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A candid look at the birth of Melbourne Victory

by Tunna on Dec 09, 2014

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As we celebrate a historic milestone this season with 10 years of the A-League, I take a look back at the year preceding the inaugural season of 2005/06 by sitting down to discuss it with the man largely responsible for the birth of Melbourne Victory FC. Tony Ising had a vision almost a decade before his Victory dream become reality.

Melbourne is bathed in sunshine as I meet with Tony at a restaurant in the heart Melbourne’s CBD. He approaches the table sporting an expensive suit and pocket square somewhere between Don Draper and Harvey Specter with a grin I liken to that of Archie Thompson after he’s banged in another goal. The only hint of his football allegiance are the Melbourne Victory cufflinks accompanying his attire. “My wife bought them for me one Christmas. I think they were the only pair the club ever sold,” he says. The sense of occasion to discuss the club so close to his heart is not lost on the man as he sits down. Having known Tony since the pre season of that inaugural year, we trade a few war stories before getting stuck into what we there to discuss.

Tony was not only involved in the start-up, he is also the club’s former head of Media and Marketing. Here’s the story from the inside the inner sanctum of the consortium which won Melbourne’s A-League licence and a start-up club which would go on to become the biggest of its kind in the country.

AT: It seems like yesterday we were filing into Olympic Park for the very first A-League match in Melbourne. A full house which saw Victory and the Glory play out a 2-2 draw. The memories I immediately think back to are the “Full House” signs and the Richard Kitzbichler goal. What are your memories of that historic day?

TI: My overwhelming memory is one of apprehension. The match in Sydney a week earlier had set the scene with a massive crowd, but you have to understand the negativity being sprouted by many in the media and by those within the club as well. We’d only managed to attract crowds of 3,000 and 4,000 to the Pre-Season Cup and there were (and still are!) plenty of people looking to knock us and wish failure upon us. But as soon as the crowds started flocking down Swan Street the apprehension quickly turned to elation. We were getting stories filtering inside the stadium of fans missing out as tickets started to sell out, so we were concerned about people becoming disappointed and disillusioned. But more than anything, my most vivid memory was of the “sold out” sign being rushed across the road from the Tennis Centre.

AT: The day we beat Sydney 5-0 is without doubt an enduring highlight from Season 1. Do you agree?

TI: There were so many highlights from that first season. Yes, the 5-0 is a day that will live long in the memory. It was perhaps the most complete football experience Melbourne fans had ever had at a league game. I think most people there that day thought if we could bottle that day and pour it out every week then we were on the verge of something special. I remember vacating the media rooms in the second half to watch from the North Terrace and helping to start up the “WE WANT 5” chant after we scored the fourth. It was simply a magic day.

But I have two other personal highlights. Firstly, the opening round in Sydney – the massive crowd; the quality of the match day presentation; the quality of the game and atmosphere; and experiencing the disappointment of the draw after we deserved to win on the balance of play after no one had given us a chance. So much was riding on the opening weekend and the A-League over-delivered on the promise.

The other was after leaving Olympic Park after three successive home draws. Many expected the fans to drop off in disappointment. Instead, the fans rallied behind the club. Listening to the fans resolve to come back next week despite the results made we realise that we had already been successful in what we set out to achieve – a club all of Melbourne could call their own. A club built with lasting foundations, not on short-term success.

AT: Take us back to Season ZERO, post the Crawford Report and the unveiling of a new national competition called the “A-League”.

TI: The new competition was merely the vehicle for a vision I had many years earlier. Melbourne Victory as a concept had existed since 1997. Some people might not know that Melbourne Victory was initially proposed as a brand change for Carlton Soccer Club which, despite on-field success and new levels of professionalism, hadn’t captured the public’s imagination. The powers that be at Carlton turned down the proposal so the name sat on the shelf, until after Frank Lowy had the NSL disbanded in 2003.

It wasn’t until the new league called for expressions of interest that I dusted off the original plan, made a few updates and started the process of seeking support.

The first person to view the new plan was Brendan Schwab at the PFA who was preparing his own submission for an Australian Premier League. His version called for two Melbourne teams, whereas we argued strongly for a one-team, one-town model. Luckily for us this model matched that proposed by John O’Neill for the A-League.

The next person to see the plan was Alen Rados, who had been introduced to me by a colleague. Alen provided the impetuous to get Victory off the ground. Make no mistake, Melbourne Victory would not exist without Alen’s connections throughout Melbourne’s business community, and his resilience and determination to knock down every door in town to get support. Alen even got us an audience with Eddie McGuire, who turned down the opportunity to back the club and be Chairman.

Alen knocked on Glenn Wheatley’s door and we offered him the Chairmanship. Glenn was a huge coup from a PR perspective, but unfortunately he couldn’t raise the necessary money. Alen then contacted Geoff Lord who was very enthusiastic about the project. Unfortunately for Glenn, Lord couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, allow him a place on the board without a financial injection. And that rule went for Alen and I as well. We essentially sold our stake in the club for nothing but the chance to see it come to life. No board position. No ownership stake.

