Sydney United 58 will face a familiar foe in Blacktown City FC in the big finale this Sunday at Leichhardt Oval for the right to be crowned PlayStation4 National Premier Leagues NSW Men’s Champions but one man that won’t be involved in the match will be club Vice-Captain Nick Stavroulakis.
‘The Little Warrior’ dubbed by his teammates, picked up a yellow card in the dying stages of the first half against the Bonnyrigg White Eagles in their epic 3-2 victory last Sunday, ruling him out of the biggest game of the season.
It was his second card in successive weeks after receiving one in the Major Semi against Blacktown City FC.
It’s not foreign ground for the combative midfielder, having suffered the same fate with the Sutherland Sharks in 2010 where he experienced the pain of missing a Grand Final.
It didn’t deter Stavroulakis from putting in a Roy Keane-esque performance, helping lead his team into the 2016 Grand Final, much like Keane helped Manchester United on a number of occasions during his time as a footballer.
Nevertheless, it hurt the United 58 midfielder.
“It was the first challenge I made in the game and there was no malice intended – I thought the yellow was harsh.
“It played on my mind for a couple seconds, I reacted…yelled and then got on with the job I was there to do for the team.
“I’ve been in these situations before; I hate missing any football game so it’s really upsetting, but it’s happened and we move forward not backward.”
Mark Rudan’s men had a stern opposition in front of them in the Bonnyrigg White Eagles and one of the most experienced coaches in the league in the opposing dug out, Brian ‘Bomber’ Brown – a face only too familiar for Stavroulakis.
“Playing against Bonnyrigg, I’ve always felt that fierce competition, especially against my old coach ‘Bomber’ who I experienced a number of good years playing under his guidance.
“They’re a tough team to play, no matter where or when because Bomber’s teams never give up and they have a knack of winning games late.
“The feel of a Sydney United 58 v Bonnyrigg White Eagles match has a little more of an edge than any other matches I have played – it was a real buzz being part of such a spectacle.
“But in the end we got the win and I was happy for the team.
“I was upset that I was set to miss the Grand Final but the boys are there so it was a massive positive to take from the emotion of missing out.”
Turn back the clock a year and 2015 was a season to forget for Stavroulakis who suffered a horrific head injury that required emergency surgery during a Westfield FFA Cup Preliminary round match against the APIA Leichhardt Tigers.
He showed fantastic character to come back when it looked as though he would not play football again.
“The first thing I said after I woke up from surgery was I wanted to go and play straight away.
“People thought I was nuts.
“Once I got the all clear I got straight into it.
“Football has given me everything in my life, my mates, work, contacts – everything – I love the sport and I’ve been blessed to be able to play it.
“I was lucky I had such a strong support group around me during that tough period, my fiancé, my brother, parents, close friends, Mark Milligan, all these people did a lot for me.
“I also had the backing of the entire football community which was something I will never forget. This sport has something no other sport has, when one of their players are down and out, we always help our own in times of need.
“Then my physios at Jubilee Sports, Kieran Rooney and Michael Gabriel and of course my conditioning coach Christian Miranda all played a crucial role in getting me playing the game I love once more.”
Despite not being available for Sundays game at Leichhardt Oval, Stavroulakis stressed his team would fight tooth and nail to lift that Championship trophy – which could well be their third piece of silverware this year after picking up the Premiership and Waratah Cup thus far.
“We couldn’t have mapped it out like this and it has been a massive year for myself and the team.
“I think on Sunday we will lift the trophy.
“I have confidence that if we are switched on we will win.
“There is no room for errors. I think we unlocked a key in the semi on their method and we know how to do the job on them.
“When we play football and to our strengths, we score goals and dominate, as long as there are no silly mistakes or bad calls we will win.
“I think we deserve it and have been the most consistent side throughout the whole season – a lapse in concentration or a bad call can undo everything in a final which I know the boys will be very weary of.
“Blacktown City will no doubt provide a massive test for us, they have some quality players so it will be a spectacle not to be missed by anyone.”
It has been a long and arduous season for Stavroulakis, playing over 30 games after having almost a whole season off in 2015, but the body has adapted once again to playing the sport he adores.
“I’ve missed three games all year.
“We try to take semi-professional football to a professional level by training right and taking care of our bodies.
“I have an old school mentality and put in 100% all the time and give everything I have in the tank and I’ll be like that till I finish my career.”
The season isn’t over yet for the combative midfielder, despite missing Sunday’s Grand Final, the 31-year-old will play a pivotal role in Sydney United 58’s PlayStation4 National Premier League Finals Series match up against South Australian Premiers Adelaide City on Sunday 18th September at the Sydney United Sports Centre (2pm kick-off).
These Finals Series matches alone mean a lot to the former Australian youth international for a number of personal reasons and goals.
“I’m really excited about the PS4 NPL Finals Series, it’s really like the Champions League for State League football across Australia.
“We are facing a very tough and well drilled Adelaide City side and the last time they mentioned a match that involved Sydney United and Adelaide City was way back in the National Soccer League days.
“Then when you look at the bench, it’s two guys that used to play against each other on the pitch now taking on each other from the dugout in Mark Rudan and Damian Mori.”
On a personal level, winning the PS4 NPL Finals Series would be the icing on the cake for the tough tackling midfielder.
“I’ve won everything there is to win in the league in NSW bar the PS4 NPL Finals Series. There’s been four Waratah Cups, two Premierships and One Championship.
“This will be my first PS4 NPL Finals Series match and it’s certainly something I have very high on my list of goals and objectives and I will do what I can with the team to achieve this.”
Season 2016 is something that Stavroulakis will remember for the rest of his life, giving him so much and allowing him to take a different approach to the game he loves.
“I looked at it week by week and never further than that.
“It’s helped me so much and I’ll take it till I finish up, it’s important that I’ve concentrated on me first and then my job.
“It was a real eye opener of how lucky I am to be able to play this wonderful game still and to do it with some of the best friends I have made for life.
“This game is my life and just that buzz you have when you play it with your mates as well as that rush you get when you are in the dressing sheds with your teammates along with the banter that flows is something I will miss terribly when I finally hang the boots up.”
Stavroulakis has not closed his chapter on football just yet.
Only a year ago when many thought that was it for him, his will-power, spirit and determination spurred him on to conquer and achieve something more powerful than any Championships and Premierships won and that was living life to its fullest.
-By Nikola Pozder
Purchase tickets to the Grand Final of the PlayStation 4 NPL NSW Men’s