The wait is finally over.
151 days since Bentleigh Greens downed Avondale FC on penalties to be crowned kings of Victorian football for 2019, NPL Victoria will return to action this Thursday night when last season’s vanquished grand finalists travel to Jack Edwards Reserve to take on Oakleigh Cannons.
It will kickstart 26-rounds of what is consistently one of Australia’s premier competitions outside of the A-League, the 14 sides that constitute Victoria’s top-flight primed in what promises to be a highly competitive year of football.
Smarting from their second Grand Final defeats in as many seasons, Zoran Markovski’s Avondale squad has returned the core of the side – including 2019 Media Player of the Year Tasuku Sekiya and Golden Boot winner Liam Boland – that took them to AAMI Park last season, while supplementing it with the recruitment of promising former Adelaide United youth Blake Carpenter from Dandenong Thunder.
Though it is far too early to be definitive in any predictions, The Avengers have quickly emerged as early title favourites in many observer’s eyes.
Third-place finishers a season ago, the Cannons – who were eliminated by Avondale in the semi-finals last year – have welcomed back the likes of 2019 NPL Victoria Gold Medal and Player’s Player of the Year Joe Guest, English attacker Harry White and goal scorer Wade Dekker as they look to go one better in 2020.
And in adding the likes of Tyson Holmes, Giuseppe Marafioti, Lucas Portelli and West Australians Scott Robinson and Joe Knowles to their ranks, the boys from Jack Edwards Reserve loom as premiership and championship contenders in 2020.
Looking across to the two competition’s two other semi-finalists from a season ago and a common trend of transformation emerges.
Entering his first full season as Head Coach at Kingston Heath, Nick Tolios has overseen an almost complete upheaval in the ranks of Bentleigh Greens.
Holmes, Josh Meaker, Charlie Fry, Daniel Stynes, Josh Baressi, Ryan Scott, Velibor Mitrovic and Mario Ilich have all departed Melbourne’s southeast, with their replacements including the likes of Alex Schiavo, Damian Iaconis, Alex Caniglia, Kieran Dover, Corey Sewell and one-time Socceroo Brent McGrath.
On paper, the 2020 Community Shield winners remain a formidable side, and club cleanouts under former gaffer John Anastasiadis weren’t exactly an impediment to success, but how well they function in the season ahead may depend on how well Tolios is able to stamp his authority on the playing group and get them to gel.
Though George Katsakis, the longest-tenured coach in NPL Victoria, will continue to stalk the touchline at Olympic Village (at least once its renovations are complete), Heidelberg United’s long-standing continuity has taken a hit heading into the new decade.
Though the likes of Shaun Ellis, Adrian Zahra, Reuben Way, Josh Wilkins, Lewis Hall, and Harry Noon are all once again set to pull on the black and yellow, Alex Schiavo, Andrew Cartanos, Paul O’Brien, Steven Pace, Tom Cahill, and Luke Byles have all moved on since their 2-1 semi-final loss to Bentleigh in 2019.
How well Katstakis is able to incorporate Ajdin Fetahagic, Aamir Abdallah, Anthony Theodoropoulos, Dusan Bosnjak, and interstate signings Lachlan Barr and James Demetriou will loom large over Alexandros as they look to continue their recent successes.
“The Bergers always recruit really well,” Wilkins said. “Obviously it’s just about gelling, so with our pre-season we haven’t had some convincing wins.
“We’ve drawn a few games and lost one or two, so probably not the result that we’re wanting; but we generally have that similar outcome at the start of every season – we kind of come together as a unit and then perform.
“Yes, we’ve had a lot of movement but I’d say we’ve brought in a lot of talent this year. Probably the most talented group of players I’ve seen at Heidelberg in the last couple of years. There’s no weak link in that regard.
“I think there’s a lot of positive things to take from the recruiting process and I’m looking forward to it. If we can get this group to gel quickly then we’re going to surprise people again – I know a lot of people have written us off.”
Two traditional powers of Australian, let alone Victorian, football that are looking to return to prominence in the upcoming campaign are South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights.
Preparing to enter his first full season in charge of Hellas after previously serving as interim boss in the wake of Con Tangalakis’ early-season resignation, Esteban Quintas is attempting to end a two-year finals absence at Lakeside Stadium. Defender Luke Adams, who suffered an ACL injury during the 2019 season, is set to serve as the Spaniard’s assistant during his recovery.
Aiding in Quintas’ task – which commences against the Bergers on Friday night – will be the return of players such as Gerry Sylaidos, Nick Krousoratis and Marcus Schroen and new additions Harrison Sawyer, Amadu Koroma and Luke Pavlou.