There was strong competition in Melbourne for the A-League license, but we held firm and eventually beat off bids backed by Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne and even the VSF itself to win the license.

That’s the birth of the club in a nutshell, right there.

AT: How did you find investors? The NSL had essentially died and Australian football was never supposed to work. It must’ve been a hard sell?

TI: You have no idea. As I’ve already mentioned, Alen Rados wasn’t scared to knock on every door in Melbourne. We covered a lot of ground and presented to many people. Interestingly, the audience we struggled with the most was the so-called “old-soccer” crowd – people who had been burnt time and time again by failed investments in soccer. Soccer had kept going back to the same well and taking money from the same people. It was time to look in new places and expand the pie.

Now we’ve qualified for three successive world cups, we have a league which it currently sitting on an average crowd figure of close to 20,000. I mean, Australian football is absolutely flying. But it was nothing like that back then. Australian football was toxic. We had to sell the blue sky – the promise of what could be. I remember the first time we ever met Geoff Lord in his Belgravia Group office. He has a view of Bob Jane Stadium from his desk. He pointed over his shoulder and said “we could play Monday night soccer over there and get 4,000 people”. To which Rados replied “No Geoff. Let’s play at Colonial Stadium (now Etihad) and get 40,000”. It was a magic line by Alen that not even I dared believe at the time. But it did the trick by helping Lord paint a mental picture of what might be.

We also received great support from former Socceroo Jack Reilly, who was essentially the FFA’s eyes and ears in Melbourne at the time. I remember standing with Jack outside Gate 3 looking towards the Bourke Street overpass on that fateful night we played our first game at Docklands in Season 2. As the flood of people crossed that bridge Jack just looked across with tears in his eyes and said “Oh. My. God. I never thought I’d live to see the day”. That we achieved a 40,000 crowd at Docklands within 18 months of our birth speaks volumes about the way this city took the club into their hearts, vindicating all the hard work we had put in.

AT: What was the feeling like when FFA decided on the Melbourne Victory submission?

TI: There was never any real celebration. There was always something missing. We were awarded “Preferred Bidder Status” before Lord even got involved, but we didn’t really realise what that meant. In essence it meant we had won the licence subject to finding $5 million. But there was no time to celebrate because we were as far away from finding the $5 million as we were before we won preferred bidder status.

Then we convinced Lord to back it, but we were fighting our own personal battles in regard to our ownership stake, as well as looking out for Wheatley who Lord made clear had no place at the table.
But that was only part of the struggle, as Lord still had to raise the $5 million among his mates and associates. And then Lord came up short, or so we thought. But it turns out Lord wasn’t really short – he just wanted the FFA to share in some of the risk, so the FFA ended up taking a percentage stake, which hurt our public perception because people thought we couldn’t raise the money.

Next thing I know I’m having dinner at Matt Moran’s Aria Restaurant under the Sydney Harbour Bridge sitting next to Frank Lowy with Geoff Lord kicking me under the table to ask me to stand up and make an acceptance speech.

There was always so much work ahead of us that there was never any time to look back. One of my greatest regrets was never actually taking a night to celebrate and reflect on our success with Alen.

AT: So you won the A-League licence. What did you do then? How do you go about building a football club from scratch?

TI: It’s funny, in a way. We basically won the license on a promise. A promise to deliver a broad-based club for Melbourne. There was also the not-so-small matter of $5 million in capital, but in essence our point of difference between the other bidders was a totally clean state.

And I think that really worked in our favour. One of the things that really struck me on away trips to Adelaide and Perth – two clubs that were established during the NSL – was their reliance on their local Italian communities, not just for crowds but for corporate support and for backroom administrative support. We didn’t have that. We had no pre-existing structure. No pre-existing staff. No pre-existing culture. We were able to build all that from the foundation of a philosophy - a team all of Melbourne and all of Victoria could support.

Of course luck played a huge part. We were fortunate enough to secure the services of Gary Cole in football operations. Gary brought with him a very diligent, methodical and professional approach to player recruitment. But we didn’t set out to recruit him, he was already on Geoff Lord’s payroll in a different business division.

We undertook a process of recruitment for coach, and Ernie Merrick stood absolutely head and shoulders above all other applicants on the most important criteria – cultural fit. We wanted a team with a strong Victorian flavour. We saw Victory as being a vehicle for getting young players excited about the career pathways the sport had to offer. Ernie’s history in developing Victoria’s best young talent at the Victorian Institute of Sport fit perfectly with our philosophy. You have to take into consideration when evaluating our first season performance that Victory had by far the youngest average playing age of any of the inaugural squads. Geoff Lord made famous the mantra “We intend to build success, not buy success”.

Of course we made mistakes as well. Lord appointed another one of his Belgravia Group staff, Darren Gosling, as the inaugural CEO, but only in a part-time capacity. Darren did the best he could despite his limited knowledge of the sport and its historical nuances, but I maintain that appointing a part-time CEO to a start-up club showed a lack of respect for the magnitude of the job. This lack of appreciation for the nuances of the sport greatly affected the early relationships with supporters, particularly active fans.

