Saturday night’s thrilling grand final at Bankwest Stadium capped off another remarkable season in the NPLNSW Men’s 1, and our commentator Tony Tannous has run his eye across the season with this in-depth analytical feature.
Surveying the scene at the beginning of March, before a regular season ball had been touched, it appeared clear that this would perhaps be the most competitive NPLNSW season yet, with depth in quality across the league rising, and so it transpired.
The double winning champions and premiers of 2018, Sydney Olympic, had lost a key cog in their forward flow. While the Spaniard sharp shooter Alex Sanchez returned, the second half of the the dynamic attacking duo, the trigger, Max Burgess, fittingly had the opportunity to go on to the next level. How Abbas Saad filled such a big vacancy was always going to be the big question out Belmore way.
As for the runner up in both the regular season and 2018 finals, APIA Leichhardt Tigers, well they were stripped even more bare, losing both their 20 plus goal-scoring number 9 and 10, Jordan Murray and Tasuku Sekiya.
Take out three of the competition’s four gun attackers and it’s inevitable there would be an equalisation across the board, and when you looked at the off-season recruitment out at Bossley Park, who went on a spree that landed the likes of Roberto and Giorgio Speranza, Zach Cairncross, Mitch Mallia, Anthony Frangie, Connor Evans and Nathan Millgate, it was inevitable that many were pointing to the Marconi Stallions as perhaps the pre-season fancy.
Clearly Peter Tsekenis had built a formidable depth of experience that, once the chemistry came, would take some toppling.
I was equally impressed by the squad depth built by neighbours Sydney United, who brought in 2018 sharp shooter Peter Simonski from Wollongong, Liam Rose, Uruguyan Sebastian Gallegos and Josh Macdonald.
The reigning double-winners Olympic also went down the path of building a deep squad, bringing back Mitch Stamatellis, Harry and Michael Gaitatzis, and one felt that they, along with United, Marconi and the ever-present APIA would be the ones deciding where the title went.
But Luke Wilkshire had different plans. He had assembled a fresh squad of highly motivated players with a point to prove, including a sharp shooter visa player from the Canberra NPL named Thomas James. As well he drew on some of the standouts from the local Illawarra Premier League he felt could make the step up; Takeru Okada, Guy Knight and youngster Harry Callahan.
In central defence he partnered experienced NPL defender Nick Littler with a youngster stepping up from the Wolves under 20’s, Nikola Djordjevic, and had a squad of 20 players he believed were ready to contribute and could be call upon on at any time.
Prizing a very fit and hungry Lachlan Scott from Western Sydney Wanderers just before the season’s start was the icing on the cake, and they went about their work in the first half of the season making some massive statements at Lambert Park, Edensor Park and Belmore.
With Scott and Okada linking the play, goal-a-game Englishman James in full flight, untouchable at times, a rock solid defensive structure, and with a variation and potency at set pieces that opponents struggled to deal with, this was a unit that took the competition by storm.
They believed they were the fitest, most intense in the league, and in a 22-week sprint they got the jump and never looked back, delivering a high-octane rapid transition brand.
Those behind them were easing in, adjusting, trying to get the formula right during the season.
APIA, for example, were adjusting from a more high press and mobile formula that Murray and Sekiya allowed them to play to a more conservative template which allowed the incoming gun striker Chris Payne and veteran playmaker Franco Parisi the latitude not to do the high-octane pressing.
John Calleja was the third coach in as many years and had come into the season making no secret of the fact he is a more pragmatic 1-0 type manager that the 5-3 entertainers we had been used to seeing at Lambert Park the previous seasons, where they fell short.
It took the team a while to buy into the Calleja plan, and adjustments and reinforcements were required when David D’Apuzzo’s season came to a premature halt, with Sam Mcilhatton rising to the challenge and Nick Stavroulakis coming in as experienced insurance.
But APIA eventually worked out that by playing ‘smarter’, ensuring they had the defensive base in place first, they had the quality in Parisi, Payne, Sean Symons and Corey Biczo to pick and choose their moments in attack, and unlock opponents.
Didn’t the formula pay the ultimate dividend on the final day of the season at Bankwest, APIA overcoming the pain of the past two seasons in heart-warming style.
It was a similar tale out at Edensor. They knew they had the quality and depth, but they also knew they had a rock of a home surface and so managing the players’ loads, managing a bevy of injuries, became the formula, with Miro Vlastelica rotating his squad under the Craig Duncan load-management template to ensure they were fresh when it mattered.
