John Aloisi reflects on Melbourne rivalry in the derby
There are plenty of players with deep and abiding memories of the Melbourne A-League derby.
But there are few, save Melbourne Victory’s current coach, Kevin Muscat, with the experience of John Aloisi, the man who was his counterpart for much of the past four years.
Like Muscat, ex-Melbourne Heart boss John Aloisi played in, and coached, his team in the game.
The former Socceroo striker has one more claim to fame than the man who was his international teammate for so many years – he has actually scored in derby matches too, netting the first goal in the first meeting between the two Melbourne clubs back in October 2010.
On Saturday, Muscat will be on the touchline coaching, cajoling and exhorting his players, making tactical adjustments and decisions over substitutions, hoping and praying for the win that will give his side bragging rights in a game that always assumes massive importance no matter where each side is on the ladder.
This time Aloisi will be in the Fox Sports commentary box calling and analysing the game for the Pay TV broadcaster, for whom he has been working since his dismissal by the then Melbourne Heart in the middle of the last A-League season.
He will have to concentrate just as much as he did when he wore a suit and tie and stood on the sidelines leading his team as he tries to explain to what will be a bumper television audience the nuances of tactics and moves being made on the pitch.
But this time his career won’t depend on the outcome and he can go home and sleep easy whatever the result.
Still, Aloisi would love to be coaching or playing once more in the sort of combustible fixture that tests players’ nerves and character more than any other.
He played in the first three derbies in the 2010-11 campaign, was an assistant coach for three more the next year (2011-12) and coached the next four, covering the 2012-13 season and the beginning of the 2013-14 season before his axing.
“I used to say to my players in the week leading up to the derbies when I was coaching them that the only thing I missed about playing was not being involved in derby matches any more,” he said.
“They really get the adrenalin going as you know how deeply your supporters feel about it and their rivals. I loved playing in them, and coaching was the next best thing – although I didn’t love it when Archie Thompson scored in the last minute in that derby when we lost 2-1 at AAMI,” he added ruefully.
“Even as a coach, it feels better as you love to be working in front of a full house, hearing that noise and all the energy from the crowd. It gets to the players and you try to make it work for you.”
As everyone knows, derby matches don’t always run to the form guide.
“I remember that first A-League season really well. We had gone up to Brisbane the game before and we had been absolutely awful. We were terrible, we lost 4-0 and if it had not been for Bootsa [goalkeeper Clint Bolton)] it would have been about 10.
“Nobody gave us a chance in the derby on that form, but we came out and turned it round and won the first one, so that’s obviously a brilliant memory.”
Aloisi had plenty of experience in playing in big games overseas, and he feels that the Australian derbies, particularly those in Melbourne, are beginning to develop the same feel.
“When I played at Osasuna in Spain, I experienced that rivalry in a big way. It was with Athletic Bilbao. They were our main rivals and they were a bit of a bigger club than us. We didn’t have anywhere near the number of fans they had, so it meant an awful lot if we could put one over on them.
“I also played in West Midlands derbies in the English Premier League when I was with Coventry City. They have fallen away now, but back then, they had been an established top-tier club and I remember the game when we won 4-1 at Villa Park and I scored. That was an absolute highlight for our fans. George Boateng scored two, and he ended up playing at Villa! I got two goals in the match playing up front. It was one of the best memories from my time in England.
“Every derby game, no matter at what level, has got something special about it. Usually it’s a lot of history, especially in the UK, Spain and other parts of Europe and with every game that takes place every year that whole derby atmosphere just gets stronger, especially if there has been some controversy in the past.
“Here in Australia, these derbies are growing. You saw the crowd and the tension and what a huge occasion it was in Sydney last weekend. There was such a lot of feeling and you knew both sides really wanted to win it.
“The Melbourne one has just built, year on year, and it’s starting to feel what it was like in Europe. In the days leading up to the games more people are talking about it, there’s more on the television and in the press, people are wishing you luck or asking for tickets.”
Aloisi’s coaching career could hardly have got off to a better start than in his first game in charge when Heart beat Victory 2-1 in front of more than 43,000 people at Etihad. Alas for Aloisi, his career rarely reached those heights again, as he acknowledged with a smile.
“I wish every game after that had been a derby! The players were up for it, we won, it was a great start. But it wasn’t to carry on like that.”
Heart broke even with Victory in the 12 derbies they played, each side winning four with four drawn. Often Victory was higher on the table but it made no difference to the red and whites.
“As a player, you have to know how important these games are to the fans. They are cheering you on, they want you to give everything.
“Victory has been very successful and has had those big crowds all the time. Heart players didn’t get the chance to play in front of big crowds all the time and I think it lifted them. It’s really much easier to get up for the game when you know there will be a lot of people there. You find the energy to make more runs, to chase back, make that tackle or block.”
Aloisi believes this game is finely balanced, but he leans towards Victory.
“It’s hard to call this one because so much has changed for both teams, but I think the big players will be the ones to make a difference,” he said.
“Damien Duff and David Villa are obviously class acts for City and if they hit form and get their way, they could wreak havoc. But Victory have matchwinners of their own, too. Archie [Thompson] is always a threat in this kind of situation, while [Besart] Berisha has scored goals consistently throughout his time in the A-League.
“And look out for Gui Finkler, too. He’s a clever player, he can set the forwards up, but he is capable of scoring himself in open play or from a set piece.
“I like the firepower Victory have got, so if I was picking a winner I think I would have to go for them. They have also strengthened with Carl Valeri in the centre of midfield and their French centre-back Matthieu Delpierre is a classy defender, so I think their spine is strong and they will be hard to break down.
“Then again, you wouldn’t say City couldn’t win. Apart from their big names from Europe, they have signed the likes of [Erik] Paartalu and Aaron Mooy and they have got a lot more strength in depth through the squad now.”
While Aloisi will enjoy working at the game in a media role, he is keen to return to a more hands-on role in the game.
“I want to coach again eventually. It didn’t work out at Heart, but I know I learned an awful lot from the experience and it will make me a stronger and better coach.
“In the meantime, I am enjoying working with Fox and watching lots of games and analysing them. I will probably go back to Europe next year, to Barcelona, where a friend of mine, Juan Carlos Unzue, is an assistant coach, and see what I can learn. You never stop learning in this game.”