It became a common refrain during 2020-21 to hypothesise about what was wrong with Melbourne Victory. Attempts to pinpoint the problem made for meaty discussion, in much the same way as more recent, bombastic declarations that the club is now “back” under new A-League Men coach Tony Popovic. Such comprehensive statements, however, were well off the mark. Because it was not Victory the club disintegrating into such a state from which they would have to rise from the ashes, but specifically its men’s team – which collapsed under the weight of years of hubristic stagnation.
The club’s women’s program, conversely, was flying and, reaping the benefits of targeted a five-year strategy under coach Jeff Hopkins, ended the 2020-21 A-League Women season as champions. Now, following Sunday’s season-opening 5-1 triumph over Adelaide United –coupled with the early struggles of Melbourne City’s men’s side, Victory’s women have arguably assumed the mantle of strongest team in Melbourne.
Across a blistering opening 45 minutes, they put to the sword the sacrificial lamb that was the Reds, leading 4-0 at half-time en route to the one-sided result. For the outside observer, the only negative was a potentially serious knee injury, and Hopkins put on a brave face as he confirmed the club was waiting on scans to determine if captain, Kayla Morrison, has become yet another victim of the ACL epidemic that blights women’s sport.
The overall performance would put a smile on the face of most coaches, especially taking into account that Victory had played all of one warm-up game during the pre-season and was missing its two best attackers in Melina Ayres and new American signing Lynn Williams. Hopkins, though – perhaps somewhat forebodingly for the rest of the competition – was less than buoyant in the aftermath.
“None of us are under any illusions that it was a really good performance,” he said. “I think we were quite clinical in front of goal, which was great. We capitalised on a few mistakes, which was good. We set the standard last year and we want to get better. It’s quite a really driven change room.”
Softly spoken, with greying hair and a reserved demeanour, 57-year-old Hopkins cuts a friendly figure around AAMI Park; somewhat obscuring his history as a feared, no-nonsense defender who played 350 games for Fulham and Reading, as well as 16 internationals for Wales. Already a two-time championship-winning coach with Brisbane Roar’s ALW side before making landfall in Melbourne, the Welshman effectively inherited a program in free fall following the entrance of Melbourne City to ALW and its subsequent evisceration of Victory’s roster, and spent the next five years turning them into champions. Whereas regular ALW contenders Sydney FC and the Roar have effectively maintained strong and successful programs throughout history, he arrived at a team that at times felt as if it was fielded more out of obligation than desire.
Yet from this, a program has been assembled that – despite the arrival of Williams – has come to largely rely on a sustainable core of relatively young and local Victorian talent developed over a number of years; Hopkins’s ever-presence at local NPLW Victoria games has ensured Victory effectively have right of first refusal on any of the most talented young prospects produced by the second most populous state in the nation. The 2020-21 championship, in effect, served as validation of his and his staff’s work – a demonstration of the virtues of coming up with a plan, believing in said plan and then executing ait. Now they enter 2021-22 widely heralded as a strong chance to take out an elusive premiership-championship double – the caveat is the fitness of Morrison, whose leadership and presence at the back will be impossible to properly replace.
Now, finally, it appears the club is putting its money where its mouth has been with a long-overdue strategy of investment.
Victory’s new director of football, John Didulica, describes his men’s and women’s programs as separate limbs on the same body. He envisions working with Football Victoria and Football Australia to take advantage of the momentum generated by the 2023 Women’s World Cup to facilitate the launch of a full-time, 52-week program for its senior side – allowing them to receive year-round training and development in an elite environment – with a plan in place to expand that to a pathway from girls to seniors.
“It’s absolutely fundamental to the club’s future to have a fully functioning girl’s and women’s program,” he says. “From my perspective we’ve got, not just at Melbourne Victory, the whole game has 18 months to get its house in order and lay those foundations for the next 10 to 15 years. We can’t wait for the World Cup to come and go before we start planning. We need to hit the ground running for 2023 and that means that, as of next year, we need to have a model where professional clubs can invest in their women’s program 52 weeks of the year where possible incorporating a complete pathway for girls into the women’s game.
“Maybe there are other reasons for it not having happened, but there’s really no more excuses to what I can see to why we can’t have a professional pathway for girls.”