Impressive as Hume City’s start to the 2020 season - which was covered in part one of Football Victoria’s 2021 Preview - it shouldn’t distract from the fact that the road to the NPL Victoria championship still ultimately runs -- as it did in 2016 and 2018 -- through Kingston Heath.
Their 2019 title still the most recently awarded, the Greens technically remain the defending NPL Victoria champions heading into the coming campaign; seeking to build upon their legacy of three state titles, a premiership, two Dockerty Cups and four Community Shields won between 2015 and 2020.
Coach Nick Tolios, a year after having his best-laid plans to properly begin to replace the legacy of the legendary John Anastasiadis wiped out, has recruited strongly heading into the 2020 season, adding promising youngsters such as Ben Carrigan, Mark Karlic, and Thierry Iradukunda.
Highly promising youth prospect Lucas Derrick was also added to provide further firepower to the Greens attack - and 2021 loomed as a season in which the former Australian U17 FIFA World Cup representative was set to press his case for another shot at professional football - but he unfortunately suffered an ACL injury on the eve of the season.
Further bolstering the Greens’ young infusion of talent is more established signings such as goalkeeper Alex Pavlidis, Breadyn Crowley and key returnees such as James Xydias, George Lambadaridis, Kieran Dover, Jack Webster and former Socceroo Brent McGrath.
Nothing can be certain heading into the coming season but one thing seems pretty likely: Tolios’ side is going to give opposing defences a headache in the months ahead.
2020’s Top Four
However, defending champions they may have been, Bentleigh found themselves on the outside looking into the top-six at the time of the 2020 season’s cancellation.
Instead, hot on the heels of Hume were two of NPL Victoria’s boys in blue; Oakleigh Cannons and Avondale FC looking to add their names to the annals of history by securing their first-ever NPL Victoria titles in 2021.
Three wins from their opening four games and a draw against South Melbourne had Chris Taylor’s side sitting second on the table after the first month of the 2020 campaign, setting the Cannons up well to play finals football again only for COVID to call curtains on the season.
Ambitious as ever, the Cannons have recruited strongly heading into 2021; luring the likes of Oskar Dillon, Bradley Chick, Jai Selden, Matt Thurtell, and former APOEL Nicosia defender Jacob Eliopoulos down to Jack Edwards Reserve. This cast of new faces will join an already strong group of returning figures such as Wade Dekker, Ryan Paczkowski, Joe Knowles, Lucas Portelli and 2019 NPL Victoria Gold Medal Winner Joe Guest.
Avondale, for their part, last reached the ultimate decider of Victorian football in 2019; downed in a dramatic penalty shootout by Bentleigh Greens at AAMI Park and leaving their quest for a maiden title unfulfilled. Key members of that squad such as Joey Katabian, Liam Boland, Yitay Towns, Stefan Valentini and Yusuf Ahmed are all set to return in 2021, alongside talented new signings such as goalkeeper Bon Scott, Yazid Said and Kristian Trajceski.
Suffering duelling blows of a three-point deduction and an opening night loss to Oakleigh to begin their 2020 campaign, The Avengers quickly righted their ship in the subsequent weeks: scoring 13 goals while shipping just one-up the other end as they defeated Altona Magic, Green Gully, Dandenong City and Melbourne Knights.
Sandwiched between the two sides on the table at the time of the campaign’s cancellation were Dandenong Thunder, who like the Cannons had won three, drawn one and lost one in their opening three contests.
The side from George Andrews Reserve, who have added Irish striker O’Hanlon, Paul Wilson, and Nahuel Bonada to their ranks in 2021, is set to open round one against local rivals Dandenong City in round one of the campaign, meaning their fans - and the rest of observers - will be able to see how their form carries over via the crucible of the state’s marquee fixtures first up.
The Kids are Alright
Across the opening weeks of the 2020-21 A-League season, it's been impossible not to get caught up in the fearlessness, swagger, dare and joy that Alou Kuol approaches every time he sees the field for the Central Coast Mariners.
But before Kuol was a Mariner, the now-19-year-old was a Goulburn Valley Sun - the teenager winning the 2019 NPL2 Golden Boot award for the Shepparton-based outfit while still too young to drive a car.
As the 2021 season approaches, prospects throughout NPL Victoria, as well as NPL2 and NPL3, will take heart from the exploits of the burgeoning star of Australian football; knowing that the shifting dynamics of the professional game and the exploits of players such as Kuol means that the prevailing climate is shifting and that the road to professional football doesn’t necessarily have to begin in the ranks of an A-League academy.