The club steadfastly refused to recognise active fans, despite Sydney FC catering for the Cove in Season 1. I think a lot of the animosity between club and fans could have been avoided if the club had initiated the relationship, rather than reacted to eventual issues in the terraces.

And I think our football department underestimated the eventual quality of the league in the first season. However, the greatest illustration of the ability of our football department was their ability to immediately remedy this and go on to win the championship the following season. But be in no doubt we were all disappointed with the results in that first season.

AT: As we all were but the one true constant during that inaugural season were the fans, and they continue to stand head and shoulders above any other club in the games history. Why do you think this is?

TI: There are lots of reasons for this. The main one we can’t really take credit for is timing. The planets finally aligned for all the ingredients to mix together in the right combination. The sport had to take the hard decisions to revitalise the domestic league.

But more than anything else, I firmly believe that it gets back to philosophy and culture. The philosophy and culture was always fan made. It was a team for all of Melbourne: whether you previously enjoyed football or not; whether you had ethnic ties to the game or not; whether you played the sport or just watched; whether you were into the EPL or not. The branding of the club as Melbourne Victory united us all and provided that intangible aspirational element. The colours, the logo and uniform design all contributed.

Again, I’ll point to Perth Glory as an example. They were always Nick Tana’s team. Well Geoff Lord went to great lengths at every press conference to emphasise that this was not his team. It was not Tony Ising’s team. It was not Ernie Merrick’s team. It was a team for all of Melbourne to take ownership of. I think the fans really responded to that clean slate. The opportunity for them to make their mark on something special and lasting in Australian football. And success breeds success. Big crowds attract bigger crowds. Loud active support encourages louder active support. It’s a sporting success story that every supporter can genuinely feel a part of. They can sincerely say “Geoff Lord didn’t build this club. Tony Ising didn’t build this club. We built this club”.

AT: Ten years on, is it now everything you envisaged back when Melbourne Victory was merely just a pipe dream? Where do you think the game be in 10 years time?

TI: Ten years on? For me it’s a lot longer. Victory has been a dream of mine since 1997. Is it everything I dreamt it would be? On a personal level, absolutely not. My dream was to lead the club. I’m still hurt and upset that I’m not still involved with the club. I still harbour a dream to one day be back at the club and lead it to the next level of success. But in a strange way, that personal disappointment is an ironic illustration of how successful the club actually is. It’s bigger than any one individual. It’s bigger than Ising or Lord. It’s bigger than the current Chairman, or the next Chairman. It’s bigger than Kevin Muscat. It’s bigger than Archie Thompson. It’s bigger than the North Terrace. It’s bigger than the South End. It is the accumulation of all those individuals and groups that leaves the club greater than just the sum of its parts.

You could even build a case that Victory is bigger than the Socceroos or the FFA, such has been our success, leading every measure at every stage of football’s renaissance.

What does the future hold? If you look at what we’ve achieved in the last 10 years, it’s scary to think about what we can achieve in 10 years more. The key is always TV revenue. If you look at the recent cricket internationals, the physical crowd number is almost ignored because of the TV audience. But for decades soccer has been told that we need to build our crowds first then TV will become interested. I’m bemused that that argument has now turned full circle. You look at soccer’s crowds and participation rates it is inevitable that a lucrative free-to-air commercial TV deal isn’t far behind. One of the arguments we used to sell the Victory dream was the inevitability of globalisation. Soccer will be our number one sport eventually – it already is in many measures.

To take a bit of a tangent, one of the challenges football faces is the diversification of media channels. TV does not hold the all-conquering position it once did. When TV was king sports like AFL and cricket were able to capitalise on almost monopolistic coverage. While the new-media diversification provides multiple channels for football to penetrate the market, that lack of a commercial media superpower means that we probably don’t have the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that One Day Cricket had with Kerry Packer, or that AFL and NRL have enjoyed with the TV networks for 20 years or more. But, in the same way Melbourne Victory’s success is cemented in strong foundations in the hearts and minds of our supporters, so too will football’s future success be built on real growth, real interest and real penetration among future generations.

There you have it. The story of how Geoff Lord and his Belgravia Group won the licence and how Melbourne Victory FC came into existence. The steak I ordered was over cooked but was I so entrenched in conversation that I hadn’t noticed till I was almost finished.

And just like that, lunch was over. What was supposed to be a quick catch up turned into a 90 minute discussion. We said our goodbyes, with Ising picking up the bill of course.

As I later battled Collins St traffic out of the CBD, I reflected on how much this club has grown and entrenched itself in this city over the last decade. It now means so much to so many people and with the membership tally again being broken this season, it’s clear the club continues to grow in leaps and bounds. Of course we owe a great deal of gratitude to those pioneers who devoted so much of their lives to get Melbourne Victory off the ground. But if I learned anything at all from my discussion with Tony, it is that he would want us all to be just as proud of the role we have played in bringing his vision to reality and making Victory the enormous success it is today.