How does one follow up one the most successful seasons in Victorian football in recent memory?
How do you top a season in which your team swept away all before it on its way to a Dockerty Cup triumph and eliminated A-League side Perth Glory on a run to the quarter-finals of the FFA Cup?
How to better a year in which your side topped the NPL Victoria table at season’s end, was only narrowly beaten in the NPL Victoria grand final and emerged as champions of the NPL national play-offs?
Sitting in his office at Heidelberg United’s base of Olympic Village – walls adorned with pictures of champion United teams gone by and a number of washing machines jammed into the back corner – Bergers manager George Katsakis reflected on the 2017 season, saying it will take its place among the best seasons his club has had.
“Let’s maybe cast our minds back to the 80s, where we were in the glory days of the Bergers,” Katsakis said.
“You talk about the likes of Gary Cole and Jimmy Campbell, Jimmy Tansey, Charlie Yankos, Kenny Taylor, Jimmy Rooney … there’s some big names out there.
“That was probably, late 70s and early 80s, an era in the club’s history that no one can fault, and was probably among its better days.
“I know the game’s changed and moved quite considerably into another phase, but in all honesty, I think our achievement last year will, I don’t want to say never, but it will be very difficult for one team to repeat again.”
Football is fickle nevertheless, and memories of the success of 2017 are rapidly fading with the 2018 NPL Victoria regular season set to kick off in just over a week.
With a trip to Port Melbourne on tap for week one, Katsakis admitted that even he does not know how his side is going to react to the task of backing up last year’s success.
“Forecasting’s going to be difficult because were going to be the hunted now,” he said.
“I’ve seen a lot of posts and a lot of articles rating us as the favourite, the team to beat. I saw a couple of posts saying that we’d finish on top of the league, but I think it’s going to be very difficult.
“Teams have strengthened; and Heidelberg’s history says that it’s always a targeted team – one of the biggest teams that gets targeted.
“When we put all that into perspective I think it’s going to really tough, probably going to be among the most difficult years.
“Reality is, is that a lot of teams, after a successful year go through a hangover.
“I don’t want to think we’re in that phase but the last couple of friendlies we’ve had may suggest something along those lines – so it’s probably up to me to start changing that mentality a little bit.”
One positive for the Bergers as they seek to avoid this hangover is the continuity surrounding the club, with only three transfers out and three transfers in meaning the club has one of the lowest turnover rates among top flight NPL Victoria sides.
And with five clubs in the division replacing coaches (Dandenong Thunder, Melbourne Knights, Port Melbourne, Northcote City and South Melbourne) and another promoting an interim coach (Hume City) stability both on the pitch and in the dugout will be at a premium come the season.
It’s an area that Katsakis has identified as a strength for his club.
“That’s very positive,” he said.
“I think that was the nucleus of our success last year, that we had a limited turnover in players.
“You have your core and then you’ve got six or seven vying for a couple of positions, and the pressures on them to challenge those people.
“It creates a very competitive atmosphere, so I think from that perspective I’ll always be one that doesn’t like to bring too many new faces in in a big turnover in one year.
“You gradually do that and maintain some stability, I think’s very important.
“Knowing that we’d already qualified for the last 32 (of the FFA Cup) and the Dockerty Cup quarter finals, knowing in my mind that I don’t need to rotate as much is probably a blessing.
“There’s now an element of expectation.
“The ones that are here now know that the competition is what it is in terms of our dressing room, everyone’s familiar with what position they’re challenging for.
“The two or three we’ve brought in have been spoken to in terms of where they fit in at this point in time and the reasons they’re here.
“No one’s an immediate starter or walk in, everyone needs to earn their stripes and I think everyone is well aware of that.”
Of course, despite the relatively smaller turnover than their rivals, one absentee from last year cannot be overlooked.
‘King’ Kenny Athiu, who set the NPL ablaze with 21 goals in 28 games for the Bergers last year, departed the club in October of 2017, signing on a season-long loan deal with A-League side Melbourne Victory.
The 25-year-old’s presence is one that is not easily replicated, and Katsakis admitted that his side will have to evolve its playstyle to compensate for the loss of the talismanic striker.
“It’s been quite evident even in our preseason that our style of play, our philosophy at the moment has changed compared to what it was previously,” Katsakis clarified.
“We’ve changed our game up a little bit, obviously to suit (new signing) Tom Cahill and what we’ve brought in.
“If one thing has been a positive during the preseason, it’s the fact that he’s (Cahill) scored seven goals in six games.”
With the nature of Athui’s departure being of the loan variety however, Katsakis has not discounted the possibility of Athui making a return to Olympic Village at the conclusion of the agreement.
“Kenny might be back in May,” he said.
“He’s still our player and we’re in total control of that, so we’ll see what happens in May.”
Off the pitch, the Bergers also find themselves in one of the healthiest positions they have been in in some time.
Agreements with state and local government are aiding in the construction of much needed modern facilities at the Village.
What is more, an agreement signed in August of 2017 with Soltilo Familia Soccer School is enabling a player and coach-sharing relationship with the Japanese organisation, as well as yet more improvements to the Village.
Katsakis puts the improved off-field health of his club down to having the right mindset.
“We’re very proud of our club so we try and maintain a status not exceeding our capabilities,” he explained.
“We’re not in this dream phase at the moment of A-Leagues bids or B-League bids, until it comes into reality.
“Obviously then we’ll look at it, but we know where we stand at this point in time.
“We’re Victorian NPL, we’re making that work and it’s working tremendously at the moment.
“Off the park, financially, we’ve been very successful, so we can only build on that and from what I can see there’s a lot of positives to come from it.
“That’s being realistic, it’s not living on a dream, it’s not living on hearsay, it’s living on reality.
“Without the support of your faithful, the local community and the football fraternity, it just doesn’t happen on its own. You’ve got to embrace all those people, bring them closer to the club and then you can make it work.”