Storylines aplenty as NPL Victoria returns for 2018

Storylines aplenty as NPL Victoria returns for 2018

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It is a competition that has sent a side to the semi-finals of the FFA Cup in three of its four years and is the home to some of Australia’s most celebrated clubs.

And on Thursday night, the Victorian NPL season will kick off for 2018 looking to add another chapter to Victorian football’s storied history.

The 2018 chapter will open in Cheltenham, where defending champions Bentleigh Greens will host newly promoted Dandenong Thunder at Kingston Heath.

Previously NPL champions in 2015, premiers in 2016 and Dockerty Cup champions in 2016, the Greens have had a tumultuous offseason, with an overhaul of the squad that defeated Heidelberg United 2-1 in last year’s grand final leaving only four players from that starting XI among the starters in the 4-1 defeat to the Bergers in last week’s Community Shield.

Gone are players such as Ben Liftin, Lambros Honos and Ross Archibald, with the Greens instead relying on new signings such as former Wellington Phoenix and Melbourne Knights man Jason Hicks, ex-Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners youth player Marcus Duncan and former Birmingham City youth prospect Blake Thompson.

Led by perhaps the best NPL coach, John Anastasiadis, who has overseen the club since 2011, the Greens will have their hands full on Thursday with a Thunder side led by talismanic striker Brandon Barnes, who will finally be playing in the NPL’s top flight after scoring for fun at an NPL2 level.

Anastasiadis has masterminded plenty of success with Greens

Barnes, the 2017 NPL2 Best and Fairest, Players’ Player of the Year and Golden Boot winner, turned down offers from NPL clubs to stay with the Thunder in 2017, and will be looking to maintain the lethality in front of goal that enabled him to score 76 goals over the past two years at NPL2 level.

Barnes, as well as veteran Roddy Vargas and former Melbourne City youth prospect Mersim Memeti, will have to be firing on all cylinders if the Thunder, who head into 2018 under new head coach Andy Vargas, are to avoid the one-and-done sensation that befell two of last year’s promoted sides, St Albans and North Geelong Warriors.

The NPL’s other newly promoted side, 2013 VPL champions Northcote City, bears little resemblance to the one that won promotion from the NPL2 in 2017. Gone is head coach Zeljko Kuzman, departed to manage Dandenong City, and former Port Melbourne and Melbourne Knights boss Eric Vassiliadis.

With only four players remaining from the Hercules side that finished five points clear atop the NPL2 Western Conference, Vassiliadis has brought in a host of new talent to play under the newly installed lights at John Cain Memorial Reserve, such as Honos, Thomas Barforosh, Fraser Chalmers and a bevy of Melbourne City Youth talent such as Gerrie Sylaidos, Lucas Derrick, Nenad Nikolic and Anthony Theodoropoulos.

It is not just newly promoted sides bringing in new coaches, however, with several other sides under new management for the 2018 season.

Hume City, FFA Cup semi-finalists in 2015, have removed the interim label from player-coach Nick Hegarty, with the 31-year-old adding the likes of Canadian full-back Zachary Sukunda, Colombian goalscorer Jheison Macuace, Andrew Pawiak from Philippine side Ilocos United and former WA NPL player Jackson Morgan to his squad for 2018.

Port Melbourne have brought in highly-rated NPL Queensland manager Adam Piddick from Moreton Bay United, with their biggest on-field addition coming in the form of another Queenslander; Sam Smith from Gold Coast City.

NPL Victoria’s two biggest clubs, Melbourne Knights and South Melbourne, will also be under new gaffers in 2018. Knights welcome former Croatian international Aljosa Asanovic, who joined as their new boss in October of 2017.

Capped 65 times for Croatia in his playing days, the 51-year-old is a former assistant coach of the Croatian national side and Russian powerhouse Lokomotiv Moscow.

His appointment has a sense of nostalgia to it, harkening back to the days when the Knights would bring in Croatian coaches such Mirko Bazic and Domagoj Kapetanovic to dominate the NSL.

Indeed Asanovic’s arrival, alongside the addition of players such as Louis Fenton, Nate Foster and the returning Tomislav Uskok, is a clear signal from the new administration at Somers Street of their intention to return the Knights to what they would consider as their rightful place atop Victorian football.

South Melbourne’s coaching transition did not come as smoothly as it did for their rival Knights, with former head coach Chris Taylor sensationally stood down from the club on Australia Day, with only whispers and innuendo as to why.

Despite rumours of a high-profile appointment ­– such as former player Michael Valkanis or potential A-League manager Roberto Carlos ‑ South have instead turned to former U20s boss and assistant to Taylor, Sasa Kolman.

Club officials have indicated the 33-year-old’s ascension to the senior job, as well as continuing the club’s focus on winning titles, will come with a renewed focus on building​ ​a closer working relationship between the club’s youth and senior teams. South are looking to better integrate players from an U20 side which topped the 2017 table by six points.