Though by no means an exhaustive list, the likes of Avondale’s Yusuf Ahmed, Altona’s Stefan Ristic, Bentleigh’s Iradukunda, Green Gully’s Nicholas Georgopoulos, Melbourne Knights’ Anthony Duzel, Hume City’s Marko Delic, Dandy Thunder's Mersim Memeti, Oakleigh Cannons’ Lucas Portelli, and South Melbourne’s Gerrie Sylaidos are all capable of transitioning to a bigger stage - with the 2021 NPL Victoria potentially serving as the platform.
Looked at in a vacuum, that players such as the above - and the multitude across NPL Victoria unlucky to not feature - aren’t already in the A-League represents a missed opportunity for the Australian game. But with the coming months representing something of a fresh start, there is yet a chance to make amends.
And even without the A-League, as the push for expansion of the Australian football ecosystem continues to gain momentum, the carrot for standout young - and established and even veteran players - to seize the moment and thrive in their return to football has swelled even more: the prospect of a national second division - and the playing opportunities it would offer - looming large.
The NPL2 and NPL3
Their 2020 campaigns, unfortunately, postponed the week they were supposed to start, 2021 will now be the first year in which the new NPL2 and NPL3 systems are implemented across Victoria - the new two-tiered structure replacing the previous model of an NPL2 Eastern and NPL2 Western Conference.
Both the newly formed second and third-tiers will feature 12 teams when they commence in March, with Doveton, North Sunshine Eagles, Nunawading City and Preston Lions all promoted from the State Leagues in 2019 to bring the NPL3’s number of competitors into line with its senior brother.
The two-up, two-down model of promotion and relegation will be in effect across the competitions, and the adoption of the conference model has also seen the retirement of the NPL2 Championship game and the subsequent promotion and relegation playoff between the winner and the third-bottom team in NPL Victoria.
Having come agonisingly close to an immediate return to the top-flight after their relegation in 2018, FC Bulleen Lions - who now go down as the trivia answer to the question of who was the last side to be vanquished in a promotion and relegation play-off - head up a strong field of clubs due to compete in the NPL2 - which was notable in 2019 for sending not just one, but two sides to the FFA Cup’s Round of 32 in the Lions and Moreland Zebras.
Joining the newly promoted clubs in NPL3 will be the youth side of recent A-League expansion club Western United, who are set to field both a senior and U21 side under their green and black banner for the first time in 2021. They will join Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory’s youth sides in giving another possible window into the progression of the next generation of Socceroos.
Geelong and regional Victoria are also strongly represented across the two leagues, with North Geelong Warriors and Goulburn Valley Suns set to take the field in NPL2 and Ballarat City and Geelong SC set to compete in NPL3.
Build it and they will come
Improvements on the park, however, aren’t the only thing to keep an eye on in the coming months.
At Heidelberg, the process of bringing Olympic Village roaring into the 21st century remains an ongoing and multi-staged process, but the improvements that have been made already - including the removal of the running track surrounding the pitch and new car park - are already clear. A late fixture change, however, means the venue now won't be on display in the club’s round one meeting with old foes South Melbourne.
Eastern Lions, having been unable to stage games at their home of Gardiners Creek Reserve during the opening weeks of last season, continued to build and develop their facilities during 2020 and, belatedly, the fruits of their labour debut them to the world when they host Bentleigh Greens in round one.
St Albans Saints, having recently introduced a cover to their main grandstand, completed works on a new, LED lit car park at Churchill Reserve in September, 2020.
Their projects remain in their very formative stages at this point, but top-flight clubs such as Melbourne Knights, Dandenong City and Altona Magic are all moving ahead with efforts to improve their footprints, and clubs throughout the Victorian system have until February 19 to get their applications in for the latest round of World Game Facilities Funding from the Victorian State Government.
Further down the pyramid, the works in place at Preston Lions’ home deserve note. Benefiting from a $3 million government grant to redevelop its facilities, the Lions are set to mark their debut in NPL3 by constructing making a host of improvements to their facilities at BT Connor Reserve, including improvements to changing rooms and medical facilities, kitchen and bar facilities, undercover setting and a media area.
FC Bulleen Lions, too, are set for major upgrades in coming years after security government support to upgrade their changing rooms and smaller training/junior pitch as well as construct a number of new pitches for their significant junior setup at a site near their Veneto Club home.