They stayed calm and knew that if they were thereabouts and in with a sniff come the finals that they could give it a shake, and so it proved.
Sparked by the mid-season return of Tomislav Uskok, and the great late season form of Rose, Tariq Maia and Patrick Antelmi, they kept the ball and gave it a red-hot crack, and the movement of Sydney United fans in support of their team was a sight and sound to behold.
Marconi, too, had to manage key long term injuries to the likes Evans and Frangie, and eventually found a gel that gave them a seven game winning streak and incredible runs in the Waratah and FFA Cups, and showcased some of the bright talents across the league including Liam Youlley, Brandon Vella, Yianni Nicolaou, Marty Fernandez and Damien Tsekenis.
Perhaps the surprise packet among the top 5 were the team where many of Marconi’s recruits had moved from, Blacktown City, for whom Mark Crittinden was as resourceful as ever, bringing in and bringing through a number of exciting youngsters who made positive impressions, including Lachlan Campbell, Dakota Askew and Leroy Jennings.
With a consistent experienced defence led by Grant Lynch, Matt Lewis and Yianni Spyrakis providing the base, Blacktown were able to quietly accumulate their points and build their attack through the season, a job well done given the lack of noise around Lily’s pre-season.
Elsewhere, there was plenty of quality from those that just missed out on the top 5. What a race it was. In the end only 7 points separated seven teams from 4th to 10th. Coming into the final rounds before the finals, all but Hakoah and perhaps Sydney FC harboured genuine finals hopes.
Even then, the young and dynamic boys from Sydney FC, under the fresh stewardship of Jim van Weeren, were playing some swashbuckling football, inspired by the likes of ball-players Ryan Teague and Marco Tilio, two kids with bright futures, as evidenced by their ascension this week into the Sydney A-League squad.
Hakoah had been decimated in the preseason with five key departures in Frangie, Anthony Bouzanis, Andre de Jong, Michael Kouta and Stamatellis and couldn’t quite live with the increased quality and depth across the league.
Another team that made massive gains was the newly promoted Mount Druitt Town Rangers. While the quality of the squad was tested early at the next level, Aidan Desmond adjusted, working out who was handling the stage, and eventually got the defensive and attacking formulas in place, so much so they came into the last round with hope still of a finals birth.
While Fabricio Fernandez shined throughout, others like Carlos Saliadarre, Lord Darkoh, Solomon Monahan-Vaiika and Toufic Alamaddine stepped up consistently, while John Roberts added pace and Mirjan Pavlovic experience to the attack in the second half of the season.
It was similar at the Sutherland Sharks, who had come into the season with a best of NPL 2 formula, and while the football under Terry Palapanis was very good in the early going, they didn’t quite get the goals their play perhaps warranted.
But Palapanis was able to adjust mid-season, bringing in Charles Lokilingoy, Liam McGing and Jerry Skotadis. Lokolingoy in particular added a verticality that gave space to the likes of Raul Beneit and others to play, and they went on the 10 game run where they looked as good as anyone.
Manly, too, threatened to be a finals fixture for long periods until a late fade-out, and in the end, despite again being solid defensively, and offering some brightness in attack through Brendan Cholakian and Adam Parkhouse, it was perhaps the lack of goals from the number 9 position that ultimately cost them. Irrespective, they made a great fist of their FFA Cup run, getting a first interstate trip, and introduced some bright prospects.
Perhaps Rockdale were the big underachievers, threatening at one point to mount a title run when they became the first team to knock off the Wolves after changing managers, but it proved fleeting. A second change of manager and a late return from injury from Panni Nikas threatened to re-ignite a finals push, but it fell short.
While Olympic missing out of the finals after the success of last season was an underachievement, there were games and periods where the Olympic of ‘old’ (ie. last season) threated to show itself, but ultimately they couldn’t get enough consistently from the creative line behind Sanchez as teams dropped off, not allowing their counter to spark, and with no Max Burgess, they weren’t able to find someone to consistently unlock the door.
Ultimately it was another fantastic and fascinating season which had great interest throughout, rewarding the team in Wollongong who did their business and preparation in the pre-season, and perhaps got the jump on everyone in the early going.
But it also rewarded those old-fashioned football principles of being able to adjust and tinker on the run, finding the solutions to fit, and many including APIA had great success on that front, especially in the second half of the campaign, which ultimately made it such a competitive and high quality season, played out till the end.
Bring on 2020.
Follow Tony on Twitter – @TonyTannousTRBA