Sport Football Second-tier growth built on solid foundations of National Premier League
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Second-tier growth built on solid foundations of National Premier League

Josh Wilkins, in action for Heidelberg United, says the league has come on in leaps and bounds. Photo: Getty
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The National Premier League (NPL) enters 2020 looking to continue its growth and contribution to Australia’s rich footballing ecosystem.

Kicking off over the weekend in Queensland and set to ramp up over the coming weeks, Australia’s second tier of football is a semi-professional competition that runs across winter months.

Collectively made up of competitions managed by each individual member federation, NPL sides compete in a home-and-away season followed by finals.

A-League players such as Melbourne Victory’s Elvis Kamsoba, Central Coast’s Jordan Murray and Brisbane Roar’s Dylan Wenzel-Halls have all made the leap from the NPL in recent years; the trio representing a vast, untapped resource of talent eager for a chance to succeed at a higher level.

Handed a greater spotlight thanks to the FFA Cup and improvements in quality, its recent growth has led to a strong push towards the establishment of a national second division to supplement the A-League and unite the Australian football pyramid.

But even as wrangling around a second division continues, the NPL itself continues to grow and contribute to football as a standalone product; for while resourcing and facilities remain an impediment, ambitious clubs and players are continuing to increase their levels of professionalism as they hunger for further opportunities.

“I know the club is implementing things to change to make it more professional,” standout Heidelberg United defender Josh Wilkins told The New Daily.

“We’ve got physios there for massages, we’ve got a S&C (strength and conditioning) coach to take our warm-ups. We have programmed exercise routines, people giving us advice on nutrition and stuff.

“It’s definitely taking a step forward from what it used to be five to 10 years ago when it was just rock up to a training session, chuck your stuff on and go for a run and have fun with your mates. It’s a lot more professional these days.

“Compared to a professional A-League environment, which I was a temporary part of, there’s still a pretty big gap between the two, but it’s closing.

“Hopefully it does close [further], leading towards hopefully getting a national second division involved as well.”

It has never been easier to watch the NPL.

Member federations around the country stream games on Facebook and YouTube to afford viewers from all over the world a chance to tune in.

Demonstrating the latent demand, Football Victoria’s recent stream of its Community Shield game – a pre-season Cup fixture – had more than 42,000 views.

And for any viewers dipping their toes into the water for the first time, they may find themselves coming across some familiar names.

Former national fixtures APIA Leichhardt, Adelaide City, Brisbane Strikers, South Melbourne, Sydney United, Heidelberg United, Marconi, Melbourne Knights and Sydney Olympic all play in the top level of their local competitions, while former powers such as St George and Preston Lions plot their ascension from lower tiers.

2020 will also be the first season since the abolishment of the controversial national club identity policy, which prevented clubs from using names or logos featuring “ethnic, national, political, racial or religious connotations either in isolation or combination”.

The policy had been designed to promote inclusion but, in practice, served to alienate existing members of the footballing community and place the game in a seemingly paradoxical position of wanting to pick and choose which parts of its history – largely built off the back of ethnically backed clubs that still exist in the NPL – to celebrate.

However, the NPL isn’t just a domain for well-established stalwarts of Australian football.

Entering its third year in NPL Qld, Gold Coast United – a revival of the A-League side that had a three-year stint in the competition before it folded in 2012 – has made no secret of its ambitions to rebuild the foundations of the club and use the NPL to springboard a return to the national stage.

“I’m building a love for the club again,” former United A-League player and 13-time Socceroo Michael Thwaite – who returned to the club in 2018 – told The New Daily.

“The three years in the A-League, I didn’t want to move anywhere else.

“Now, it’s more about establishing the club and setting a foundation. We’ve got a $10 million facility in Tallebudgera, we’ve got an academy from SAP, both girls and boys, right through to the senior team. I think we’re on par structurally with the A-League.

“We’re looking to establish the foundation first and then build the club culture.

“We’re getting good people, good coaches around the club as well. Shane Smeltz has just returned, Jason Culina, his sons are part of our program; he’s just moved back from Sydney.

“People that have bled for the shirt before. They’re coming back and getting involved.”

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