“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The opening words from Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel “A Tale of Two Cities” go some way to describing the feelings of A-League side Melbourne Heart’s fans after two announcements on Thursday.
News that Spain’s all-time leading goal scorer David Villa, 32, was moving down under to join Melbourne Heart as a loan signing from sister club New York City was promptly followed by the unveiling of the club’s re-branding as “Melbourne City.”
Villa will leave Spanish champions Atletico Madrid after this summer’s World Cup to join Major League Soccer’s 20th franchise, New York City; the club set up in partnership between Manchester City and the New York Yankees. Villa has been loaned on to the Hyundai A-League club in order to keep fresh for NYCFC’s inaugural season. The arrival of a player of his quality, still close enough to his best to merit a place in Spain’s World Cup squad; is a major boost to both the MLS and the A-League’s credibility on the world stage.
However, with the arrival of City and Sheikh Mansour’s resources, questions have been raised as to the competitiveness of football’s future down under. The A-League operates on a salary cap basis with a number of permitted “marquee signings” exempt from the limit. The MLS follows a similar system, designed to prevent over-spending by team owners. The concern for other clubs is how they keep up with the “arms race” heralded by the arrival of Mansour.
News of Heart’s makeover has prompted a mixed reaction from fans, ranging from acceptance of the need to change, to anger at the apparent absence of consultation. The change of name, badge and playing strip, represents another stage in English champions Manchester City’s strategy for global recognition through a network of affiliated clubs, academies and scouting partnerships. As well as links to the US and Australia, City has also developed a partnership with Yokohama F Marinos in Japan. In the age of “Financial Fair Play,” plans for success on the pitch need to be matched by commercial goals off it.
Founded in 2009, as part of a drive to expand the A-League, Melbourne Heart began their first season in 2010/11 becoming the city’s 2nd club to compete in the league and thus began a rivalry with Melbourne Victory. Although a young club in comparison to Manchester City; Melbourne Heart had built its own loyal, passionate fan base.
Their supporters had expected changes since City Football Group’s takeover of the club in January of this year. Many suspected that the name would be changed, yet appealed for the club’s red and white striped kit to be retained in any alterations. Whilst the new name has a ring of footballing heritage to it, and the new badge hints at Melbourne’s history incorporating the city’s flag; moves to change the club’s colours have drawn the strongest response. A-League rivals Sydney FC had objected to their sky-blue colours being used by another side in the league meaning City were left to adopt a compromise white shirt with a single stripe in the colours of their English parent club.
There is of course a UK context to this story after Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan’s move to alter the club’s colours from blue to red, and their nickname from “Bluebirds” to “Red Dragons” met with protest and resistance. In 2003, Leicester City asked their supporters whether they should revert back to their original name “Leicester Fosse” citing a need for a unique identity. Similarly, Hull City chairman Assem Allam, describing the name “City” as “lousy,” was forced to backtrack on plans to “market” the club as “Hull Tigers” after the FA rejected plans to rename the club following supporter protests. Since that decision, the FA has faced calls to protect its clubs’ “livery” including traditional logos and playing strips from change.
With Manchester City’s strategy to build a “global brand” through affiliated clubs’ adoption of the “City” moniker, are they claiming rights to the name? Is Assem Allam therefore right in his efforts to re-brand Hull? His argument being that a change in name could open up new commercial avenues for the club overseas and lead to the club’s financial stability. Interestingly, the MLS’ 21st franchise will also begin life in 2015. Their name? Orlando City.
Whilst Manchester City took time to settle on their own name and kit in the early years of their history, their owners should recognize the need for consultation and respect for supporters’ traditions and heritage, no matter how young they may be.
One way or another, fans voices will be heard.