As the final whistle was blown on Melbourne Heart’s 2013-14 season, an exciting yet uncertain time lay ahead.
The purchase of the club by the consortium led by Manchester City appears, on the surface, to be a massive boost for Heart and football in Australia, although there is a significant risk of selling our whole identity to gain this investment.
A recent poll of Melbourne Heart fans, and a look at the protest banners on display at the final home game against Western Sydney Wanderers, appears to confirm the sentiment that a name change is okay, but the colours are off-limits.
Naturally, the Manchester City consortium would like all of their acquired clubs to be playing in sky blue as this would assist in their marketing and branding. In the case of Heart this would be to break into the sport-mad city of Melbourne and to have a presence in the expanding Asian market by targeting Asian Champions League qualification.
It appears inevitable that the name will change to Melbourne City, a move that is even welcomed by a large number of existing supporters due to the peculiarity of ‘Heart’ as a name. However, with an expected clear out of much of the playing list in preparation for next season, a change in the club colours would leave very little with which existing club fans could identify.
Yes, I do understand the obvious rebuttal to the opinion expressed here, that a club cannot have its cake and eat it too in terms of welcoming investment but refusing certain changes but, if the club is to be unrecognisable next season then Melbourne City will begin with fewer fans than Melbourne Heart finished with. If the club is simply to become a Manchester City marketing tool then the takeover and investment is not worth having.
Despite the club’s relative youth, a passionate fan culture has developed that has stayed true despite on-field underachievement resulting in just the one finals appearance in four seasons. These are the fans that deserve to have something identifiable to support on the pitch next season and I believe that a large number will cease being supporters of the club if they do not have this.
The colours of red and white are what the club is recognised for, it is what has brought the fans together and “Melbourne is red and white” is what they sing for. Keeping the colours also makes sense as Sydney FC already wear sky blue as a representation of the state colour of New South Wales. A red versus blue Melbourne derby also has much greater appeal than a sky blue versus navy blue version. An away kit of sky blue would be an acceptable compromise especially if the purpose is for widespread marketing of the Manchester City brand.
A main reason why Melbourne Heart was introduced to the A-League in 2010 was to engage with a base of football fans that hadn’t been reached by Melbourne Victory. The idea of growth assumes that there exists a third category of fans that despite two A-League teams in Melbourne are still yet to embrace the competition.
Even if this category exists in significant numbers, Melbourne City would be more likely to draw them in if they do not resemble Manchester City. Many in this untapped category would have allegiances to English Premier League sides other than Manchester City. It is one thing to get a Manchester United or Liverpool fan living in Melbourne to support a team owned by Manchester City, it is much more of a stretch to get them to support a team that also looks like Manchester City.
An ugly precedent in Australian sport is at risk of being set if Melbourne City is to wear sky blue next season - a precedent that places commercial interests and the lure of the dollar over the wishes of the fans. A Melbourne City wearing sky blue may as well be a completely new club as it would have very little to identify it with Melbourne Heart, a club that has built itself up from scratch and gained a passionate supporter base in the process.
Fans will be alienated, many will never come back. Sure, the club has new owners who by definition have a large degree of sovereignty to make decisions and I am simply one fan expressing an opinion. But after all, football without the fans is nothing.