How Melbourne City won its first-ever A-League Premiership

Just over two years ago, Melbourne City and Adelaide United battled to a near stalemate over 118 minutes of the second elimination final of the 2018-19 A-League season. But just as penalties became seemingly inevitable, United's Ben Halloran struck.

1-0 Adelaide. City's season was over.

Repercussions to the disappointment were swift: an announcement made just days later that Warren Joyce would not have his contract renewed as coach.

"Towards the back end of that season we were having some discussions about the football that we were playing," City director of football Michael Petrillo told ESPN. "How the team was performing, feedback from players and staff. I think the elimination final was probably the confirmation that we needed to make a change.

"We thought we had good enough squads for those two years to make a Grand Final."

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Joyce departed Bundoora with the best winning percentage in club history, a stingier defence, and a hardened and team-first spirit -- but also without any silverware. His reformational view of City's culture had drawn him into conflict with veteran players such as Tim Cahill, Neil Kilkenny, Fernando Brandan, and, most contentiously, Bruno Fornaroli.

The exile of their beloved Uruguayan striker left City's fanbase at their wit's end and -- already disillusioned with Joyce's pragmatic playing style -- they were on the verge of open revolt by the time Halloran struck.

A shift was needed.

Enter Erick Mombaerts.

A former boss of Paris Saint-Germain, France's under-18 and under-21 sides and City Football Group (CFG) club Yokohama F. Marinos, the dapper Frenchman didn't have to travel far in an ideological sense when he was tapped as Joyce's replacement; the veteran coach working as a football consultant with City's owners CFG since 2018.

Indeed, giving heed to it numerous times throughout his introductory press conference, it quickly became apparent to those in Melbourne he'd arrived not just as a coach, but as an apostle for CFG's preferred style of football.

"I think what set Erick apart was knowing him from the CFG in Yokohama," said Petrillo. "Also the time he spent in Manchester after he finished in Yokohama: studying our methodology and understanding the way we want to play football.

"I met with Erick a couple of times. The first time was with Brian Marwood and [City CEO] Brad Rowse, and then a couple of days later in Paris.

"We were supposed to meet for an hour and we ended up speaking in the hotel for three or four hours -- talking about football. I knew from that moment that he was the right man for the job.

"My question mark at first was does he still have the passion? I didn't want someone that was going to come to Australia as a final holiday destination. But after that conversation in the hotel in Paris, I knew that he was extremely passionate."

Wearing designer Japanese glasses, wielding a briefcase and sporting a long black coat and matching hat, Mombaerts certainly cut a striking figure on his first day on the job.

His legend only grew further when tales emerged that during his first tour of City's facility he, in full regalia, paused to perform 10 picture-perfect chin-ups when he came upon the facility's gym.

"I loved it," City captain Scott Jamieson recalled to ESPN. "I loved that it was confident, he was so sure of himself. It wasn't in an arrogant way, just a confident way.

"Throughout the whole year, he'd always be in the ice bath up to his neck every morning. It was a brain technique and a breathing technique. He always showered cold -- he was very powerful in the mind. He'd be in the ice bath for up to ten minutes with his eyes closed, just breathing."

Having struggled to get consistent minutes under his predecessor, Connor Metcalfe -- who in 2020-21 has started every game for City as a 21-year-old -- was excited about getting a chance to break through under the Frenchman ... at least once he'd checked his phone.

"We all Googled him," the youngster recalled. "Because we didn't really know who he was.

"When we Googled him, we saw some of the stuff that he had done and the players that he'd worked with. I couldn't wait to meet him.

"He came in and I believe to this day that he changed this club's culture and everything behind it."

On the field improvements arrived rapidly under Mombaerts; City losing just once in their opening 10 fixtures of the season. They would spend just one week lower than second on the table that entire campaign.

A second FFA Cup Final in club history was reached and a midseason swoon -- which in year's past may have led to complete mental capitulation -- was overcome.

"Throughout the preseason, he spoke twice at length," said Jamieson. "He didn't rant or rave -- but he spoke twice because there were one or two players that weren't playing and were a bit grumpy.

