"You'll be sacked in the morning!"
The chant was the clearest of the night, apart from perhaps, "Aloisi out!" Yarraside, the thousand or so strong Melboure Heart supporters group, voiced their displeasure with manager John Aloisi and his band of frustrated and frustrating players throughout Friday night's game against Sydney FC. As usual, AAMI Park in Melbourne was far from full for the city's second A-League club as Heart have failed to win any game since February, a stretch now running eleven games over two seasons. The 2-0 result in Sydney's favor isn't the final nail in the manager's all but completed coffin, but a loss this weekend at suddenly resurgent Newcastle Jets might be enough to send the famous former Socceroo to an early exit from his first coaching job.
Attending a Heart home game, apart from the derby against city rivals Melbourne Victory, is perhaps not the best venue for judging the A-League as a whole. With all the good intentions in the world, Heart simply have not caught on in a meaningful way in Melbourne. They have even had the fortune of several down seasons on the blue side of town but steadily declining results have limited what could have been a promising endeavor. As the first A-League club to be a city's second club, Heart were not given the vast opportunities enjoyed by the most recent addition to the league, Western Sydney Wanderers.
Setting aside the Wanderers' huge advantage of having their own stadium and the fact that they are league-owned and -operated, what Western Sydney best enjoys in relation to city stalwarts Sydney FC is a location-based specificity. Heart have no such identifier. They share a stadium with Victory, do not have offices at AAMI Park where Victory are based and train at various locations across the city. But worse than the absence of a separate place to train and play is Heart's hard to finger fan base.
Soccer fans who wanted to support the A-League in Melbourne when it was formed in 2005 naturally became Victory fans. For five seasons, the Victory were among the top clubs in the competition, twice winning the domestic double before Heart was formed ahead of the 2010/11 season. Those who became Heart fans at its founding were either defecting Victory fans or those who had not bothered to tune in to the A-League over its first five seasons. Though they did reach the finals (Australia's term for playoffs) in their second season, it's been all downhill since for Heart. Without a specific part of the city to claim as its own and from which to build a base, Heart drift somewhere below Victory and the Socceroos among Melbourne's domestic soccer-interested population.
Yet with all of that as background, it was Heart who I got to see play on Friday night at the conclusion of my stay in Melbourne. All week in The Age newspaper, headlines alternated between examinations of new Victory manager Kevin Muscat, whether or not Alessandro Del Piero is a diver and bad puns like 'Heartache' and 'Broken Heart' to describe Aloisi's struggling club. With a Del Piero penalty beating the Victory on the previous Saturday in Sydney, the great Italian's first game in Melbourne this season came on Friday and a larger than usual crowd was
expected hoped for to help buoy Heart's dismal attendance record.
AAMI Park is a stadium with a permanently rectangular field with beautifully curved roofs over stands on all four sides. Many A-League games over the years have taken place in AFL (Australian rules) or cricket grounds, leaving seats far from the touchlines and limiting fan experience. AAMI Park's stands are right on top of the action, providing a fantastic venue for watching soccer.
After spending a few minutes in the SEN (a Melbourne sports radio station) booth before the game, I met up with friends to watch the match. We sat directly above Yarraside during the first half, which gave us a perfect view of Sydney attacking the south goal. While the supporters declared Melbourne to be red and white, it was the Sky Blues who were the better side on the pitch. Del Piero skipped a free kick just off the crossbar after 20 minutes and a combination of Sydney's two other forwards, former Heart player Richard Garica, who was booed every time he touched the ball, and Joel Chianese gave Heart's defenders trouble from the start. It was Chianese who was tackled in the box by Heart captain Rob Wielaert, awarding Del Piero a penalty in the 26th minute. On the occasion of his 39th birthday, Del Piero easily converted from the spot to record his first ever goal at AAMI Park and his first in Melbourne this season.
As it appeared what was billed as a must-win game was slipping away, Heart fans got restless. Chianese tapped in Sydney's second goal during first half injury-time and the Yarrasiders were furious. While Heart have been unlucky with injuries to key players like Harry Kewell, Patrick Kisnorbo and Orlando Engelaar, those who have been on the field have done little to help Aloisi. Michael Mifsud, the Maltese striker of whom much was expected, still has not scored and wasted Heart's best chance of the first half when he shot directly at Vedran Janjetovic in Sydney's goal. Though we moved during the second half to a seat much closer to the field, we could still hear every disappointed chant from the disaffected supporters. At full-time, the boos were loud and an 'Aloisi Out' banner made an appearance in the north end of the stadium as stewards tried desperately to pull it down.
Overall, from a Melbourne Heart point of view, the night was a disaster. But from the perspective of covering the A-League, the evening was gold. It's difficult to watch more than a few games at home with kick offs between 1am and 4am so just taking in a live game was a treat. There were endless story lines emanating from both sides with Del Piero, Aloisi, Kewell's absence and attendance all ready made for breathless columns in Saturday's papers. Though Aloisi survived the weekend and is still in charge heading into Round 7 (most likely due to the club's inability to buy out his contract), Heart are at the bottom of the ladder and looking up even at Wellington Phoenix who are a point ahead with a game in hand. Last season, at year's end Heart were clear of only Wellington and that came thanks to goal difference. If the first six weeks of 2013/14 are any sign, this year could be even worse.
And yet, there is little more enjoyable than watching a live soccer game in perfect weather at a beautiful ground. The game wasn't pretty and the home side lost but after watching dodgy web streams and reading news coverage many hours after it breaks, thanks to the 19-hour time difference, getting a chance to see an A-League match in person was a fantastic experience. With seasoned fans of Melbourne Victory and Perth Glory in my group, we broke the game down as it unfolded, expressed our delight in watching Del Piero and our disappointment in the disastrous performance by the hilariously misnamed striker Golgol Mebrahtu.
Heart may not be any good this season and they will likely continue to draw poorly. But that is not a comment on the A-League as a whole. The competition is vibrant, the standard is solid and improving and the clubs are making a real push to compete beyond their borders and into Asia. Perhaps the clubs I saw on Friday night are not the best embodiment of those realities, but to dismiss a league based on its weakest parts would be an unfair assessment. Eventually I'll get back to Australia and see more games, but for now I'm more than happy to have my first such experience at AAMI Park.