Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. No, not into the breach to join King Henry V in laying siege to Harfleur, you’d be a smidge over 700 years late for that one, but instead headfirst into the 2022 NPL Victoria season: the competition set to return this Thursday evening when Heidelberg United head to Lakeside Stadium to take on South Melbourne.
This traditional derby meeting - first contested back in 1964 when a South team coached by Football Australia Hall of Famer Manny Poulakakis downed Alexander 2-1 at Middle Park - is a welcome sight to a Victorian football family. Not only because it represents one of the country’s most historical fixtures but because it also marks the end of another extended absence from the game across grounds and parks all across the state.
As thanks to that now-familiar enemy that is COVID-19, it’s been a long time between drinks in the Victorian top-flight.
Although there were a few teasers towards the end of 2021 through the Dockerty Cup and FFA Cup, by the time Hellas and Alexander lock horns on Thursday it will have been 200 days since the last competitive fixture was staged in the top flight of men’s football in Victoria: a 93rd-minute goal from Keagan Sheridan listing Dandenong Thunder to a 1-0 win over the Bergers at Olympic Village back on August 1, 2021.
For two straight seasons now the game across the state has been forced to screech to a halt the impact of the coronavirus pandemic; seasons up and down the pyramid - from elite to amateur and Miniroos to walking football - scuppered thanks to the insidious virus. It’s been hard, with players robbed of the chance to develop as players and people through the beautiful games and clubs having to absorb the financial blows that come with having their best-laid plans go up in a virus-ridden smoke.
But the clubs that make up the NPL and the tiers below are survivors.
Having absorbed body blows and persevered in the wilderness long before COVID hit, the foundations of strength and the place they hold in their community means that many of these clubs have come to resemble something more resembling institutions than simple sporting entities. They are not just centres of sport but of family, fraternity, heritage and more - giving them a level of resilience to ride out the bad times.
Nonetheless, after two years of false starts, none would be keen to have their strength continued to be demonstrated for a third-straight year. These clubs primary purpose, after all, is football and now there are games to be played, leagues to be won, and hopes for a better future - possibly at a higher level - all on the agenda.
There are the longstanding veterans, increasingly part of the furniture, back for another go-around; the likes of Adrian Zahra at Heidelberg, Ziggy Razuki at Eastern Lions, and Brad Norton at South Melbourne. There are familiar faces at unfamiliar locations, Josh Wilkins making the move from Heidelberg to Port Melbourne, Andy Brennan moving from Hume City to South, and Nikola Jurkovic moving from Melbourne Knights to St Albans Saints.
There are new faces from overseas such as Croatian midfielder Luka Celic landing at Somers Street, Dutch attacker Jordie Van Der Laan heading to Kingston Heath, and Frenchman Florent Indalecio - famous for his transition from NPL NSW4 to Newcastle United’s U23s - heading to George Andrews Reserve. And then there are the potential future faces of the NPL - or beyond - such as Lucas Derick and Pierce Waring at Bentleigh Greens, Gianluca Iannucci at Green Gully, and Birhan Elibol at Hume City.
Matchday attendance and the ever-faithful bar and canteen being such an important asset for clubs, fans across the state will be encouraged to pack back into grounds to cheer these individuals on – or at least to play cards in the clubrooms as the action takes place out the window behind them.
In the event that attendance is impractical, though, every match of the NPL Victoria season, as well as the NPLW Victoria season, Under 21 season, select NPL2 and NPL3 games, Nike FC Cup, and Dockerty Cup fixtures will be available globally and free on the new NPL.TV service. The new platform is available via dedicated iOS and Android mobile applications; Apple TV and Android TV applications; and web browsers.
Yet, despite the novelty that a full 2022 season will present on its own, there is, inevitably, going to be one eye on the years ahead for many this coming campaign. The prospect of a national second tier looms as the elephant in the room for every club, player, and coach with aspirations to test themselves at a higher level this season and with Football Australia CEO James Johnson frequently hyping up 2023 as a start date in media interviews, it's an increasingly tangible prospect.
For clubs, 2022 may end up serving as an audition for their ability to make the leap to a proposed second-tier, not just by demonstrating their on-field capacity but also through excellence in administration, fan support, facilities and more. Referees, administrators, and even budding media professionals will also be going about their business this year with thoughts occasionally drifting towards what may lay on the horizon.
Inevitably, however, everyone involved will also have to continue to deal with COVID. Thanks to the widespread availability and uptake of vaccines the disease is on its way to becoming endemic but that in and of itself means that new procedures have had to be adopted to deal with a new ‘COVID normal’.
Throughout the top three tiers of the men’s NPL, clubs will be expected to elevate players from their U21 squad to fill any gaps in their squads that arise from positive cases, with similar expectations to be in place for NPLW sides and their U19 groups when their season begins. Similar flexibility will be required from coaching staffs, with their absence from the dugout not enough to request a delay to a fixture.
With the desire to deliver a full season for the first time since 2019 the priority, the staging of the home-and-away season will be the first priority for the league: with flexibility built into the fixture to ensure its delivery.
However, in the event that COVID does its unwelcome thing and the season is forced to be cancelled for the third-straight year, the premiership and promotion and relegation will all be determined via ladder position on the condition that at least 50% of the league’s fixtures have been played. If all teams have played the same amount of games it’s a pretty easy determination, but in the event that there is an uneven spread then a points per game basis will be used, followed by average goal difference per game, and then average goals for per game.
But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Forza NPL Victoria.