It’s finally back.
The long wait of Victoria’s footballing faithful for the game they love to return is almost at an end and, judging from the rising tide of excitement, absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder.
After months of drills, arduous bouts of conditioning, team-bonding sessions, weekends away at camp, a slow procession of training matches and all those other little things that go into preparing a team for a long campaign ahead, the Sharks of Port Melbourne will welcome Melbourne Knights to JL Murphy Reserve on Friday, February 26 to open the much-anticipated 2021 NPL Victoria season.
Hours later, Dandenong Thunder and Dandenong City will stage the latest skirmish in the famous Dandenong Derby at George Andrews Reserve, with a feast of Saturday and Sunday football to follow. It will all be capped off by the Heidelberg United’s return to an upgraded Olympic Village to take on historic rivals South Melbourne in the weekend’s final contest.
Finally - mercifully and gloriously - NPL Victoria will be back.
348 days since the competition last saw a ball kicked in anger, the months ahead will be reserved as a stage for heroes to rise, donkeys to fall and for a new chapter in the lives of clubs with hundreds of combined years of pride, grudges, success, and failures to be written.
As these clubs stir to life - epicentres of diverse and multicultural communities that they were established to serve and those they have grown to embrace - much-loved volunteers that have long since become part of the furniture will return to their under-appreciated but integral duties as the glue that holds the entire game together.
Fans whose weeks are centred around the 90-minutes of passion, pride, anger, and joy they experience when they occupy the terrace - or sit playing cards in the clubrooms with old friends while matches rage on in the cold outside - will dust off their beanies, jackets, and gloves and begin to plan their next seven months around when and where their club is playing.
Youngsters daring to dream will head to training and games hoping that maybe today is the day that their performance does enough to reach the ears of the senior coach or, better yet, they’ll actually be in the stands watching on and have their interest piqued.
And as the Australian footballing landscape continues to shift and alter, senior players will pull on the shirt knowing that not only is a result on the line but that the coming contest just might also be the one that opens up the eyes of an A-League or international club - a chance to kick the door open and live their dreams as a professional footballer at the next level.
An overly romantic summation? Probably. Nothing is without its faults, and football, like all earthly distractions, is but just another mirror to the people that play it.
But that’s what challenging time apart can do to a person’s mindset: hope springs eternal.
Of course, with such a long time between drinks, it pays to briefly take stock and figure out what’s changed and what stayed the same in the time since football last graced NPL grounds across the state. Forewarned is forearmed.
With promotion and relegation abandoned due to the previous season’s cancellation after just five rounds of games, the 14 teams that began the 2020 campaign in the Victorian top-flight will return for 2021 - Eastern Lions no doubt hoping their second attempt at a maiden season in the highest tier of Victorian football goes a little more smoothly than their first.
As per Football Victoria’s Start-Up plans, men’s NPL2 and NPL3 competitions will remain as 12-team competitions in 2021 as well, and clubs will also field an U21 side - with allowances for up to three U23 players - under their men’s competitions banner as well as an U19 side.
After their suspension, the principles of promotion and relegation will return to the three men’s NPL competitions; set to be governed by the same two down and two up model that had been set to be introduced for the 2020 season.
A finals series consisting of the highest six finishers in NPL1 will also return, with details of finals for U21s and U19s competitions still yet to be finalised. Those playoffs will conclude with a double-header of men’s and women’s NPL grand finals set to be staged at a venue to be determined in September.
Though nothing quite compares to actually attending a game in person - a fact reinforced by the sight of empty stands across the world over the past 12 months - all NPL1 and NPLW games and select NPL2 and NPL3 contests will be streamed across Football Victoria’s Facebook and YouTube pages in 2021 - giving fans across Australia and the world an opportunity to see just what makes Victorian football great.
Football Victoria’s coverage this season will feature leading Australian callers such as the Fox Sports’ Michael Zappone, ABC Grandstand’s Chris Gleeson, local treasure Greg Blake and ESPN’s Joey Lynch, as well as a host of some of Australia’s best and brightest young journalistic talent.
Be sure to keep an eye on Football Victoria’s website and social media channels for more information on NPLW Victoria and the changes in the women’s space ahead of the NPLW kickoff in April.
Can any sense of form and momentum be carried over from a five-game stint that occurred almost a year ago? FC Hume City will certainly be hoping so.
Prior to the 2019 season’s COVID-enforced cancellation, Hume had quickly moved to separate themselves from the rest of the Victorian top-flight: top of the league, undefeated in their opening five rounds and holding onto a goal difference of plus eight.
