Hearts should be beating with new owner
For most fans, the news that your team has been bought by someone or something else is an unusual feeling.
For most fans, the news that your team has been bought by someone or something else is an unusual feeling. The head is full of warnings, while the heart is already checking the contract status of some big name players from around the world. I can only wonder what Melbourne Heart supporters are going through right now.
When my club, Blackburn Rovers, were bought by Indian firm Venky-s in 2010, there was a little trepidation, but the promise of funds, fun, and fantastic football found a receptive audience - for a short-time at least.
Asian owners haven-t had the best of presses in the international media. Venky-s have become a byword of incompetence as Rovers dropped from mid-table Premier League stability to a club flirting with relegation to the third tier. More recently, Vincent Tan angered Cardiff City fans by changing the Bluebirds- colours to red to appeal more to eastern audiences.
Manchester City supporters have had few such concerns since being taken over by Abu Dhabi-s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who has poured untold fortunes into turning the club into English champions and a contender for the UEFA Champions League. And now Melbourne Heart has been drawn into this increasingly global football family.
Yet while the Eastlands outfit may be Mansour-s best-known football acquisition, it was not his first. The original love of the Sheikh-s life was, and remains, Al Jazira - the club based in his hometown of in Abu Dhabi. For Melbourne Heart fans looking to get an idea of what the future may bring, the Middle East provides more answers than Manchester.
It is here where the Sheikh can often be found watching his boys play in the UAE Pro League. And it is here where his influence is biggest -,perhaps not in monetary terms, but in affection and influence. He rarely makes a match in Manchester, but he rarely misses one at the Mohammed Bin Zayen Stadium in the west of the city.
Al Jazira has been one of the better teams in an improving UAE league over the last few years, and currently sits just four points off the lead, behind Dubai rivals Al Ahli. A repeat of the 2011 title success is not out of the question. That achievement wasn-t quite as dramatic as Manchester City-s championship win the following year - a 12-point margin meant that the race was all over well before the curtain came down. Other UAE clubs had big names like Fabio Cannavaro and Diego Maradona involved, but Al Jazira went about their business professionally, on and off the pitch.
This was a new kind of team in the region. Mansour hired Phil Anderton, a highly regarded sports administrator who had worked with Edinburgh club Hearts and the Scottish Rugby Union, because he wanted to reach out to the large but transient expat community - something that had never really happened before.
Attendances in the league had been, and still are, relatively poor. Given the wealthy owners of so many clubs, trying to become self-sufficient through sponsorship and good old-fashioned ticket sales was not seen as a priority. Sometimes tickets are not sold at all, and it has been known for clubs to actually pay fans to attend.
“We-ve tried to professionalize the marketing of the club, treating the fans as priority,” Anderton told me soon after the 2011 title win. “We-ve looked after the players better...and just looked to take everything to the next level."
It worked, although giving away the occasional Ferrari at half-time helps. In 2011, Al Jazira averaged over 15,000 fans, three times more than any rival. The UAE league does not publish attendance figures, but Al Jazira are still topping the crowd chart.
It-s not just marketing where Al Jazira leads, or perhaps led, the way. In terms of keeping faith with head coaches, this western outpost of Abu Dhabi was an island of serene sanity in a sea of sackings. In the first three professional seasons of the 12-team league, there were 40 coaching changes. Yet during that time, the team stayed with Abel Braga and were rewarded with the title.
It hasn-t been quite the same since the Brazilian stepped down in 2011. Since then, the club has resorted to regional type, and Walter Zenga, former Italian goalkeeper, is the sixth coach to try and repeat Braga-s success. Privately, officials at the club admit that they lost their way and the departure of Anderton also left a big hole to fill. But the philosophy of trying to build for the long-term is still there, and hopes are high that Zenga is the right man for the job.
Al Jazira is very much a work in progress, but is a club that has only benefitted from its relationship with Sheikh Mansour. The majority, if not all, of Manchester City fans would say something similar. Now it-s the turn of Melbourne Heart/City to see how its Abu Dhabi connection works out.