On Wednesday, the man voted Australia’s greatest ever footballer by his peers, administrators and past legends returned to the game in Australia.
Melbourne Heart moved their training session from Epping Stadium to their home ground in AAMI Park to welcome new signing Harry Kewell to the club. Heart’s new number 10 has signed a one-year deal for the minimum wage in the hope of rekindling his football career and keeping alive the possibility of playing in his third World Cup in 2014.
Preceding the session was the obligatory press conference, where the media gathered in droves. This is something that the boys from La Trobe University would not be used to, and it certainly signifies a change in direction for the club.
When the franchise was established in 2008, the philosophy of the club was to 1) play an attractive brand of football and 2) to help produce the countries stars of tomorrow. Inconsistency has seen the Heart fail number 1 but luckily number 2 has been achieved, selling players such as Eli Babalj, Aziz Behich and Curtis Good to big European clubs.
Unfortunately this hasn’t translated to on-field success or growth off the field.
Living under the shadows of the Melbourne Victory, things have been tough for the Heart. They have played only one final in their three seasons in the A-League, and they were smashed by eventual runners-up Perth Glory.
Off the field, things have been much bleaker. They have struggled to build a fan base and have only averaged around 9,000 fans a game since their debut, with this figure being inflated by derby matches with cross-town rivals the Victory. This makes the Melbourne Heart the least supported professional team of all of the four major football codes in the country.
Membership numbers last season crept above 6k for the first time and still look nowhere near the 10k target the board had originally planned to achieve by season three.
So why does Melbourne Heart have so little fans?
Part of this can be put down to Melbourne Victory having a five-year exclusivity clause on the city of Melbourne. From the moment this clause was put in place when the A-League started, it was always going to be hard for a second club to gain fans. With the Victory’s continued success, this also added to the problem.
But you can’t always blame your ruined garden on your neighbour. Melbourne Heart started with a squad with an even mix of experience and youngsters. Their first marquee player was now-coach John Aloisi, a good choice at the time as everyone knew who he was because of his actions against Uruguay in 2005.
Where they went wrong was the next season. With Aloisi retired, the club went after former Victory-man Fred and gave him the marquee position. He was also given the captaincy. Make no mistake, Fred on his day can be a fantastic footballer, but by no means is he worth the wages of a marquee player.
When the Victory had successfully signed Harry Kewell, all of the excitement was taken away from Melbourne Heart. Nobody wanted to know about the ugly ducklings across the road.
Heart CEO Scott Munn described it at the time as a ‘circus act’. How quickly things change.
Midway through last season, something with the board of the club finally clicked; the club must get a marquee player. Is it because crowd and membership targets were not being met?
In the past, the club was seen by supporters to have the aim of just making money by selling good young players at the expense of the team’s performances. However the club broke even last season and now it seems the board want success.
In the past, the club had been linked to players such as Ronaldo and Michael Owen, but no genuine offer was made. England legend David Beckham was then available. The club submitted a serious offer but was knocked back. Beckham went on to join French giants PSG.
Heart then thought they finally had a big break in current Socceroos captain Lucas Neill. According to many inside the club, the ink was drying before Neill backed out and joined Sydney FC, and boy did the supporters turn against him and express their anger at the deal not being completed.
Finally, Melbourne have captured a big name. Harry Kewell joins the club at a time when they both need each other the most.
The club still need to make some signings for next season. Their midfield is almost non-existent but with the marquee spot still open we could see another international crowd-puller in the middle for the Heart.
Season 2013/14 looms as a crucial one for the Heart. With a big name and a good fixture, the Heart really have to endear themselves to the people of Melbourne or it may not ever work.
Hopefully we’ll be seeing less and less of the Green Seat Elite at AAMI Park this season.