"He just said very quietly: 'If I see any behaviour that doesn't represent the team behaviour you will not be here again.'

"It was really powerful."

Whereas personnel differences between CFG's Manchester and Melbourne outposts meant that the two could never truly replicate each other, Mombaerts' team quickly provided a much more attacking and entertaining spectacle than under Joyce.

Socceroos striker Jamie Maclaren, who had arrived in January 2019 as a replacement for Fornaroli, feasted as won the Golden Boot with 23 goals and as a whole, City scored 10 more goals, in one less game, than they did in 2018-19.

"[Mombaerts] demanded things on the football pitch and they had to be done that way," said Metcalfe.

"If they weren't, it was wrong. It had to be done that way, that's the right way, follow it and it will work."

But while the French Revolution in Bundoora was proceeding swimmingly, a shadow well out of the control of any coach was looming: the global onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 spread throughout Australia and the world, shutting down stadiums, leagues, and even whole countries, City's macabre 2-1 loss to Newcastle Jets on March 23 was played with both sides knowing that the A-League -- which had held out longer than every other major league around the world -- was being halted the following day.

A months-long civil war between the FFA, club owners, the players' union, and broadcasters then began, with the fragile peace that eventually ensued and allowed for the season to conclude, papering over the A-League's cracks as it strove to avoid total collapse.

With Melbourne entering another lockdown, City and crosstown rivals Melbourne Victory and Western United were forced to stage multiple, disastrous attempts to evacuate Victoria and get to a Sydney-based hub before state borders closed. Successful on the third attempt, they were forced into a shared, two-week quarantine upon their arrival.

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"I remember sitting on the tarmac on the second night and being told we can't get on the plane," said Jamieson. "This is [Mombaerts] second night and I'm thinking 'This guy has been in Japan, the French national team, worked at the top level, and he's being put through this s---.'

"He has every right to say 'F--- this off, why am I here?' but he was brilliant. He was having a laugh, he was making good of it and I think that, in a way, represented us as a team."

Ultimately, City would rebound from their ill-fated attempts to enter NSW to secure second-place at the end of the hub-based regular season -- the then-highest finish in the club's history. Petrillo's belief that the side was talented enough to make Grand Finals was subsequently vindicated as they defeated Western United in a semifinal to secure a first-ever berth in the decider.

That, though, was where the magic ended: Their season culminating in an agonising, extra-time defeat to the Sydney FC dynasty.

Adding salt to their wounds, uncertainty surrounding COVID then led to what may have been a hammer blow to hopes of capitalising on their momentum in 2020-21: the announcement that Mombaerts would be departing Melbourne to return to France to be with his family.

"[Mombaerts] told me relatively early, just before we went into the hub that that might be what he wanted to do," Petrillo recalled. "And in the hub he confirmed it.

"So we knew a couple of months before that he was going. We agreed that it was best not to say anything to the players or anyone else.

"Fair play to Erick, he continued on as if he was going to continue to be here forever. He didn't change. If anything, it gave him more impetus to try and win the Grand Final for us."

The announcement of Mombaerts' replacement arrived swiftly: the very same press release announcing his departure revealing that his assistant Patrick Kisnorbo would be taking over for the 2020-21 season.

"There was a rumour that he was leaving and we all kind of had the idea that PK [Kisnorbo] was going to be announced as coach," Metcalfe said.

"It's fair enough, because of COVID he had to go home with his wife, back to France. It's a different coach ... again. But everyone knows PK [Kisnorbo]."

Everyone definitely did know Kisnorbo.

Arriving as a player when the club was still Melbourne Heart, Kisnorbo went on to captain the club after its CFG-mandated rebrand to City and moved into its coaching ranks upon his retirement.

First serving as a coach in the academy, he then won W-League titles as an assistant and head coach with the club's all-conquering women's side and then moved into an assistants role with both Joyce and Mombaerts.

It was an apprenticeship clearly designed to have him eventually ascend to the A-League job -- albeit not as soon as 2020.

