Results across the penultimate round of the 2019 NPL Victoria season have confirmed Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City’s academy sides will be playing in the third tier of Victorian football in 2020.
Though their exists significant debate at grassroots level surrounding the presence of academy sides within the existing NPL structure, Victory and City have – since Victory’s relegation from the top division of NPL Victoria – competed in separate conferences in the NPL2 since 2017; City finishing third and sixth in the East in 2017 and 2018 and Victory finishing in ninth and seventh in the West.
With just the bottom-placed finisher in each conference suffering relegation to the State Leagues, it ensured that both Victory and City’s senior academy sides had consistently been exposed to some of the highest quality football in Australia’s National Premier Leagues.
However, with reforms in Victoria seeing the abandonment of conferences and the implementation of a new, three-tiered structure, a top-six finish was required to ensure the two sides retained their place in the second tier.
For Victory, such a finish became a mathematical impossibility following the conclusion of round 25 of the season, when sixth-placed side Brunswick City opened up a fourteen-point gap on them with just three rounds remaining.
Lasting two more weeks, City’s hopes of staging a late-season push for the top-six were dashed this weekend when a 1-0 defeat against top of the table Eastern Lions left them four points adrift of sixth-placed Goulburn Valley Suns with just a single round remaining.
The relegation to the third tier has come in a year of significant transition for the academies of both City and Victory.
At City, senior Head Coach and former Youth Director Joe Palatsides departed the Bundoora-based club to take up a position as the Technical Director of the Singaporean FA early in the NPL season and a number of high rated prospects such as Dylan Pierias, Josh Cavallo, Lucas Portelli and James Delianov all departed the club in search of senior minutes they felt were not coming under Warren Joyce.
It left Head Coach Petr Kratky, who stepped into the role in the departure of Palatsides, to field increasingly younger and younger line-ups towards the end of the season; with an average starting age of 16 thrown out in a number of crucial, late-season senior games.
At Victory, which saw the arrival of former Brisbane Roar youth doyen Drew Sherman as Academy Boss in March, the side was never able to recover from a horror run of form that began in Round 17.
During that ongoing run, in which they are winless, the side at one stage failed to find the back of the net in six straight games.
Whilst the relegation of their senior teams will no doubt be seen as a setback for the academy staff of both Victory and City, perhaps a more pressing concern they will hold will be the simultaneous relegation of their U20 sides – whose place in the Victorian pyramid is tied to their senior compatriots.
In keeping with the expectation that one would hold for U20 sides made up of the pick of the litter from around Victoria and sometimes beyond, both City and Victory are set to top their respective conferences at U20 level in 2019.
It will be the second time in three years that both Victory and City has topped their NPL2 conferences at a U20 level.
When observed purely though a developmental standpoint, the heads of the two academies will now hold concerns about the quality of the opposition their U20s sides will face in 2020 as they look to prepare them to, one day, play A-League football.
At present, the NPL season represents the lion’s share of competitive football that young players in Australia receive, supplemented by an eight-game (nine if a side makes the Grand Final) Y-League season.