You could be forgiven for forgetting that there’s more than three A-League and two W-League teams in Victoria, as it has been 18 months since most clubs below the top flight played any league football. Unlike other parts of the country which were able to resume operations in the second half of 2020, the Victorian football community has been starved of local football with players, coaches, fans and everyone else all in agreeance that the return of Victorian football is long overdue.
Before the initial lockdown a year ago, only a handful of National Premier Leagues (NPL) and Cup rounds were played in Victoria, so it really does seem like a lifetime ago when Bentleigh Greens edged past Avondale on penalties in the 2019 NPL Grand Final at AAMI Park (don’t remind fellow The Reserve Team contributor Bransen Gibson). Aside from clubs overcoming the obvious challenges that comes with closing for an entire season, Victorian football has a different feel now that it has returned. After most clubs kicked off their league campaign this weekend, it’s time to have a look at what’s happened since that day at AAMI Park, and what we can expect for 2021.
For the uninitiated, men’s football in Victoria contains eight divisions of senior and reserve competitions from NPL to NPL3, and then Men’s State League (MSL) 1 through to 5. No teams in the entire senior men’s structure were relegated in 2019 to accommodate four new teams being admitted to the new 12-team NPL3 division for this year. The four promoted MSL1 teams: Preston Lions, North Sunshine Eagles, Nunawading City and Doveton, have had an additional year to prepare for the step up into NPL3.
NPL replaced the old Victorian Premier League competition in 2014, with National Premier League Women’s (NPLW) replacing the Women’s Premier League in 2016. Promotion and relegation exist across the pyramid, with the exception being the bottom divisions Men’s and Women’s State League 5, where applications for new teams are submitted to Football Victoria (FV). When a team drops out from anywhere in the pyramid, they can only re-enter by applying to commence from the bottom division.
Despite the sheer uncertainty of 2020, only three teams have recently been lost from the men’s football pyramid. Most notably, Wodonga-based club Murray United withdrew from NPL2 after the end of the 2019 season (and are now replaced by Western United’s NPL youth program). On the eve of the season two MSL clubs St Kilda Celts and Broadmeadows Stars also pulled the plug, ultimately leaving a couple of byes. For 2021, FV accepted just one new team application into MSL5 being Surfside Waves, with the Geelong region club squaring up against metropolitan Melbourne clubs for the first time.
Victorian women’s football has three senior and reserve divisions being NPLW, the new Victorian Premier League Women’s (VPLW) and Women’s State League 1. All leagues below these tiers contain standalone individual teams. In 2021, the VPLW was created as a second tier and to house the next best teams in Victoria. Following its women’s football review at the end of the 2019 season, FV announced that Geelong Galaxy United and Southern United would no longer participate in the NPLW top flight, although they would retain their NPLW junior licences.
As a result, both teams move straight into the new VPLW division competing against established powerhouses like Boorondara-Carey Eagles, Melbourne University and Melbourne Knights.
At my local club, on Saturday 20 March, was a geographical derby of sorts with Point Cook Jets playing host to Williamstown in MSL3 North-West. In this league, Williamstown finished third back in 2019 just one place away from promotion. Meanwhile, the navy blue-wearing Jets finished 11th out of 12 which ordinarily would have sent the club back down to MSL4, but they retain their spot due to the aforementioned lack of relegation. Therefore, Williamstown came into this opening round fixture with a lot of confidence and they twice took the lead, only for a late header from a Point Cook set piece to put the home side back on level terms for the game to finish 2-2.
For the hundreds of clubs that have just kicked off their league campaigns for 2021, there’s an air of excitement in what the new year could bring. However, being able to access sport in the present moment is a privilege not a right, and we should not take for granted what we’ve now got to look forward to. Unfortunately, we know all too well just how quickly it can slip away. For that reason and many more, hopefully as many people as possible get back out there in any capacity they can, even if it’s like me as a Sunday league hack / team manager. There is so much energy and character in the local football experience that you don’t always get in professional sport, and in the current climate it has never been a more important time to get down to your local NPL or State League club. Let’s get out there to ensure that we are supporting the local game as much as possible.