"We did look elsewhere, we wanted to make sure we did our due diligence," said Petrillo. "But I think in the back of our minds, even going back three or four years ago, we knew that one day PK would coach the first team.

"[That offseason was] really difficult, extremely difficult. We didn't know if any international players were going to be allowed into the country, we'd had a reduction in our salary cap.

"We communicated a lot with the players and they were fantastic. The club was good as well, we supported them when a lot of others players were stood down and didn't earn any money.

"So when we went to them and said we need you guys to take a salary cut if we were to keep everyone, they were unanimous. That helped us to keep the squad together."

Squad continuity assured, Kisnorbo's apprenticeship under Mombaerts also meant that he was well-placed to maintain the on-field philosophy implemented by the veteran coach -- ensuring that the gains seen by the club in 2019-20 wouldn't be lost to COVID-enforced circumstances.

That's not to say, though, that Kisnorbo didn't have a few ideas about how he could help improve the side placed under his command.

"Erick's preseason was hard as well, it was just what I felt that maybe we could improve on a little bit and challenge," said Kisnorbo.

"I didn't reinvent the wheel, we didn't want that, but I wanted to challenge the players. And I thought that was a way to do that and we did it.

"With running, it tests you in all forms -- especially physically and mentally.

"We put the players under stress and saw how they reacted to that. At times, at the start, it was hard. But I think when they went through that hard stage and they realised that they could do it, they could push themselves again."

It's a stratagem from Kisnorbo that has paid off in 2020-21, as his ruthless side has blown opponent after opponent out of the water, often in sharp burst of multiple goals in short periods.

"A team with that hunger to score, to win, their fitness, their mobility, their rotations, I'd say it's difficult for most teams in the A-League to keep up with that," Macarthur FC coach Ante Milicic said after a 3-0 loss in March

"Physically, they're at a different level than us. You see the speed that they have all around the field -- their repeat efforts."

Guarded in his dealings with the media, Kisnorbo has been loath to discuss anything beyond the process -- and it is always called the process -- that his side is seeking to follow in 2020-21.

Even as City has found their feet, streaked away from a league otherwise gripped by rampant parity and been widely heralded as playing some of the best football the competition has seen, their coach denies any attempt to look beyond the next opponent or, more specifically, the next performance.

He cuts a contrasting figure to his mentor on the touchline, stalking up and down with notes on hand and not afraid to share enthusiastic feedback with his players. Even an Achilles injury suffered late last month couldn't stop him -- the coach going about his business on crutches following surgery.

"There's a side of him where he's a very affectionate person," said Jamieson. "He's got a side to him where he'll ask about your family, ask about individuals.

"But then he has a side that can really flip and put people on the grill.

"The emotional and physical toll of trying to get better is something he reminds us of every day. It's intense, but it's rewarding when you do see improvements.

"He can put an arm around you, but he can ride you and really make you work for what you've got."

Now, with City's 1-0 win over the Mariners on Saturday, one segment of Kisnorbo's process is complete.

With three games to spare, City has won its first-ever piece of A-League silverware. Their goal difference is 18 clear of their next closest rival and they loom as strong contenders to add a championship to their trophy cabinet in coming weeks.

"We've got that fluency, which you can see in the way we play," said Petrillo.

While significant credit must go to the players, Kisnorbo, the coaching staff and all those at the club, the legacy of Mombaerts looms large over the accomplishment.

"I speak to Erick a ridiculous amount of times during the week," Kisnorbo said. "He sent me a text before the [Mariners] game and I'm sure I've got a text or a phone call from him now.

"Erick was the one that obviously built our style and really started our style. It's great to work with someone of that experience and calibre. He started a style of play that we want to keep at this football club.

"Erick critiques me quite harshly. He tells me what things should have been done and how I can improve. He's a real mentor, he's a teacher and he watches all our performances. And if he can't I send him all the games we play."

Indeed, he may be half a world away, but Le Patron's influence still lingers at the now A-League Premiers.