It's time for an honest assessment. Melbourne Heart has been a failure.
That's not to say that with a lot of hard work, and some luck, they can't turn things around, but as things stand they sit alongside Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury as failed expansion teams.
Now before I start, a declaration. I am a paid up Melbourne Victory member, have been since day one. But that does not cloud my assessment of Heart, despite what some would rather think.
Melbourne Heart was born out of a want, not a need. The FFA wanted a second Melbourne team. Melbourne didn't need a second team.
Unlike Western Sydney, there was no demand for a second side in Melbourne. The Victory had been an unqualified success in their first four seasons, capturing a large portion of the available market.
While there were some who had not jumped on, a lot of whom were disgruntled ex-NSL fans, they were not crying out for an A-League side. In fact, they shunned the A-League and everything it stood for ('New Football, Old Soccer'). Their issue was less with the Victory and more with FFA. A new team was not suddenly going to cure everything.
One disadvantage that Heart faced was the lack of geographic divide in Melbourne. Whereas in Sydney there is a clear distinction between Sydney and Western Sydney, a similar divide does not exist in Melbourne. While the Eastern and South Eastern Suburbs are growing at a rapid rate, they don't possess the same sense of identity and pride in their area as those from Western Sydney.
The mistake Melbourne Heart made was not clearly creating a new identity. They attempted to be Melbourne Victory Mk II. Four years on and the club still lacks a clear identity.
Who are Melbourne Heart and what do they stand for?
Sadly, it is a question that still cannot be answered. We were told initially they were a "European style" club, with a modern football style and a youth policy. But that message has been confused lately by a style of play that is anything but a modern, possession based game and a recruitment policy that has seen the club sign more and more players the wrong side of 30.
They've gone from a club that appeared to have a clear vision and plan, to a club that appeared desperate for success. Any success. Regardless of how it came about.
The Lucas Neill fiasco was the clearest example.
When news of Neill's availability broke, Heart CEO Scott Munn was quoted as saying that he wasn't the "right fit" for the club.
"I'm not really too sure what Lucas's plans are, but it doesn't make sense for us just for the balance of this year," Munn said.
"It's not to say that at the end of the season, for next season, it couldn't be something we'd be interested in, but certainly not just to come in for eight-10 weeks."
A week later and Heart were left fuming and embarrassed when Neill, at the last moment, decided to sign for Sydney FC instead of Melbourne Heart.
The confusing and mixed messages epitomise Heart's identity crisis.
Part of their failure to generate a clear identity is the fault of the FFA and their poorly planned and executed expansion. Having learned from their previous failed expansions, when they launched the Western Sydney Wanderers they made the clever move to letting the fans dictate what the club would become - name, colours, home ground. It gave the fans a sense of ownership and an immediate buy in.
The same should have happened at Melbourne Heart (and Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury). Rather, this new entity was simply imposed upon the people of Melbourne.
Contrast the success of the Wanderers in their first season to that of Heart and the differences couldn't be any starker. Admittedly, the Wanderers success on the pitch has helped, with their crowds swelling after every game of their 12-game unbeaten run.
But even before then, kits had sold out, merchandise was flying out the door and memberships had cracked 5000. There was a sense the club belonged.
The lack of identity has really hampered Heart's ability to make any meaningful mark in the Melbourne sporting landscape, one that any observer will tell you is one of the toughest markets – nine AFL clubs, one Rugby League club, two A-League clubs and one Super Rugby club. It can be suffocating.
And that has clearly impacted their crowds which, apart from Wellington, are the worst in the league.
When you consider the growth in A-League crowds over the last two seasons it is damning that Heart's crowds have not grown. Across town, Victory's crowds have risen 53% in the last two seasons from 15,058 to 23,090, whereas Heart's average has grown by just under 3% from 8312 to 8560.
Their average this season was clearly impacted by only hosting one Melbourne Derby, as opposed to the two they have hosted in their first two seasons. But they cannot rely solely on the Melbourne Derby to give their crowds a boost.
Not helping matters is that, on the park, they haven't achieved anything close to resembling success with just one finals appearance in their three seasons and only just missing out on the wooden spoon this season. We're yet to see what type of bandwagon effect would take place were they to go on a Wanderers style run.
But even if they do find success next season, is it too late? After three seasons of mediocrity, have their papers been stamped already by the Melbourne public?
Making matters harder is that Victory has rediscovered its mojo. Having secured the best coach in the league, Ange Postecoglou, they're now playing some of the best football in the league with a clear, long-term vision and plan. And while Heart struggle to attract fans to AAMI Park, Victory has had a renaissance, with their average crowd (23,090) at it's highest point since the 2008/09 season, the height of the A-League's initial boom.
All of that just makes the challenge even harder for Heart.
Next season is make or break. John Aloisi, a risky appointment to begin with, will go into his second season with the opportunity to make over the squad and mould it into his side. Already gone are captain Fred and foundation players Matt Thompson, Simon Colosimo and Clint Bolton, together with mid-season signings Cameron Edwards, Marcel Meeuwis and Jamie Coyne.
Club management have also declared they are willing to outlay the money for a big-name marquee player, provided he is the right fit and within their price range. There is no club in the A-League that needs a big name marquee more than Melbourne Heart.
But more importantly, in the never-ending A-League off-season, they need to find an answer to the most important question - who are Melbourne Heart and what do we stand for?
If they can't answer that, and just as importantly, sell that message to the people of Melbourne, then their future is very much in doubt.
Copyright © Paul Williams and Soccerphile.com