South boast new acquisitions in the shapes of Brazilian attacker Oliver Minatel, Greek defender Christos Intzidis and the returning Andy Brennan. Combined with figures from the side that reached the 2017 FFA Cup semi-finals such as Milos Lujic, Matthew Millar and Nick Epifano, South have the talent on paper to launch an attack on both the NPL and FFA Cup in 2018.

Chris Taylor was suddenly removed from the South Melbourne post in January

And with South still holding ambitions to be included in an expanded A-League, the pressure will be on Kolman to succeed right from the off, lest he too face a similar fate to Taylor.

Another ambitious club shooting for big things this season is last year’s third-placed finisher, and the nouveau-riche of the NPL, Avondale.

Despite losing last year’s NPL Best and Fairest Massimo Murdocca to Nunawading in NPL2, the Avengers have once again splashed the cash this past season to improve their squad, bringing in numerous high-profile signings such as Joey Katebian, Stefan Zinni, Archibald, Elvis Kamsoba and Liam Boland.

They join a team already featuring the likes of Kaine Sheppard, back with Avondale after spending the offseason with Finish side SJK Seinajoki, Evan Christodoulou, former Melbourne City man Jonatan Germano and Chris Oldfield.

Recently announcing that they had finally found a permanent home at the Reggio Calabria Club (although a pitch is yet to be laid at the Parkville location), the pressure will be on head coach Anthony Barbieri to improve on a 2017 season that came to a disappointing conclusion. The club went down in the elimination final to Oakleigh Cannons.

As well as Avondale, the Cannons and Green Gully are two other clubs that will be fancying their chances of improving on their 2017 campaigns.

The Cannons, who snuck into the finals in sixth position last season before being eliminated by Heidelberg in the semi-final, have a settled squad for 2018, with the biggest change coming up front.

Nate Foster is gone, and the Cannons have looked to replace the now Melbourne Knight with a combination of former Melbourne City and Green Gully striker Wade Dekker and ex-Altona Magic attacker Ryan Paczkowski.

The form is there for both new signings to make an impact. Dekker has scored 13 times in his time at Green Gully Reserve and Paczkowski 15 in only 19 games as his Magic secured promotion to NPL2 from the state leagues.

They will be relied upon to ease some of the goalscoring load on Dusan Bosnjak, who scored 17 goals for the Cannons in 2017.

Dekker’s former club, Green Gully, will also be looking to improve on a 2017 season which saw them finish in fifth position before being thumped 4-0 in an elimination final loss to Bentleigh.

Among the additions to coach Arthur Papas’ squad are versatile midfielder Joseph Franjic, signed from the Magic, and ex-Perth Glory and Melbourne Heart defender Sam Mitchinson.

Replacing Dekker will be ex-Gold Coast United captain and Newcastle Jet Mitch Cooper, who signed from Nunawading in the offseason.

Scoring 18 goals at Mahoney’s Reserve last year, the former Australian U17 and U20 representative will be hoping that he can bring some of that goalscoring touch to the NPL, with an eventual A-League return not an unrealistic prospect for the 23-year-old.

These clubs, of course, will be wanting to replicate the success of Heidelberg, who last season capped their return from a period of relative obscurity to become the toast of Australian football, winning the Premiership, Dockerty Cup and making a run to the last 16 of the FFA Cup.

Having thumped Bentleigh 4-1 in last week’s Community Shield, the Bergers will enter the season with one of the most settled squads in the NPL, having only lost three players in the offseason.

With Sean Ellis, Adrian Zahra and Andreas Govas, who has returned to the Village after a spell at Port Melbourne, manning the midfield for the Bergers, their chances of backing up the successes of last year will likely depend on the ability of former Melbourne Knights striker Tom Cahill to replace superstar striker Kenny Athiu, currently on loan to Melbourne Victory.

And with Cahill banging in nine goals this preseason, including a double in the Community Shield, early indications are positive for Heidelberg’s chances of backing up their 2017 highs.

Other players to keep an eye on in 2018 include new Bulleen Lion Braedyn Crowley, who is back in the NPL for the first time since scoring 13 goals in 19 games for Northcote in 2016; Austin Wong, a midfielder with a knack for popping up exactly when his side needs it; Damian Iaconis, who scored 12 for Kingston City as they defied the odds to be the only promoted team from last year to survive their first NPL season; and last year’s Bill Fleming Media Award winner and Pascoe Vale striker, Davey van‘t Schip.

Twenty-seven-year-old van‘t Schip, who will be looking to back up a 2017 in which he scored 17 goals for Paco, is the son of former Melbourne Heart/City boss and current PEC Zwolle manager John van’t Schip, and will this season be juggling his NPL responsibilities alongside his first managerial gig, having recently been named head coach of Melbourne City’s U18 side.

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