By Joey Lynch
Whether the fixture constitutes a derby – or even a rivalry – largely depends on which fan base you’re asking, but Western United coach Mark Rudan isn’t backing down from his side’s noisy neighbour routine.
The fourth meeting in the series’ history, Western United and Melbourne Victory will meet at AAMI Park on Saturday evening under rather unusual circumstances: the fixture list stating that it is Victory heading onto the road to pay a visit to the ‘home’ Western.
Seeking to play the antagonistic nature of the fixture – which the nominal hosts have christened as ‘The Battle of the Bridge’ – up, Western has, befitting on their young status, been consistently poking at their more-established foes throughout the lead into the contest.
The word ‘Victory’ has been avoided wherever possible in the team’s communications on the game, and their social channels have gone so far as to try to ban the use of the letter ‘V’ in any posts.
Several Melbourne landmarks have been lit up in black and green by the club in an attempt to drive up interest, while a boating photo-op in Docklands – presumably to symbolise Western sailing up the coast and staging a landing in the CBD – was conducted on Thursday.
Steps have been taken to organise for Western and Victory fans to sit on the West and Eastern sides of AAMI Park during the game, in which Western officials are hoping for between 10,000 and 13,500 fans.
For the most part, Victory supporters – having won four titles and become the league’s biggest club before Western even kicked a ball – have greeted the moves by the new kids on the Melbourne block with derision and contempt; a significant number refusing to grant the coming fixture with the title of derby or rivalry.
It’s a tone that has been matched by the club’s social media accounts, which have approached the coming clash with the same benign energy that would accompany any other fixture – and nothing approaching the excitement of a game against Melbourne City or Sydney FC – until a cheeky social media post on the day of the game.
Disembarking from his water-borne chariot in Melbourne, however, Rudan said that he believed the earnestness of his side’s promotion was important for the game.
“I think the game needs attention,” he said. “Good bad or otherwise there is always going to be people who will question certain decisions that are made by a football club or by a player or a coach.”
“It’s part and parcel of us trying to play our role in finding more space in the newspapers or in the media. We don’t get a lot of attention, I think it’s quite clear.
“So if we can play our part, we want to grow this football club. We want to make sure that everyone in the West understands that there’s a club that’s there to support them and hope they come and support us.
“And we make no qualms about that. Last year we beat this team [Victory] three times in a row and it was huge for this football club. And we want to continue that dominance.”
Though the push to establish it hasn’t been helped by their journeys into AAMI Park this year – Saturday’s one of several ‘home’ games the club will play at the venue due to what the club says are the economic and safety factors of staging fixtures in line with COVID protocols – Rudan has been steadfast in his proclamations surrounding Western’s ultimate “Team of the West” vision.
And he’s got no qualms in courting Victory or City fans to make that a reality.
“Even though there are members of other clubs in our area, we’ve made it very clear that this is going to be ours and we’ll fight tooth and nail to ensure this,” Rudan said. “We’ve already seen a huge turnover in members from other clubs that have come over to us.
“We need to work harder on that department on and off the park, results are one thing that will prick their ears but we’ve got to make them sit up and take notice and then buy a membership and say what’s this club all about, really?
“Then once they start to see themselves in us, then that attachment grows.”
Should Western down Victory on Saturday evening, it will continue a 100% winning record that the new boys have over the four-time A-League champions; winning their first meeting 3-2, 3-1 at Kardinia Park and 2-1 during the season’s hub-based run home.
They will then head to New South Wales for the first time this season to play Central Coast Mariners in Gosford on February 7; a fixture Rudan hinted may see the return of Max Burgess to the squad after he was unsuccessful in seeking his release during the offseason.
“He’s a big chance of joining in with the squad next week. A big chance.”