Melbourne Fans Win a Victory For Supporters’ Culture

This is the kind of scene no football club’s PR manager wants to deal with:

The protest was one of several protests organised by fans against the Melbourne Victory’s home stadium, the Telstra Dome.

The year before, the Melbourne Victory had imprinted itself on Australia’s sporting landscape with an impressive season in which it came first on the ladder and went on to win the finals’ series. That success was mirrored by the club’s success in attracting the country’s largest fan base for a football team. And yet, less than a year later, Melbourne Victory supporters and Telstra Dome management were embroiled in a bitter battle that stained a season later called a “wasted year” by the club’s chairman, Geoff Lord.

The context:

The Melbourne Victory are the only A-League team to have outgrown their original stadium. It only took the club a year to realise that the 18,500 capacity Olympic Park was too small to host the side’s home matches, so the majority of the second season’s home games were shifted to the 56,000 capacity Telstra Dome.

The move to the Telstra Dome signalled the start of what proved to be a hugely successful season for the club. Buoyed by crowds breaking national attendance records on a weekly basis, the team soared to the Premiership. After narrowly winning its way into the Grand Final, the Victory made history by smashing their Grand Final opponents, Adelaide United, 6-0. Archie Thompson, the club’s star striker, etched his name into football history by scoring five of the six goals.

It was always going to be tough following up a season like that. Fred, Melbourne’s influential Brazilian playmaker from season two, moved to MLS’ DC United for a more attractive pay packet; central defender Adrian Leijer made his break by landing a deal with Fulham FC; and the club’s off-season recruitment, while promising at first, did not deliver. Games that would have been won before were drawn, or lost. The Victory finished the season in 5th place, out of contention for the finals series.

Relations between active supporters and the Telstra Dome had always been strained and on-field frustrations only worsened matters. The Northern Terrace, an independent and passionate supporter group, complained that requests for a drum, megaphone and over-sized flags were rejected by the stadium, along with other requests. For football supporters trying to replicate the highly organised and colourful support seen in South American and European football, the stadium’s prohibitions seemed draconian and unreasonable. In a meeting with stadium and club officials, one leading supporter was told that the drums could initiate a “sense of tribalism”.

At the start of the third season, the Northern Terrace decided to move its support from the Telstra Dome’s Level one to Level three. According to them, Level three offered “more space” and “removed the problems of overcrowding and infiltration of undesirable influences.” But the move was met with resistance by the Telstra Dome, as the Northern Terrace described in its fanzine:

The first 2 home games went off without a hitch, but come the third game, the NT were told that standing wasn’t allowed on L3. To this day, no documentary evidence relating to Telstra Dome has been provided that suggests that standing on Level 3 is unsafe. With the problems that existed on Level 1, combined with our exemplary record with discipline this year, we would still suggest that Level 3 is indeed more safe.

The Northern Terrace supporters protested in a number of ways. During several home matches, they remained silent throughout long periods of the game. And prior to one match in December, they staged the protest shown above, declaring in no uncertain terms what they wished for the Telstra Dome.

Multiculturalism and football

When the A-League was launched three years ago, few predicted it would enjoy quite the level of success that it has. Support like that seen in Melbourne was unthinkable.

One of the A-League’s major challenges was overcoming a deeply ingrained stigma in mainstream Australian thinking that associated football with violence. The A-League’s predecessor, the National Soccer League (now defunct), was undermined by teams whose supporter bases could be delineated along ethnic lines. The Australian-Croatian community had the Melbourne Knights, the Australian-Italian community had the Marconi Stallions and the Australian-Greek community had South Melbourne. Reports of ‘hooliganism’ and violence in Europe only served to deepen mainstream Australia’s distrust of football.

After being labelled hooligans by the Herald Sun, the Melbourne Victory fans held up this banner and turned their backs to show how they felt about it.
moral victory

The conflict between the Telstra Dome and Melbourne supporters echoed this. One Melbourne Victory fan, Guido, argued on his blog that the issue had deep cultural roots:

I think this arose from a inherent suspicion that ’soccer supporters are more dangerous’. This is a perception which is based on incidents overseas, and also from the predilection of some fans to rip flares. However I have stated on this blog on previous occasions I don’t believe that fans watching football are more dangerous than other sports.

I wonder whether the organised type of support that is characterised by having hundreds of young men (mainly) chanting and jumping in unison scares the bejesus out of stadium managers that are unfamiliar with this type of support, and are more used to AFL (Australian Rules Football – a distinctly Australian sport) which is a diffuse sort of support with cheer squads which are controlled by the clubs (something that the Blue and White Brigade (a leading football supporter group) is not).

The conflict between the Telstra Dome and Victory supporters is not about drums, megaphones and over-sized flags. Those things are symbols of a style of support that is foreign – and frightening – to the Telstra Dome.

The club finally acts

Throughout the conflict, the club itself appeared to be playing on the side of the Telstra Dome, much to the frustration of supporters. Victory striker Archie Thompson was reprimanded by the club for his words on a public radio station:

I hear all this Telstra Dome stuff, and to be honest, I think we should play somewhere where the supporters are happy to come and support us. If they are not happy supporting us at the Telstra Dome, then let’s bloody well move … I’m sort of over hearing about the Telstra Dome. To be honest, the supporters make the club. If the supporters aren’t happy we have to do something about it.

I’m probably gonna cop it for saying it — the supporters are the ones that build this club and pay (for) their tickets and if they aren’t happy then we have to do something about it.

The club did not react too kindly to Thompson’s rant, but supporters felt vindicated. The following home game, the Northern Terrace held up a large banner saying: “Fans make the club – thanks Archie.”

Surprisingly, it was only two weeks later that Geoff Lord, the Melbourne Victory chairman, declared that the season had been “wasted”. On radio – the same radio station Thompson had spoken to weeks earlier – he apologised to fans, admitting that the situation with the Telstra Dome had been handled poorly.

In February, Lord delivered on his promise to improve the situation for supporters at the Telstra Dome. In a press release, the club announced that fans attending the club’s home matches in the Asian Champions League would be permitted to bring in drums and trumpets, oversized flags and banners, and megaphones. Changes to seating arrangements were also promised, ensuring that Victory fans would now have large, dedicated supporter areas behind both goals.

The first of Melbourne’s Asian Champions League matches was played last week to a crowd of 23,000. As promised, Victory supporters were allowed oversized flags and drums. I talked with Tunna, a leading supporter who was instrumental in talks between the club, Telstra Dome and fans. About the support, he had this to say:

In terms of the atmosphere that Melbourne fans have become known for, it was a very good effort. You only have to watch the replay and speak to the players to realise how much of a difference it does make. The stadium was like a morgue for the most part of last season. We’d hate for it to ever go back to that.

“There remain some issues specifically to do with the reserved bays and oversized flags. We are confident that this will be sorted before the next home game against Gamba Osaka.

Like most Melbourne Victory fans, Tunna’s heart for football is big. And like most Melbourne Victory fans, the changes to the way supporters are treated has given him cause for hope:

“I started thinking about the awakening on a grand scale of the North Terrace. Again, I felt a sense of achievement that the hard work that we were all putting in was making a difference and the football supporters in this city taking massive strides forward.”

Photo credits: NicnBill and off ya chops on Flickr.

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