Updated: Sep 7, 2022
In just under 13 years, over 160 players have graced Australia's football pitches in the red and white of Melbourne Heart or the light blue of Melbourne City.
It is safe to say, then, that we fans have been graced with an immense amount of talent to admire over the years, and it can sometimes be astounding to reflect on some of the brilliant individuals who've passed through the club since its inception. In fact, for some, City has been a stepping stone on the journey to Premier League football, winning the Asian Cup, playing in the Champions League, and countless individual A-League awards - the unifying factor amongst all these achievements is City's role in fostering that talent at the time it needed it.
It's purely hypothetical, but what if we were able to welcome back some of the top active talents that have passed through the doors over the years? Which players did we let go of before getting the best of them, and who are we already able to enjoy in their prime? What would the fruit of our development reveal about our contributions to football?
The answer is an XI with a current market value of just under AUD$30,000,000 (€20,375,000; figures per Transfermarkt), a value comparable to the entire squads of many bottom-half Championship clubs.
Here is the lineup we could hypothetically have been fielding this season if we'd kept our best players...
GK: Mark Birighitti - Dundee United FC
We'll get this XI underway with a player whose release still frustrates fans to this day. If there are any newer City fans reading this who've started following the club in the past three seasons, I'd love to know your reaction to hearing that back-to-back ALM Goalkeeper of the Year Mark Birighitti spent the entire 2018/19 season at City... and never played a game.
Now plying his trade for Dundee United in the Scottish Premiership, City fans can only wonder what could have been in light of our current goalkeeping frustrations.
LB: Aziz Behich – Dundee United FC
Certainly one of the favourite sons from the Heart days, Behich has come a long way since debuting for the club as a 19-year-old, going on to become a Socceroos regular and signing with high-profile European clubs like İstanbul Başakşehir and PSV Eindhoven.
Whilst there was a moment of hesitation as current club Captain and record games-holder Scott Jamieson was considered, can you really turn down Australia's first-choice left-back? Not a chance.
CB: Jack Hendry - Club Brugge KV
He's unlikely to have been the central defender you were thinking of when you clicked on this article, but can we just take a step back and appreciate that Jack Hendry is arguably the biggest 'what could have been' player in Melbourne City history? Though an ACL injury just a handful of games into his loan spell in Melbourne meant that the circumstances of his departure were entirely out of our control, it's just difficult to fathom how we missed out on fully benefitting from the talents of someone who is now a €5,000,000 Champions League defender at Belgium's Club Brugge.
CB: Bart Schenkeveld – Panathinaikos FC
From one defender who could have been dominant to one who was - and habitually. City fans are yet to see a centre-back with such an unbeatable combination of strength and speed as Schenkeveld possessed in his time at the club.
Since moving on in 2019, the Dutchman has racked up nearly 100 appearances for Panathinaikos across the Greek Super Leagues, Greek Cup and Europa Conference League Qualifying.
Though Curtis Good remains a model of consistency as one of Australia's best central defenders, and thus came close to a place in this XI, there would be few City fans brave enough to pass up the return of the shortest shorts the A-League has ever seen.
RB: Nathaniel Atkinson - Heart of Midlothian FC
With the likes of Scott Galloway, Carl Jenkinson and now Callum Talbot filling his shoes at right-back, the effects of Nathaniel Atkinson's surprise departure haven't been felt too badly over the past 18 months. With City receiving a still unknown fee for the Tasmanian (that you'd have to assume was above or around AUD$1M) and Patrick Kisnorbo's boys able to push on for a second-consecutive Premiership, fans haven't pined too much for his return - but we'd absolutely be welcoming him back if given the chance, as is the case in this hypothetical situation.
Though the Tasmanian became renowned for his attacking contributions from right-back and right-wing in the latter stages of his time at City, Atkinson never compromised on his defensive reliability. The young fullback developed into a tenacious 1v1 defender who had the pace and physicality to match it with the best.
City may have successfully transitioned into a post-Atkinson era, but there could never be a true replacement for arguably the best right-back to have played for the club.
