As eight of the A-League’s eleven teams return to action this weekend in an effort to complete the 2019-20 season after a break in action caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Melbourne’s three teams have been forced to quarantine in the league’s Sydney hub – and as a result, their return to play has been delayed by a week.
And with that delay, Grant Brebner’s debut as Melbourne Victory’s interim head coach awaits as well, ahead of the club’s match against derby rivals Western United next Saturday, 25 July, at Bankwest Stadium in Sydney’s western suburbs.
Melbourne Victory have endured a season in which the club has uncharacteristically had a revolving door with coaches.
Brebner’s chance as a caretaker came about suddenly last month when the club was forced to seek a replacement for Spanish coach Carlos Perez Salvachua, who had decided to return home in the midst of the pandemic, citing personal and family concerns.
Club Chairman Anthony Di Pietro had appointed Salvachua in January as a replacement for first-year coach Marco Kurz, who was dismissed after a poor start to the campaign, for a club whose domestic and regional ambitions are quite high – as was the case when Kevin Muscat and Ange Postecoglou led the club’s fortunes for several seasons beforehand.
While Di Pietro and club CEO Trent Jacobs are undertaking a global search for the coach who will take Melbourne Victory’s reins on a permanent basis for next season, Brebner has five games in which to audition for the full-time gig, albeit in the extraordinary circumstances from within the Sydney hub and games in stadiums in New South Wales and Queensland, as opposed to the more comfortable confines of AAMI Park.
But Brebner, a former Scottish Under-21 international who signed with Manchester United in 1994 as a 16-year-old before playing with five other clubs in England and Scotland before coming over to Australia to play with Melbourne Victory for six seasons starting in 2006, relishes the challenge.
But not without a bit of perspective of where the club is at – not just sitting in an unfamiliar second-from-bottom position with just 20 points from its first 21 pre-hiatus games, but being collectively sequestered in its Sydney hub.
“We’ve come here with a bit of a job to do, and that’s our main focus. I do have to remind myself that these days, there’s a lot of people going through things a lot worse than us, I’m reminding the players of that, so that’s very important,” Brebner said on Friday.
“We’re in a beautiful hotel, then we train for a couple of hours each day, so we really cannot have any complaints,” he added.
While much has been made of the struggles of the A-League’s three Melbourne-based sides to get into the Sydney hub via a mad dash ahead of the New South Wales government closing its borders to all Melburnians, it may have seemed like a comedy of errors to those on the outside – but Brebner prefers to look back at that situation, as well as his club’s experiences during the pandemic as a whole, and use it as motivation to finish the interrupted season in a strong fashion.
“I think from a footballing perspective, the players are in a really good space. We’ve had a good build-up in the previous three weeks [before we left], we managed to get a lot of work in, the focus has been on our fitness [after the layoff], and how we would like to play,” he said.
“We’ve come together as a group – we’ve had some conversations about how are we going to use these difficult times as a benefit to us. We’ve had a lot of times this season where as a group of players we’ve been a bit selfish in general, and that’s when we need to rally around each other.
“Things like we had last week, things like we’ve had earlier this season already, we’re going to use that to our advantage over the final five games and moving forward into next season,” Brebner added.
Brebner may not be thinking about finals for Melbourne Victory – but as unlikely as it may seem, the club still possesses mathematical hopes at playing in the A-League’s six-team single-elimination finals series which begins on August 22.
The first match against Western United looms huge in that crazy pursuit. Heading into the restart of the season, Melbourne Victory – despite being second-from-bottom – sits a mere seven points behind Western United in sixth position.
And should this weekend’s results go in both teams’ favor, the stage is set for a mouth-watering match that could have finals implications involved.
Yet Brebner has bigger things to think about for the club, rather than making post-season miracles happen.
“It’s do-able, [but] if I look too far ahead, we take our eyes off of the prize, and our prize is that first game,” he said.
“The bubble can bust. And I do not want us getting ahead of ourselves. So our first game is the main priority, and then we’ll take care of Brisbane, Central Coast, and everyone else after that,” Brebner added.
In the club’s final five regular-season fixtures, Brebner knows that he has certain objectives that he needs to meet, objectives that are in the long term, much more important than just finishing the season strongly.
“Now is not the time to reflect. Everything that has happened this season – and it is still ‘this season’ – we will be looking forward in a positive way in the final five games, because there’s a lot to play for,” Brebner said.
“There’s points to play for, there’s reputations to play for, there’s obligations to our fans and members to play to a standard that they have come to expect. I think we’ve been guilty of letting them down this year.
In the big picture, while Brebner may harbor feelings in the back of his head that fifteen points from the final five games would be a nice outcome to have, he knows how he would like to have his side take the field to play in their own manner.
“There’s no pressure on us. We can go about our business, play with freedom, play with flair, and really show individually what we’re about. If we can do that, then we have a better chance at winning games,” Brebner added.