At Knights Stadium, newly arrived gaffer Stuart Munro and his assistant Lachlan Armstrong will be looking to end a Melbourne Knights finals drought that stretches all the way back to 2015.
Matthew Breeze, John Buceto and Rob Hughes have made the move to Croatia to aid in the new coaching team’s task, and a recruiting coup was achieved in late January after goalscorer Hamish Watson – after initially moving to St Albans – was coaxed back to Sunshine.
Knights begin their 2020 campaign on the road when they travel to JL Murphy Reserve to take on Port Melbourne Sharks.
Under the guidance of third-year Head Coach Adam Piddick, Yuta Konagaya and Michael Eager are both back for another season with Port Melbourne and Sharks Team of the Century member Sam Poutakidis has signed on as an assistant coach.
Ross Archibald, Mohamed Awad, Milos Lujic, Evan Christodoulou, and Mathew Symes are also amongst the new faces that will be looking to help the Sharks improve on their ninth-place finish in 2019.
In perhaps the marquee fixture of round one, hostilities will resume between Dandenong Thunder and Dandenong City in the latest incarnation of the Dandenong Derby at George Andrews Reserve on Saturday night.
After initially appearing set to lose him – going so far as to post an emotional farewell message on social media – the Thunder have been able to entice prolific goal scorer Brandon Barnes back to Melbourne’s southeast as they look to improve on a year in which they finished in the Promotion and Relegation playoff, with the Englishman supplemented by new additions Zelfy Nazary and Chris Hatfield.
After orchestrating a mid-season turnaround to escape relegation, and even stage a tepid late finals push, City – who will be coached by 22-time Socceroo Sasa Ognenovski – have returned key figures Adrian Leijer, Zac Thompson, Stipo Andrijasevic, and Luke Pilkington from a season ago, as well as added Chris Lucas and Nick Kalmar in their pursuit of playoff football.
In Saturday night’s other fixture, Hume City – who lost on penalties to Bentleigh in the Community Shield – will welcome Altona Magic to ABD Stadium.
Under 2019 NPL Victoria Coach of the Year Nick Hegarty, Hume’s off-season re-signing efforts mean that the side from Melbourne’s northwest has perhaps the most continuity of any squad in Victoria’s top flight in 2019, with Josh Bingham and Andy Brennan notable additions.
11th placed finishers in their first year back in the Victorian top-flight in 2019, Altona’s off-season sits in remarkable contrast to their round one opponent.
The Magic said goodbye, amongst others, to Sam Mitchinson, Archibald, Dusan Bosnjak, Rob Stambolziev, James Mcgarry, Daniel Collinson, and Lirim Elmazi during the break and have looked to reload through the signing of Fry, Nicholas Sette, Stefan Ristic, and Dutchman Maarten Hemmen.
Seeking to replicate Altona’s 2019 efforts in avoiding the drop after ascension from the lower tiers will be newly promoted sides Eastern Lions and St Albans Saints.
Set to play the first-ever game in Victoria’s top-flight in their 57-year history when they meet Bentleigh Greens on Sunday, 2019 NPL2 Eastern Conference champions Eastern Lions will once again run out familiar faces Ziggy Razuki Matthew Collier, Keegan Coulter, and William Ellis.
Daniel McLennan, Peter Deng, Amir Osmančević and Denis Yongule are set to join them in red in 2020 - the new signings attempting to plug the gaps left by Tom Biss and Ross Staley.
NPL2 Western Conference Champions St Albans are making their return to the Victorian top-flight after two years in the lower leagues and, though they may have initially missed out on Watson, have reinforced their squad with new signings Anthony Poljak, Anthony Dezic and Nathan Liberto.
They will line up alongside the returning Ben Shaper, Joey Konyit, Michael Grgic, and Joseph Monek at Churchill Reserve.
Dinamo’s opponents in the final match of round one, Green Gully have been boosted ahead of the 2020 season with the addition of former Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory man Stefan Nigro as well as rising star Nick Georgopoulos.
They will reinforce a Gully side returning Jay Davies, Alex Salmon, Teeboy Kamara, and Jordan Hall.
As Round 1 is dedicated to help the Victorian Bushfire Appeal, there will be donation tins at the entrance to every game this week.
Once again, viewers can catch every game of the 2020 NPL Victoria season, every NPLW Victoria and NPL Victoria U20 game and one NPL2 and NPL3 fixture streamed live on the NPL Victoria and NPLW Victoria Facebook and YouTube pages.