Australia's NPL competitions more than pathway to A-League

National Premier League matches involving clubs such as Heidelberg United play an important role with clubs and match days serving as a hub for founding communities and those they have grown to embrace along the way. Con Chronis/Getty Image

The Australian football ecosystem is set to fully awaken, Dandenong is headed for battle, Steven Ugarkovic continues to be good at football, City find their speed, referees are under fire again, and Victory found some tall timber. Confused? Don't be! It's the wrap.

Back in the Suburbs

At 7:00 p.m. today, Manly United and Mt Druitt Town Rangers will clash at Cromer Park in the first game of the 2021 National Premier Leagues (NPL) NSW season. Forty-five minutes later, Australian footballing institution Melbourne Knights will commence the NPL Victoria campaign against Port Melbourne Sharks at JL Murphy Reserve -- the first NPL game played in that state since COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 campaign 348 days ago.

NPL competitions across the country will continue to return in a staggered fashion in the weeks and months that follow, offering a teaser of Football Australia chief executive James Johnson's vision of an aligned footballing calendar in which the A-League and W-League, NPL and community seasons are concurrent.

Yet as with seemingly everything in Australian football nowadays, there is more at stake this NPL season than just trophies.

With the competitions presently serving as Australia's second tier, their campaigns represent a possibly defining moment for participatory clubs as the push for a formal National Second Division continues to grow. Clubs that envision themselves competing for a place in an NSD will strive to improve and exhibit their facilities, sponsorship, amenities, atmosphere, fan bases and professionalism in the months ahead -- raising standards for themselves and those that hope to compete with them. Competition breeding adaptation and change; what a concept.

On a more personal level, players and coaches will be looking to put their best foot forward.

A-League sensation Alou Kuol first earned his place in the Mariners set-up through standout performances at an NPL2 Victoria level with Goulburn Valley Suns. Brisbane Roar talisman Dylan Wenzel-Halls interspersed his time with the Roar's academy and first team with a record goal-scoring run with Western Pride in NPL Queensland, while Perth Glory's Daniel Stynes took a similar path with NPL Victoria side Bentleigh Greens and NPL West Australia club Gwelup Croatia.

Roar boss Warren Moon is a former coach of NPL Queensland side Lions FC, and Western United coach Mark Rudan cut his teeth in management by guiding Rockdale Ilinden and Sydney United in NPL NSW. Western assistant John Anastasiadis is a Bentleigh legend.

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Yet, to view the NPL through the prism of its relationship with the professional game is to miss a significant part of what makes watching and attending it such a unique and rewarding experience.

With many of its clubs tracing their roots to the waves of European migration to Australia that followed World War II, games also play an important role with clubs and match days serving as a hub for founding communities and those they have grown to embrace along the way.

Many of the fans on the terraces and volunteers behind the canteen or marking out pitch markings have been there for decades, and it's not a rare sight on match days to find a collection of old friends not watching the game but, instead, sitting in the clubrooms playing cards.

And yes, cliche as it is to mention it at this point, the food is (mostly) great -- much like the atmosphere, sense of history, feeling of community and sense of pride that comes with community sport.

(Dandy) City Boys

One of the more familiar names in the NPL is former Socceroos defender and 2010 AFC Asian Footballer of the Year Sasa Ognenovski, who will prowl the touchline of Frank Holohan Soccer Complex this year as coach of NPL Victoria side Dandenong City.

With 2020 a COVID-write off, the former Preston Lions star is entering his first full season in charge of 'Hajduk', having taken over midway through the 2019 season after the departure of Ante Moric to Western United.

His season will begin on Friday night, when his side makes the short trip to George Andrews Reserve to face Dandenong Thunder in the Dandenong Derby -- one of Victoria's marquee fixtures outside the A-League.

"I'm excited," Ognenovski told ESPN. "We've assembled a younger, talented squad and we're looking forward to it.

"The boys have been going at it in training for almost three months and it's finally time to kick off. We're fortunate enough to be able to play. Last year we only played five rounds and then the whole thing turned to c--p.

"Last year we had the derby first up and it probably wasn't a great one for the coaches, but it was a good one for the neutral because there were five goals and plenty of chances, so it was an exciting game.

"It's special because it's two top-tier teams that have come up the ranks together. Thunder played in the old VPL and have been second division and back up and back down. There's been a few really good tussles between the two. They're literally around the corner from each other, so it's always a rivalry.

"We play for the Jim Memeti Cup, which is a bit exciting; it adds a bit more to the game. And usually, the turnout is two, two-and-half thousand people, so the atmosphere is good, there's plenty of people watching. It's a very, very interesting derby."

Jet Speed

Sometimes, turns can be deadly. Just ask Mike Gatting... or Melbourne Victory.

With transition denied in the 72nd minute of their A-League lash with Victory last Sunday, Newcastle Jets were forced to play the ball back to Nigel Boogaard as their foes set up in front of them. In a league dominated by breakneck speed and transition, such circumstances didn't bode well for the Jets.

But Steven Ugarkovic had some ideas.

