After a stint overseas, midfield lynch-pin Bai Antoniou is back in the National Premier League NSW Men’s competition and ready to inspire Sutherland Sharks FC towards finals football.
Sutherland’s new number 7 returned to NPL NSW Men’s action last weekend, and his Man of the Match performance in the Sharks’ 2-1 triumph over Blacktown City FC earned him a spot in the Round 15 Ultra Football Team of the Week.
No stranger to the National Premier Leagues, the 22-year-old scored 20 goals as a member of the Sydney FC NPL 2 NSW Men’s side who secured promotion to NSW’s first tier of the competition in 2016.
After securing an A-League contract in the same year, Antoniou last year briefly joined Rockdale City Suns before jetting off to Cyprus to sign for Alki Oroklini.
However after Alki suffered relegation, he was offered a return to Sutherland, the club where he commenced his career as a junior.
Despite not concluding as he may have hoped, the 22-year-old believes the time spent in Europe contributed heavily to his development as a player.
“It was definitely was not just a footballing lesson, it was a life lesson,” he reflected.
“I believe I learnt and developed my game a lot in Cyprus.
“I had the opportunity to play against and train with players from all around the world.
“It was a very different environment and I was out of my comfort zone, but I feel like I learnt a lot.”
A few exchanges with Sutherland coach Terry Palapanis were enough for Antoniou to declare his next step would be returning home to the Shire.
“My team were relegated over there, and I did have another year on my contract,” the attacker explained.
“But when I came back, Terry Palapanis got in contact with me and spoke about what Sutherland are doing down there and the support team he has.
“We met a few times and their goals to develop players, especially at my age, was enough to convince me to join.
“I am very excited about where Sutherland Sharks are heading, and really believe in what they’re doing here.
“I just moved from a professional club overseas, and I can tell you now there is not much difference in what we do.
“My goals at the moment are to definitely play good football, work with Terry and his support staff at Sutherland and just see where it takes me.”
While the Sharks’ season got off to a horror start, including four losses on the trot, Palapanis’ side have quietly been building momentum in recent weeks.
Their form has been aided by the mid-season recruitment of three exciting ex-Sydney FC youngsters in the form of Charles Lokolingoy, Liam McGing and Jerry Skotadis, all of whom have hit the ground running at Seymour Shaw.
Antoniou has relished the opportunity to reunite with some former teammates.
“I found it very easy to settle in,” he said.
“It was good to come down here with Charles (Lokolingoy) and (Liam) McGing who I have previously played with and to be greeted by a lot of familiar faces.”
The Shire club now find themselves on a run of 8 rounds without defeat, which has launched them to within five points of the competition’s all-important top five.
Despite still having some ground to make up, Antoniou believes that a finals spot is well and truly up for grabs.
“I think the way we are playing and the momentum we have I think it (finals football) is more than realistic and we should be pushing for it.
“I might go as far as to say that it would be a disappointment if we don’t reach that point in the end.”
Antoniou and Sutherland will look to continue their ascent up the ladder when they lock horns with Sydney United 58 at Edensor Park on Sunday night.
By National Premier Leagues NSW Men’s Reporter Chris Curulli (Twitter handle @ChrisCurulli)