Melbourne derbies can be daunting affairs for those who have never experienced them before.
Some players handle the prospect of the biggest stage with aplomb: it was hardly a surprise that Tim Cahill, the man who loves the limelight, scored a wonder goal on his debut as he helped power Melbourne City to a 4-1 win over Melbourne Victory in the first of the three derbies last season.
Others can go into their shells or take time to adjust. The tackles always seem to fly in harder, the crowd noise seems to be louder and the pace and intensity of the game is greater.
This time round there are plenty who will be making a Derby debut. Victory’s new signing, Rhys Williams, the former Socceroo defender, and its new Dutch forward, Leroy George, are probably the two most prominent names in navy blue lining up for their first taste of the Victory v City rivalry. Argentinian midfielder Matias Sanchez, a veteran of explosive confrontations in Buenos Aires, where so many top Argentine teams are based, may join them.
There will be several in sky blue experiencing the special tensions of a Derby for the first time, including City’s new Scottish frontman Ross McCormick.
But as he started his career off with Glasgow Rangers and subsequently played at Leeds and Fulham, he will be well used to the tensions that come with local rivalries. Nowhere in Britain is the tension hotter than in Glasgow, where the Rangers v Celtic fixtures triggers animosity and visceral hatreds that stretch back more than a century, emphasising economic, religious and cultural divisions which have historically separated the two great clubs.
However, one man will go into this game with more riding on his shoulders than any other, and that is City’s new English coach, Warren Joyce.
He is the man whose tactical decisions, selections and approach to the game will be scrutinised more than any player because he is a fresh face.
Get it right and mastermind a City win, and his kudos will rise, his place in the affections of City fans be assured and the judgement of the media and critics will be positive.
Get it wrong and Victory fans will make him a figure of fun, City fans will be wondering what else lies in store, and the critics will mark it down as his first failure.
Not that Joyce is the sort to lose too much sleep over it. As pressure cooker situations go, he has been in far hotter kitchens and survived with his equanimity and sense of humour intact.
During a senior playing career which lasted 17 years, the now 52-year-old former midfielder spent two-thirds of that time (12 years) playing for the Lancashire clubs Bolton, Preston and Burnley, where the heat is on every time they meet on a football pitch.
He also experienced on-field tensions in England’s west country, during a period at Plymouth late in his playing days, where rivalries with Exeter and the Bristol clubs were heated.
And, of course, he spent eight years at Old Trafford as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistants, coaching Manchester United’s reserve side.
That was during the latter years of United’s domination of the Premier League, but also coincided with the period when the “noisy neighbours” of City, fuelled by first Asian and then Middle Eastern investment, started to catch up with and then overtake United. City have won two of the past five league championships while United foundered under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal as they struggled to adjust to the post Fergie era.
Derbies between the two clubs – ironically his former and now current employers – were always intense affairs and victory in them is highly prized by Mancunian fans, especially those of City who were able to measure their progress in the most tangible way of all, with a win over the hitherto dominant United.
But it is none of those derbies with which he has been involved – City v United, Burnley v Blackburn (noted as one of the most vicious rivalries in the English game), Bolton v Preston or Plymouth v Exeter – that Joyce rates as the hairiest.
He says his time in Belgium, when he managed United’s partner club Royal Antwerp between 2006 and 2008, was the standout where bizarre behaviour and straight out fan vehemence was greatest.
“All those games in England, the atmosphere is always fantastic because the rivalries have been going on for years and everyone in the towns looks forward to those matches in particular. You feel it out on the pitch as a player.
“It’s not just the actual derbies within cities either. In the Premier League when I was with United there were games against Liverpool and Leeds that always had an edge too. The geography makes it easier – fans can travel and get to away games. You could drive from Manchester to Leeds in 40 minutes: here it takes that long to get from Bundoora [City’s training base] to the city.
“In Belgium though, it was something else. The country is so small you could drive through the best part of it in an hour and the fans all get to away games every time.”
The mood was, to put it politely, boisterous, he said.
“It was a genuinely hostile atmosphere at so many of those games – particularly when the fans had been on the strong Belgian beers for hours leading up to it.
“Lots of chanting, shouting, the police would be there with machine guns and the hungriest looking dogs straining at the leash that you have ever seen. The Antwerp fans were probably the noisiest I have ever heard and they wanted results: if you drew 0-0 away from home there would probably be 600 of them in the car park later letting you know how they felt about a result like that.
“You would have police in armoured vehicles with water cannon, I remember one game when there were helicopters buzzing over head after, it was like a war zone.
“I got to know them a bit at Antwerp. There was one bloke involved, Gino, he was a nice fellow when he hadn’t had a drink. Him and some of his mates also for some reason used to follow Barnsley in the English Championship too, and sometimes they would hop on a plane and land at Doncaster Airport and go and watch them.”
So what is he expecting from his first Melbourne Derby?
“Well, three points is the first thing, but what we also want to do is put on a show for the fans so that our supporters are proud of the players and proud to support this team. That’s very important.”