Receiving a pass from Boogard in the middle of the park, the midfielder manipulated his body to turn marker Birkan Kirdar and face goal without touching the ball and, in doing so, completely neutralised Victory's front three. Advancing into the acres of space ahead of him he had the time, but also the wherewithal, to slice a pass between Jacob Butterfield and Jake Brimmer to find Valentino Yuel on the edge of the penalty area.

In just six seconds and two passes, the Jets moved the ball from centre-back to centre-forward and removed every Victory non-defender from the equation.

With the eyes of Dylan Ryan and Ryan Shotton now glued to Yuel, the Jets attacker cut across the area and dragged a pass into space he left vacant for Angus Thurgate, who smashed a first-time shot into the bottom corner and, ultimately, won the game for his side.

Breakneck City

Melbourne City did their best impression of Arthur from 1969's 'The Italian Job' in their 3-2 win over Sydney FC, blowing considerably more than Sydney FC's doors off as they stormed to a 3-0 lead.

Running hard, pressing high and demonstrating ferocious intensity, City forced turnover after turnover after turnover against the Sky Blues before springing forward with pace and numbers to create another goal-scoring chance. Only a combination of strong saves from Andrew Redmayne and wasteful finishing from Patrick Kisnorbo's side prevented the margin from being even greater.

The introduction of Milos Ninkovic on the hour mark did help to turn the tide of the contest -- the Serbian supremo still a vital figure in Sydney's ability to create under pressure -- but for 60 minutes City demonstrated what they can tap into when they embrace their physical strengths and let loose.

It might not be whatever the 'CFG style' is -- and it can be countered by forcing them to control the ball -- but it was effective.

In Pursuit of Perfection

Last Friday, Central Coast Mariners took the lead twice against Adelaide United only to surrender it both times to penalties from Tomi Juric. Then, in the 85th minute, they could only watch as VAR intervened again to award Juric a third spot-kick -- which he duly slotted home to win the game for the Reds.

No doubt aided by the prevailing mood in Australian football being one that makes messing with the Mariners equivalent to kicking Bambi, the game immediately led to howls of protest and Australian Professional Leagues boss Strebre Delovski said to the Sydney Morning Herald that two of the penalties should not have stood.

Things got even more confusing in the Jets' win over Victory on Sunday after a leg lariat from Storm Roux on Connor O'Toole led to nothing more than a yellow card, and two seemingly stone-cold shouts for a penalty were waved away by referee Kurt Ams -- who had been in the VAR booth for the Mariners game -- and then given the all-clear by VAR.

Coming just days after the referee's whistle had such a hair-trigger, things were a little perplexing.

"It's just a little bit inconsistent and grey around some of the rulings and I think that's just the frustration that coaches and players feel," Jets coach Craig Deans said after his team's \win. "It's a difficult job to be a referee now. They come and explain the rule changes every year and I'm fried after five minutes, so I feel sorry for the referees.

"This game is getting more difficult when it doesn't need to be.

"Talking about referees and VAR... we should be talking about football. That's my frustration."

As Deans alluded to, pointing the finger at referees or VAR in a vacuum is to miss the much bigger picture of the ailments the game faces in adjudication.

Whereas in years gone by it was good enough for higher-ups to trust in the judgement of the officials on the field, the modern game has changed: With so much money on the line and so many eyes on the minutiae of the product, it is no longer enough to be good; one must be now perfect. Any perceived problem is immediately rectified with a new rule or interpretation.

Referees' jobs are to enforce the laws of the game. But which laws? The ones from this week? Six months ago? A year ago? The ones they grew up with?

It's often proclaimed that VAR is killing the game, and the constant interruptions, inconsistency and removal of drama that it brings does rob the game of considerable magic. The system, though, is a symptom of a greater malaise: A desire to continuously tinker, adjust and 'fix' a sport that isn't broken in pursuit of a mythical, and unattainable, vision of perfection.

If decision-makers did decide to get rid of VAR, that desire would explain why the push to have it return would begin almost immediately. After all, why be good when you can be perfect?

Even though what makes football great are all the things that aren't.

Victory's Towering Template

Rudy Gestede is very tall and good at heading the ball. Wellington Phoenix found that out as he headed two goals from corners to consign them to a 2-0 defeat and bottom of the A-League table on Wednesday night.

Now, as far as attacking plans go, putting the ball on the head of the big lad up top doesn't rank up there with solving the Riemann hypothesis when it comes to problem-solving, but it did give Victory a sense of purpose in possession that had been so lacking in their opening games of the season.

The 193cm striker did little other than serve as a hold-up man and head-first battering ram against the Phoenix, but, surrounded by smart and skilful players such as Callum McManaman and Robbie Kruse, and always demanding attention from defenders, that might be all he needs to be to help Victory begin a slow procession up the table in the short term.

Good Football Thing of the Week

No saving this effort from Brisbane Roar's Olivia Chance.

Good Social Media Thing of the Week

Daniel Petkovski, captain of NPL NSW side Rockdale Ilinden, paying tribute to teammate Idriss El-Hafiane, who died this offseason.