Victory go from biggest club to laughing stock

Melbourne Victory

Mike Tuckerman

It could have been an April Fool's joke. On April 1, just three months after taking charge, Melbourne Victory coach Jim Magilton walked out on the club.

"On behalf of Chris (O'Loughlin) and myself, I'd like to thank everyone at Melbourne Victory for the opportunity that was presented to us," Magilton said in a brief statement released to the press. "We have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and wish the club every success in the future."

What may have appeared as a coaching dummy spit was nothing of the sort. Magilton's departure can be traced entirely to the incompetence of Melbourne Victory and its bumbling and increasingly maligned board.

Ernie Merrick.

Victory's troubles began in February 2011 when millionaire businessman Geoff Lord stepped down as chairman. He was succeeded by Anthony Di Pietro - a long-time board member and fruit wholesaler - who clearly envisaged a more hands-on role at the club. Just six weeks into Di Pietro's reign, coach Ernie Merrick exited in the midst of an Asian Champions League campaign.

Merrick - who twice lead Victory to the A-League title - was soon followed out the door by chief of football operations Gary Cole. The latter was replaced by Francis Awaritefe, a three-time Socceroos striker and later a respected television pundit. Former youth team coach Mehmet Durakovic was appointed coach with ex-defensive stalwart Kevin Muscat his assistant, and critics view Muscat as the source of many of Victory's problems.

He was reputed to have undermined Durakovic's position at the club, to the point Durakovic was sacked after less than six months in charge, with Muscat hastily appointed interim coach. By then Awaritefe had already been sacked, while the club's high-profile signing Harry Kewell was clearly frustrated by his lack of influence on and off the pitch.

Enter Magilton. He was a surprise choice to take over from Muscat, who enjoyed just one game in charge. The Northern Irishman's interim appointment stunned many in the Australian media, but Di Pietro insisted the former Ipswich Town and Queens Park Rangers manager had long been on the radar.

Magilton's affable personality and candid responses to media were duly noted, but unfortunately for the former Premier League midfielder his team showed littled improvement on the pitch. Far from resembling Australia's biggest club - a largely self-appointed title often derided by fans of other clubs - Victory looked a shambles.

Finishing eighth in the 2011-12 season meant Victory finished well outside the finals places. But it didn't stop Di Pietro appearing to offer Magilton the coaching job full-time, with widespread media reports claiming Magilton had been offered a three-year deal. Those reports were turned on their head by a final-day 4-2 defeat to Perth Glory which seemingly prompted a re-think from the Victory board. Instead of offering Magilton a full-time contract, the Northern Irishman was informed he was now part of a "shortlist" of candidates for the role.

Thus Magilton's predictable April 1 exit means the Victory are now back at square one in their search for a new coach. And the scrutiny is intensifying on the Victory board and their handling of the coaching quagmire. Why, for instance, did Victory sack Ernie Merrick in the first place? The official explanation was a poor Asian Champions League campaign, but sceptics suggest the taciturn Scotsman didn't fit the glamour tag Di Pietro and his board were hoping to cultivate.

Di Pietro's claims Durakovic was appointed as coach after an "exhaustive, worldwide search" were also widely ridiculed. He was, after all, the club's own youth-team coach. Meanwhile, Muscat's shadow continues to loom large over a club for whom he spent his final six years as a professional in a long and often controversial career. Whether the former Socceroos defender continues in an assistant coaching role remains to be seen, but any new appointment will invariably need to forge a relationship with the Victory club legend.

There is also the issue of Harry Kewell. His August 2011 signing was touted as a watershed for the A-League, but the pin-up boy of Australian football suffered a frustrating first season at the Victory. So ineffectual was Kewell at times that rumours abounded he was desperate to leave the club only months into his contract. His often fractuous relationship with team-mates - and reportedly Muscat himself - has fuelled speculation the 33-year-old could turn his back on the A-League and cash in on a last-gasp hurrah in the money-laden Gulf.

Whatever happens from here on in, Victory won't kick another A-League ball in anger for at least six months. There's plenty of time to conduct an orderly, measured search for a new coach. But on the basis of what has transpired since Di Pietro took control, that seems an unlikely prospect for one of the glamour clubs of Australian football.

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