DM: Aaron Mooy – Celtic FC
The first name to go on the team sheet here, as he probably was every week in that unforgettable 2015/16 season. The recent clamour from City fans for the Pasty Pirlo to return to Melbourne following his departure from Shanghai Port only speaks to the unmatched quality that Mooy still possesses, even at the age of 31.
Some fine players have passed through the doors at CFA over the years, and none more so than Mooy, whose current market value of €5,000,000 (per Transfermarkt) is joint top amongst this fantasy squad alongside the aforementioned Hendry.
CM: Denis Genreau - Toulouse FC
This position was hotly contested between two of the club's most successful Academy products, Denis Genreau and Connor Metcalfe, and it is an absolute testament to our youth development that the competition was so hot. Both have impressed in the A-League, both have cracked senior Socceroo squads, and both have gone on to make relatively high-profile European moves to France and Germany respectively.
Ultimately, it's Genreau's experience at the higher level that gets him the nod here. Whilst this could be put down to him simply making his European move earlier, his key role in earning promotion from France's Ligue 2 with Toulouse in 2021/22 and substitute appearances in all but one of his side's four 2022/23 Ligue 1 fixtures thus far just can't be ignored.
Metcalfe is early into his spell at St. Pauli and has plenty of adapting to do before he fulfills his potential, but if we're splitting hairs then, based on the circumstances at the time of writing, it just has to be Genreau.
CM: Riley McGree - Middlesborough FC
One player who had no such troubles slotting himself almost immediately into the midfield three was Riley McGree. The 23-year-old has come a long way since joint-top scoring for City in what was an underwhelming 2018/19 season where he and Ritchie De Laet shared the Golden Boot with just seven goals apiece.
'Come a long way' is no exaggeration either, with the midfielder spending time at five clubs since departing City in 2019. After returning to Club Brugge following his loan spell with City, McGree was purchased by Adelaide United in what turned out to be an intelligent acquisition as the youngster enjoyed a dominant season before being sold to MLS outfit Charlotte FC. In a brilliant bit of business by the American side, McGree was loaned out to Birmingham City who were the beneficiaries of another breakout season from the midfielder, before he was then sold to Championship rivals Middlesborough at a 680% profit for Charlotte, for whom he never even played a game.
LW: Mathew Leckie - Melbourne City FC
Whilst many of the positions in this XI picked themselves, it was in the front three, particularly either wing, where the selection headaches were at their worst. Between Mathew Leckie, Craig Goodwin and Craig Noone - three of the A-League's best left-wingers in recent seasons - there was certainly a temptation to cheat by taking two and shifting one over to the right.
Focusing on the left for now, it has to be Leckie based on recent form. The star Socceroo may have been maligned early on in 2021/22, but his mid-season explosion of form saw him finish the A-League campaign as the player with the highest non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes.
Though Leckie is often at the centre of fans' criticism of the current City team's repetitive and predictable game plan, his aerial ability - on display for his Cup goal against Wellington - could also be part of the solution to creating an effective Plan B.
ST: Jamie Maclaren - Melbourne City
One of the most open-and-shut cases in this lineup. City's all-time leading goalscorer, one of the A-League Men's all-time greats and in contention as Australia's best striker at present.
RW: Marco Tilio - Melbourne City FC
To continue the discussion from the left-wing dilemma, once Leckie had been selected on that side, Goodwin was immediately wiped out of the conversation from the right given his historical inability to play on his opposite side.
The decision then came down to fielding a 34-year-old Craig Noone or one of City's current right-sided players, Andrew Nabbout and Marco Tilio.
The youngest of that trio is already ahead of his more senior counterparts on a 'goal contributions for City per 90 minutes' basis (0.72 vs 0.67 and 0.53 for Noone and Nabbout respectively), and at 21 years of age, Tilio will only continue to get better.
The best XI of active past/present City players:
Atkinson — Schenkeveld — Hendry — Behich
Genreau — Mooy — McGree
Tilio — Maclaren — Leckie