Under the guidance of club legend Nick Hegarty, who was named the 2019 NPL Victoria Coach of the Year, the side from ABD Stadium had already downed the likes of Green Gully, Melbourne Knights and Bentleigh Greens during their perfect start, while the since departed Steven Hewitt had gone viral for a magnificent, long-range free-kick against the Knights.
For all intents and purposes, it appeared as though the club was positioning itself to stage a much-anticipated assault on its first-ever Victorian title, only for the spectre of COVID to descend, force the season’s cancellation and leave Hegarty and his side to pick up the pieces, re-focus and turn their sights to 2021.
Captain Harry Monaghan, Paul Wilson, Gideon Sweet, Will Hendon and James Kapuranovski have all officially departed the club since that point, however extra fire-power has been added in the form of former Avondale FC and Newcastle Jets attacker Kaine Sheppard, as well as another former Jet in Patrick Langlois.
Contributors such as Michael Weier, Matthew Lazarides, Danny Dixon, Josh Bingham, Mark Ochieng, Mitch Cooper, James Brown, Marko Delic, and Andy Brennan are all amongst those set to return to Broadmeadows - the talent assembled at Hume hoping that 2020’s cancellation proves more of an intermission than a circuit breaker.
Of course, any Australian footballing competition outside of the A-League cannot help but carry around with it a certain passenger - a figure present in the background that’s future looms large over all in the room. A National Second Division.
While a second-tier, at this stage, remains confined to the realm of hypotheticals rather than tangibility, that there is palpable momentum behind the push to introduce such a competition is undeniable: Football Australia CEO James Johnson recently declaring that “it's not a question of if there will be a second-tier competition here in Australia, but a question of when and how”.
Progression, innovation and growth at the heart of what it means to be a club, the prospect of an elevated and national competition to strive towards is a welcome one for many a club in Victoria - who as one of the biggest, historic and well-participated in federations will carry ambitions to provide a healthy portion of potential participants.
And the 2021 NPL Victoria season will serve as a perfect opportunity to begin to demonstrate their bonafides.
Top-flight clubs South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights, Green Gully, Heidelberg United all graced the National Soccer League in their day, as did lower-league sides Caroline Springs George Cross, Falcons 2000, Preston Lions, Mooroolbark SC, Melbourne City (no, not that one, the artist formerly known as Footscray JUST), and those carrying the flag of Juventus.
These clubs, as well as the numerous others with the aspirations to do so, have the chance to use the 2021 season as an opportunity to develop and build upon foundations for greater things as they go about chasing on-field glory. Iron sharpening iron, these improvements will force other foes to respond or be left behind - improving quality throughout the Victorian system as a whole.
The Stars are Out
After effectively being forced to sit out a year’s football, it's understandable that some clubs have been looking to make a statement when it comes to their return to the field in 2021 and this means that several high-profile recruits have been brought in to bring an extra bit of firepower, or steel, to the leagues.
The biggest addition had loomed as former Heidelberg United and Melbourne Victory striker Kenny Athiu, who the rumour mill first linked with Altona Magic and then Bentleigh Greens. On the eve of the season, however, word began to trickle out that 2021 would not mark the ‘The Return of the King’ to NPL Victoria; the attacker instead boarding a flight just over a week out from the season’s commencement to join a club in Cambodia.
Of those that do remain, Athiu’s former club Heidelberg United has been busy this window: adding former Cerezo Osaka and Wollongong Wolves midfielder Takeru Okada to their ranks, as well as Queensland-born former West Brom prospect Eoin Ashton.
Making the move from the Village to Makland Park, now-former Berger cult-hero Harry Noon has signed with Altona Magic for the coming season, as has former Victory, Wellington Phoenix, Adelaide United and Perth Glory representative Vince Lia.
In other moves, the Thunder have signed Irish striker and one-time Bournemouth prospect Josh O'Hanlon while former Brisbane Roar prospects Aaron Reardon and Emlyn Wellsmore have landed in the nets of Port Melbourne coach Adam Piddick.
Ex-Western United and Gold Coast Knight defender Oskar Dillion now calls Oakleigh home, Green Gully has lured the sharp football brain of Luc Jeggo back from Europe and former Bentleigh FFA Cup hero Marco Jankovic is set to run out for South.
Out in Sunshine, two major international signings have arrived at Melbourne Knights in the form of Alun Webb, joining by way of NPL SA side Adelaide Raiders, and former Werder Bremen youth prospect Trevor Zwetsloot, who represented New Zealand at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
He’ll be plying his trade in NPL2 instead of the NPL, but 2021 will also see the return of 23-time Socceroo Dario Vidosic to playing fields across Melbourne; the 33-year-old having signed for Moreland Zebras in early February.
Part Two of Joey Lynch's NPL preview will be available Wednesday 24 February.