Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose - that may as well have been the mantra of clubs across the state for Round Two of the NPL Victoria season, with all but one of the seven contests staged over the weekend delivered under the bright lights of Friday night football.
But all joking aside, the second week of the NPL Victoria season also marked a sombre one for the Victorian footballing community.
Games staged across the weekend were proceeded by a minute’s silence as a mark of respect for longtime Victorian footballing stalwart, legendary Eastern Lions coach and devoted family man Jim Williams, who passed away last week.
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Williams’ long association with Lions was ultimately capped in 2019 when, after guiding them to numerous promotions over the years, he was at the helm as the club won the NPL2 Eastern Conference and earned a place in the Victorian top-flight for the first time in their history - earning him NPL2 Coach of the Year Honours.
And in emotional scenes at Lakeside Stadium, his beloved Lions - a year on from suffering a 5-2 defeat in the same fixture early in the abandoned 2020 campaign - secured their first point of the season via a 1-1 draw with South Melbourne.
Making his second start for the club since arriving in the off-season, Ioannis Georgopoulos opened the scoring for the visitors when South failed to properly clear their lines following a Ziggy Razuiki corner in the 27th minute; enabling the veteran midfielder to power a shot past Pierce Clarke from long-range.
Seeking to back-up their round one win over Heidelberg United, South hit back to level proceedings three minutes after the halftime break when Harrison Sawyer took advantage of some classic route one football - Zac Bates flicking a long clearance from his defence over the Lions’ defence with the top of his head - to burst through one-on-one with Keagan Coulter and flick a shot past him.
It secured the big Queenslander his second goal of the season and, eventually, a point for Hellas.
Across in Sunshine, Melbourne Knights continued their strong start to the 2021 season under new coach Steve Bebic by downing Dandenong Thunder 2-1.
Following on from their season-opening win over Port Melbourne, Croatia took the lead just eight minutes into the contest at Knights’ Stadium when a chaotic goalmouth scramble in the Thunder penalty area eventually saw the ball trickle out to new Knights’ signing Alun Webb - who hurled himself forward to prod the ball home and secure his side the lead.
But while the Welshman’s first goal may have been classified as scrappy, his second cut a much more aesthetic figure.
Early on in the second half, the former Adelaide Raider ghosted into a pocket of space on the right side of the Thunder penalty area to put himself into position to meet a dinked pass from teammate James McGarry with a sumptuous, side-footed volley that looped over the head of Thunder custodian Kane Runge and inside the far post.
Thunder made things interesting at 2-1 in the dying minutes when a free-kick from Nahuel Bonada spooted off the assembled Knights’ wall and fell into the lap of an open Josh Meaker, but the visitors couldn’t find another in the remaining moments.
Kicking off half-an-hour after the round’s opening two games, Oakleigh Cannons and Heidelberg United were forced to share the spoils of their much-anticipated meeting at Jack Edwards Reserve.
Coach Chris Taylor’s side made the contest’s initial breakthrough just before halftime when Joe Knowles, doing well to keep the ball under pressure, whipped a low cross into the Heidelberg six-yard-box that was subsequently turned in by Matt Thurtell by the near post.
Playing at the same ground that they had nominally ‘hosted’ South Melbourne the week before, Alexander was able to gather themselves and found a leveller in almost the exact same manner as Oakleigh opened the scoring just over ten minutes into the second stanza.
Collecting the ball on the right, Rueben Way drove a cross in from the right flank that Jackson Lino, coming into the Berger XI for Shaun Ellis, flicked on to make it 1-1.
Elsewhere in the Southeast, Dandenong City was unable to mark their first home game of 2021 with a win after coach Sasa Ognenovski’s side was downed 2-1 by the visiting St Albans Saints at Frank Holohan Soccer Complex.
Converting a penalty won by Liam McCormick, Nick Kalmar had put Hadjuk up in the 17th minute of the contest, only for Dinamo to bring things back to level-pegging in the 36th when Marko Bagaric nodded home a header from close range.
Adam Hodor then completed his side’s comeback and secured them their first three points of the season when a Joey Monek cross snaked its way through the host’s penalty area and found him at the back post. Unmarked, he promptly teed up an effort that beat Jasmin Keranovic in the host’s goal.
Green Gully played host their first game of the season in yet more Friday night action as they sought to make it two wins from two on the season; coach Stephen Downes’ side defeating St Albans in round one.
Yet the going proved tough for the side in Green and White; forced to come-from-behind to secure a 1-1 draw at the death against visiting Hume City.
Breaking through in behind the host’s defence, Hume number nine Josh Bingham opened the scoring in the 25th minute with a tidily taken finish that, for the rest of the game, seemed as though it would do enough to secure his side their first three points of the season.
Anthony Poljak, though, refused to go quietly into the night and with just seconds remaining in regulation dragged things back to level-pegging when he fired a shot beyond Michael Weier and inside the far post to level proceedings.
Friday evening’s final contest was staged at Kingston Heath and produced what might be considered a bit of an upset: Port Melbourne Sharks twice coming from a goal down to eventually defeat hosts Bentleigh Greens 3-2.
Coming off a comfortable, 3-1 win over Eastern Lions, the Greens opened the scoring just seconds before referee Lazaros Pantelidis had a chance to blow for halftime when defender Jacob Alexander seized upon a deflected shot and, with space to work in, curled a shot past Andrew Withers in the Sharks’ goal.
That lead, however, lasted all of two minutes of actual game time when just moments into the second of the half Pantelidis observed a foul in the Greens’ penalty area and awarded the Sharks a penalty.
Though initially saved by Javi Lopez, it was promptly dispatched on the follow-up by Chris Duggan to restore the game to a goal apiece.
Under the guidance of coach Nick Tolios, the Greens restored their lead in the 75th minute when Damian Iaconis rose highest to meet a James Xydias cross and headed home, but the Sharks promptly answered up the other end again: Jackson Courtney-Perkins heading home a quickly taken corner in the 83rd minute.
Two minutes into stoppage time, coach Adam Piddick’s side then completed their second comeback of the evening when substitute John Kuol towered over all around him to fire home a dramatic late header and win the game for his side.
It was a weekend for comebacks, with Altona Magic staging their own - albeit to salvage a 2-2 draw against nine men - against visiting Avondale FC in the final contest of round two on Saturday afternoon.
A smart strike from Stefan Valentini put the Avengers ahead in just the 11th minute of play at Paisley Park, a margin that was then doubled when Matthew Reid tapped in from close range in the 23rd minute.
Reduced to nine men as the second half progressed, however, Zoran Markovski’s side was forced into a desperate rearguard action as the half progressed that for all its courage and determination proved unable to keep the Magic at bay.
Former A-League stalwart and new signing Vince Lia placed a well-taken shot beyond keeper Bon Scott in the 83rd minute to reduce the deficit to just a single goal, before a magnificently weighted cross into the penalty area from John Stojcevski found the head of Stefan Ristic with just three minutes of the 90 remaining to restore the game’s equilibrium.
Feature image courtesy of NPL Victoria & Mark Avellino Photography