Is playing State League football the best pathway back to the NPL?

Writing-off footballers before they have had a fair chance to show their potential has been a common criticism of the current NPL system. There is only one senior grade and then under 20s, meaning many fringe senior players over the age of 20 are cut loose well before they are given a proper chance. There are some players though who refuse to give up on their NPL dream and choose a different pathway back to the top. 

There are quiet a few examples of fringe NPL players going back to the State Leagues, gaining some much needed senior game time and much needed confidence, before making their way back to the higher level.

Current North Geelong Warriors defender Anthony Banovac is a great example of this. Banovac, a North junior product and a life long Warrior, made the bold move to leave Elcho Park early in the 2017 season to head to State League Two club Corio SC. 

Banovac started that season at North Geelong as an utility, but in order to get more game time made the move across town to Hume Reserve. Banovac chalked up 15 quality games and more importantly, some valuable senior experience which helped him regain a roster spot at North Geelong for 2018. Banovac is now a regular starter at the NPL2 club and credits his time at the Eagles for helping him develop as a senior footballer

“My time with Corio was a very positive experience,” said Banovac. “The foundations for a successful season were laid early on. 

“The president Mario (Gregorio) and coach Ante (Didulica), who I’d previously had as a youth coach, immediately made me feel valued and a big part of their project, which was important considering I had left North Geelong due to a lack of minutes. 

“The fact that I was able to win the favour of the coach quickly meant that I got exactly what I was after with the move; regular gametime. It was through this that I was able to rediscover my best form and made it possible to achieve the kind of performances I knew I was capable of.”

The now 24-year-old admits the mental strength he developed from swallowing his pride and moving to a lower tier level of football, held him in good stead for the challenge of being an elite footballer. 

“Football, as with life itself, has become increasingly more about the mental aspect and how you are able to deal with adversity and challenges,” said Banovac. 

“Moving to Corio, despite being a two-division drop in the league system, proved to be an enormous step forward for my career as I was able to refocus and invigorate my football ambition.”

Another example similar to Banovac’s is current North midfielder Lochie McGrath. The talented youngster was part of the NPL junior set up at North for three seasons, but in 2018 decided he wanted to play senior football. He also ended up at Hume Reserve and under the coaching of Ante Didulica had a stellar season, winning the State League Two Best & Fairest award. 

McGrath has now found his place as an NPL footballer, with the 21-year-old a regular starter in the senior Warrior’s lineup.

The likes of Ryan Opperman and Thomas Hidic also had some senior game time in state league football in 2017 and 2018 respectively, with both spending time at Geelong Rangers in State League Two under the coaching of Stuart Begg. Both then headed back to the NPL and are also at North, where coincidentally, Begg is coach of the under 20s and an assistant for the seniors. 

Current Corio midfielder Darcy Rapa, another ex-NPL junior product from North, is into his second straight season at the State League Two club. By all accounts, Rapa is having a bumper 2019 and will be a good fit at the NPL level in 2020. 

The 2019 season has seen the likes of Josh Talev and Alex Stojanovski leave North Geelong’s NPL2 local rivals Geelong SC and head to Corio as well. Both Talev and Stojanovski can take inspiration from those who have gone before them, as they look to regain an NPL spot in the coming years. Talev made a good start to life as a State League footballer, netting a crucial goal last weekend for the Eagles.

Many footballers will not quiet reach their potential until they get some decent senior game time. The way the likes of Banovac and co have used the State Leagues to propel themselves back into the NPL is a great example of how the system should work. 

Written by guest reporter Janakan Seemampillai, published by Tanner Coad.