Grant Brebner must have thought he had already encountered his lowest ebb with Melbourne Victory. It was supposed to the 6-0 loss to Melbourne City of six weeks ago that ought to have been the point of no return, the catalyst for either a painstaking crawl back into the realm of respectability or a swift sacking so this foundering vessel of an A-League club could re-set yet again.
As it transpired, Brebner survived, though that Marvel Stadium mangling was merely a precursor. Firstly, there were a few more middling outings. Then, on the Saturday before last, a rare win. One against a similarly labouring team in Newcastle, to be sure, but a resuscitation of sorts all the same. It was a timely one, too.
“Massive game next week against Melbourne City,” Brebner said after the Jets match. “We all know what happened last time, so I wouldn’t say there’s too much motivation required for that game.”
That game was a 90 minutes so harrowing Brebner may well wish the Victory hierarchy had called it earlier. By the end of the 7-0 loss – the club’s heaviest defeat to date – they had, in an impromptu post-match board meeting.
“He has worked relentlessly, things haven’t worked out for a multitude of reasons,” said Anthony Di Pietro, in a press conference alongside Brebner, about an hour after full-time. “At some point, Grant’s words [in the meeting] were we have to think about what’s best for the club going forward. You can speculate about resignation, mutual parting of the ways, termination.”
Brebner himself made no excuses.
“Sadly my expectations and the club’s expectations are a lot higher than where we sit; this club will come back bigger and better than ever,” he said. “That result tonight was unacceptable … it was unacceptable and I take the brunt of that.”
It is easy to bestow blame for a team’s demise. Brebner certainly appears culpable, with four wins from 22 games overall over the course of his short, troubled tenure. His players are almost certainly responsible, as noted by club great Archie Thompson, who said “a lot has to be said about those players and what they’re putting out there because that’s unacceptable”.
Even Jamie Maclaren might be considered a guilty party, having scored five of City’s seven goals to bring his league-high tally to 19 from 16 appearances. A good portion of the censure, however, should probably be reserved for club’s administration.
Victory, once indomitable, have been a perishable good since long before Brebner was appointed, and before his predecessors Carlos Salvachua and Marco Kurz. There were cracks already forming beneath the feet of Kevin Muscat, who kept the chasm at bay by overachieving during his six years at the helm and whose exit spelled the start of a full-blown identity crisis often seen when a successful long-serving manager departs.
The strategy since then has been unclear. Kurz was not well-suited. Brebner, a two-time championship winner as a Victory player, may have been an attempt at a renaissance under a club stalwart in the same vein as Muscat. But hiring somebody who had previously said he did not want the job is difficult to fathom if the objective is to reinstate confidence in both the players and the dwindling fanbase.
The result has been a lack of football philosophy, colourless recruitment and a breakdown in discipline epitomised on Saturday by captain Adama Traoré’s behaviour during the incident which earned him a first-half red card.
The cruel irony is that City, pilloried for their lack of identity under the City Football Group, are leading the league by a point and with a goal difference of +20 for which they can partly thank their once-unforgiving rivals from across town.
Victory fans – those who are left – booed the team off the pitch, then called for Di Pietro’s resignation. Chief executive Trent Jacobs and technical director Drew Sherman are also undoubtedly feeling the heat.
Current assistants Steve Kean and Jean-Paul de Marigny appear likely to continue in an interim role while the list of long-term suitors is revisited. Tony Popovic may yet be the cavalry on the horizon after leaving Greek side Xanthi, and has the stomach for a rebuild of this magnitude, though could opt to continue pursuing his long-held European ambitions. Ufuk Talay is another possibility, off contract with Wellington Phoenix at the end of this season.
“Whoever comes in,” Thompson predicted, “it’s still going to be really difficult. I can’t see this club fixing what’s happening out on this pitch this year, I can’t see it happening next year. I certainly hope we see some kind of light.”