The first thing you notice about Kevin Muscat’s office is just how ordered things are.
Not a pencil or notebook is out of place. Neat piles of documents are stacked in a regimented quadrant that sits alongside the Melbourne Victory manager as he welcomes me in with a broad smile.
Muscat clearly likes to maintain a structure and have a plan, both on the field and off.
He has reason to be happy. His team has won its last six A-League games and look capable of defending the title it won in such audacious fashion in May.
It’s derby week and his in-form Victory side will take on cross-town rivals Melbourne City on Saturday night.
Melbourne Victory’s run of form sees them sit second on the table behind Tony Popovic’s Perth Glory. It’s been an impressive start to the campaign for Muscat’s team given the turnover in his squad – 10 players from last year’s title-winning team have moved on, including goal-scoring machine Besart Berisha.
Twelve months ago there was no guarantee the inaugural Victory captain – now manager – would still be in the job.
Victory had won just two games of their first 10, and was seventh on the table. For a club that demands success and has a track record of delivering, the numbers were unacceptable.
Victory fans were starting to contemplate the unthinkable, with calls for Muscat to be sacked.
Through it all, Muscat insists he was unfazed. In the end, Victory won the Grand Final and the coach was vindicated.
“There were some things holding us back. We didn’t have a settled squad. At that point then I didn’t think too much needed to be changed. I still had the belief we were good enough to challenge,” he said.
“It was just that moment there when everybody externally was asking questions.”
Muscat’s team responded with a thrilling finals run that included an extra-time victory over arch-rivals Sydney FC and a controversial 1-nil result against the Newcastle Jets in the Grand Final.
“It was satisfying because no one gave you a chance so it became us against the tide of people questioning us,” Muscat said.
The title success has further enhanced his credentials as a man manager and his legend status at Victory.
Despite the success, Muscat has had to rebuild his title-winning squad all over again.
With a salary cap making player retention difficult and big contract offers elsewhere hard for players to resist, it produces a level of churn in player movement that annoys fans and frustrates the coach.
“The salary cap has been great for equalisation but there are that many add-ons that some clubs use and some clubs don’t, some people ask, is it really equalisation?”
Sometimes it means Muscat has to let a good player go to accommodate the cap. Telling Stefan Nigro (now with Brisbane Roar) he had to leave was tough.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done,” Muscat said.
“He loved the club. He’d been here a long time and he ends up playing in a semi-final and final but based on what we needed and the finances, it had to happen.”
Victory’s signing of Japanese star Keisuke Honda as an international marquee was a testament to Muscat’s patient diplomacy. He conducted an extensive and thorough dialogue with Honda to win his signature.
Honda has been superb in Victory colours, scoring five times in his eight starts so far.
Muscat’s personal relationship with the Japanese legend was key to sealing the deal.
“It takes a lot of hard work. In the end, we just got on really well. My enthusiasm for doing things a certain way was what appealed to him,” Muscat said.
“He understands the challenge that was being put to him because many players have come here with big stature and walked away from here with their tails between their legs.”
Muscat is passionate about developing young talent, but the Victory boss bristles at the notion outstanding ability alone is enough to warrant an opportunity. In that sense, Muscat is old school and has little time for a creeping sense of entitlement that has seeped into the sport, with young players hot housed in academies where stardom is bestowed on those with untested potential.
“No one gets anything, you earn it. If you’re good enough you’ll get your opportunity. If you work hard enough you’ll become good enough,” he said.
“We’ve come away from the mentality of, ‘You’ll get out what you put in’. And I struggle with that.
‘We’ve made a conscious decision at this club to help every player get to the highest level that they can but it’s underpinned by a simple idea – take responsibility for your career.”
Along with Sydney FC’s manager and former player Steve Corica, Muscat is the only other person remaining who has had a continuous involvement in the A-League (on the sidelines or on the pitch) since the league started.
He’s excited at the prospect of the expansion of the A-League with the addition of two new clubs – Greater Western Melbourne and Macarthur South West Sydney over the next few years.
And he’s got no time for the negative Nancies in football who focus on problems rather than opportunities.
“In a game, every player watches the ball but better players do it less,” Muscat said.
“In the same way, it’s human nature to identify a problem and be negative. I believe that better people do it less because they’re already working on a solution.
“The positives of having two new clubs are enormous. Let’s make it work.”
It’s a philosophy that has served Muscat well: plan, prepare, execute, be positive, and earn your keep.
Oh, and make sure you keep a clean desk at work and clean sheets on the field.