The System Works: Promotion From Within Key As Melbourne City Storm to Success

Melbourne City have been Australia’s biggest success story over the past two seasons. After falling at the final hurdle against Sydney FC last year, City, guided by former Leeds and Leicester man Patrick Kisnorbo, went one better this time around and finally got their hands on that elusive A-League silverware, following up on their regular-season title by getting revenge on the Sky Blues in emphatic fashion in the Grand Final.

City had been playing like a team possessed heading into the showpiece event. Despite missing their talismanic striker, Golden Boot winner Jamie Maclaren, Kisnorbo’s men were overflowing with confidence thanks in no small part to the imperious form showcased by some of the club’s youngsters. Their 3-1 beatdown of Sydney ultimately came as a surprise to absolutely no one. The Melbourne outfit has often been criticized for not fully utilizing the excellent young prospects at their disposal, but this season has seen somewhat of a sea change. Just looking at the matchday squad for the Grand Final is enough to get an idea of this recent transfiguration, the face of which has been Stefan Colakovski.

The 21-year-old was in attendance at City’s – well, Melbourne Heart’s – first-ever game and has come a long way since; from rising through the ranks and overcoming tragic injury setbacks, to now becoming the poster boy of this baby-faced revolution, Colakovski is the epitome of what can be achieved with the right support structure in place and an openness to give kids a chance. And he has repaid the faith put in him, too, scoring the opener in the semi-final against Macarthur and later notching an assist in the Grand Final.

There are plenty of others that deserve a mention, too, of course. Conor Metcalfe, like Maclaren, missed the final due to national team commitments, but he has been nothing short of a revelation in central midfield this season, maturing into a real leader and even captaining the side at times despite his tender years. Marco Tilio, a 19-year-old tricky winger who joined from Sydney last year – lured by the promise of a clear pathway to the first team – has been almost unplayable in recent months and performed a decisive role in the Grand Final by winning a penalty.

Nathaniel Atkinson, the man who brought City back on level terms, has been with the club since signing for them as a 16-year-old five years ago. Aidan O’Neill and goalkeeper Tom Glover both represented Australia at last year’s AFC U-23 Championship. Five of City’s starters on Grand Final day were 23 and younger, and there were three more teenagers – Raphael Borges Rodrigues (17), Kerrin Stokes (18), and Taras Gomulka (19) – on the bench alongside Ben Garuccio, whom City signed as a 17-year-old.

City captain Scott Jamieson hoists the “Toilet Seat” after beating Sydney 3-1 (Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

This stunning amount of fresh, precocious talent interspersed with the experience of the likes of Scott Jamieson and Rostyn Griffiths and the sheer class of Jamie Maclaren and Andrew Nabbout is a clear recipe for success, but of course, someone has to mold these disparate parts into a coherent unit before you can reap tangible rewards. Head coach Patrick Kisnorbo has done exactly that with distinction. Building on the foundation laid by his predecessor, Erick Mombaerts, Kisnorbo made this team resilient, unremitting in their pursuit of the ball, and, above all, genuinely fun to watch.

After returning to Australia from a decade-long spell playing in Europe, the Melbourne-born defender captained City for a few years before hanging up his boots. He earned his coaching spurs as an assistant with the senior men’s and women’s teams, eventually taking over as head coach of the latter and leading them to the W-League title in 2018 – although under somewhat fortunate circumstances considering that they only finished the regular season in fourth. His popularity and long-standing familiarity with the inner workings of the club made him the obvious choice after Mombaerts’ departure, and while the excitement about his promotion from assistant to head coach was palpable, the jury was still out on him. Looking back now, few could ever have anticipated his debut season to be such a monumental success.

Of course, when talking about City, one mustn’t neglect to mention the fact that they do have quite the economic advantage over the rest of the league. Even though the influence of City Football Group’s sizeable financial muscle on the team itself is negligible in the salary capped A-League nowadays (it wasn’t always this way), its authority does, however, permeate every other department of the club. There’s little doubt in my mind that the Melbourne outfit would not have been able to build arguably the best youth academy in all of Asia had it not been for the substantial investment from CFG and its satellites.

Obviously, this caveat should not take anything away from what is a brilliant achievement by Kisnorbo, his staff, and the players, but it is something to keep in mind when discussing City’s youth work since their world-class facilities clearly give them a competitive edge when it comes to attracting prospects. City’s double is also further vindication of CFG, whose Asian endeavors have met with extraordinary success in recent years: after a 15-year J1 trophy drought, Yokohama F. Marinos claimed the title in 2019; a year later, Mumbai City became the first Indian Super League team to do the double; and now the Australians, too, have silverware to show for CFG’s investment – a trend that football traditionalists will certainly take exception to.

Nevertheless, Melbourne City were an absolute pleasure to watch in 20/21 and thoroughly deserve their place in the sun. Patrick Kisnorbo seems like the type of coach who won’t let this success go to his – or his players’ – head(s), so we should expect City to ride this high right into next season. Buoyed by the arrival of Socceroo Mathew Leckie, City will surely be there or thereabouts again in a year’s time.

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