experience that you get when you come to a football match and you hear the colour and the noise. The things that active support do is so unique to our sport and it's a challenge.

"We've got to be big, we've got to get to a point where we can dictate terms. There are no reasons why we shouldn't; we've got the scale, we've got the interest and the numbers.

"We just haven't organised in a way that we get a seat at the table. By doing what we're going to do with our strategy -- implementing that digital-first proposition -- we'll get a seat at the table and we won't have to worry about what other sports get because we'll be at the forefront.

"We've got to defend our fans. There is a line and if a fan crosses a line, they've crossed a line. But up to that line we've got to get in behind those fans and back them and support them and work with police and security to make sure they're doing what they do best without stepping over the line."

Good Social Media Thing of the Week

Hello? 911? I've witnessed a murder. Also, the Super League is bad and those behind it should feel bad.

Wanderers' wobbly worries

Churlish as the phrasing is, perhaps Carl Robinson is lucky that Brebner was sacked on Saturday night.

After starting with much hype, his Wanderers have experienced sputtering form throughout the 2020-21 season and, having played three more games than them, sit just two points clear of seventh-placed Brisbane Roar -- who beat them 2-1 on Friday night -- and eighth-placed Western United.

Had Victory not capitulated against City, the prevailing conversation heading into this week may well have centred on Robinson's future at Wanderland should his side -- winless in five -- continue to slide down the table.

In most circumstances, a coach arriving at a club in the midst of a long finals drought would get significant leeway. Worst-to-first turnarounds like the Central Coast Mariners are experiencing is the exception and not the norm and expecting otherwise -- even in competition with competitive handbrakes like the A-League -- isn't productive.

But at the same time, Robinson was poached from struggling Newcastle Jets with the explicit expectation that he would play finals football and was subsequently given enviable resourcing and a licence to recruit aggressively -- which he did.

Thus, even if you don't believe the pressure is fair, one can see why it's there.