It's been a season of ups and downs, but Melbourne City's Harrison Delbridge, enjoying his new role on the right side of the City defence, is "buzzing" ahead of the A-League Grand Final.
Returning to Australia after beginning his career in the United States, Appalachian State University alumn Delridge signed a three-year deal with City in late 2017 but a series of brain fades, including a red-card-inducing horror challenge against Central Coast Mariners in just his third game, did little to leave a good first impression amongst the Australian football zeitgeist.
Nonetheless, the now-28-year-old endured and, a year on from being just 23 minutes off playing every minute of every game for City, started the 2019/20 as one of the form players of the competition; putting in a man-of-the-match performance against Melbourne Victory in round one and forming a strong, ball-playing partnership with Curtis Good.
Though many, perhaps caught up in first-impressions, scoffed, whispers of a potential Socceroos berth if his form could be maintained were not too far off the mark.
Alas for the Sydney-born defender, though, wobbles in form and a series of disciplinary issues served to dampen what had been a barnstorming start to the season. His three red cards this campaign (albeit two were for handball, one of which shouldn’t have been given) set a new record at City and, following his third dismissal against Adelaide United in round 17, Head Coach Erick Mombaerts said he needed have “better emotional control”.
But luckily for City fans, Delbridge has appeared to have bounced back from his mid-season form issues – receiving just a single booking since his red card against the Reds – and has become a key cog in the City machine heading into Sunday’s Grand Final.
Despite being a centre-back by trade, the 193cm, 93kg defender possesses enough athleticism and ball-playing ability to have been deployed on the right of Mombaerts’ back four in recent months; a defensive quartet that turns into a trio when City take possession of the ball and left-back Nathaniel Atkinson moves into the midfield to help create an overload in numbers.
“I think I’m probably one of the world’s tallest right-backs if I was playing as an out and out right-back,” Delbridge laughed to FTBL.
“It’s a lot more running than we’re used to as centre backs, but I think having the ability to be out wide and defending against little nippy players is good for me.
“It’s good that it suits the system. When we’re building up there’s three of us back there and we can have an extra number to build up, which is what the coach wants and has set up for.
“It’s something that I had to adapt to but I’m feeling comfortable out there and it’s not so different from playing in a back three at times, it’s just having to be able to defend out in those wide areas where a lot of centre backs aren’t quite as comfortable.
“It’s something that I’ve been working on but I’m comfortable doing.
“I think it’s a blessing to have that sort of ability to do that. But then at the same time, that also means that coaches will put you out there sometimes. So, whether you like it or not you’ve got to adapt and do what’s best for the system.”
Like City, Delbridge is set to compete in his first A-League Grand Final against Sydney FC this evening, a stage he “envisioned the club being at” when he first signed.
Despite Head Coach Erick Mombaerts moving to seize the underdog label ahead of that contest, he says that the group are excited heading into the contest – with their strong form post-A-League re-start serving as fuel to their fire.
“We’re buzzing,” said Delbridge. “I think I’m feeling similar to the team in that we’re all sort of flying in recent form, with the way we’ve been playing.
“I think we’ll go in confident with where we finished on the table. Obviously, we know we can beat Sydney, we’ve done it once before this season. So, we’re buzzing and ready to go.
“I think there’s a confidence in the group right now. I can’t tell you if that’s more coming from the results that we’ve had this season, finishing second – the highest the clubs ever finished – or locking up ACL or whether it’s just the amount of time this group has spent together this season.
“We were already a close group over the season but this two months of almost spending every day together. I think that could have gone two ways and, for us, it’s brought us really close together, which is really important in our style of play – having that sort of connection with the guys around you.
"It’s a different feeling within the group than I’ve experienced going into finals over the past two years. We’re in the best position we’ve ever been in so we go in with full confidence and can look back at what we’ve done over the year and be ready to go and be up for any sort of challenge."
Having signed a three-year contract when he first landed Down Under, Delbridge is set to become a free agent following Sunday’s Grand Final.
“I’ve loved my time in Melbourne,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the club, I’ve enjoyed the City and I think having success this year, it’s been really enjoyable, even just the way we’ve played.
“We’ll probably have to see what the future holds for me, but first things first is getting this result tomorrow and doing something special for the club. And then we’ll see what happens from there.”