Ognenovski: Prospect of a NSD already raising standards in NPL

Former Socceroo turned Dandenong City coach Saša Ognenovski believes that excitement over the potential launch of a national second-tier is leading to a rise in standards across the NPL as clubs seek to be ready, and has spoken of his desire to restore a ‘lost’ pathway to senior football at his club. 

Initially working as an assistant during the 2019 NPL Victoria season, Ognenovski ascended to the main chair at the Frank Holohan Soccer Complex mid-season after the departure of former coach Ante Moric to Western United and helped guide Hajduk to seventh position on the table.

Looking to complete his first full campaign in charge the following campaign, COVID-19’s descent meant that Ognenovski’s season – and everyone else’s in NPL Victoria – ended after just five games. 

Now, getting set to complete his third pre-season in Melbourne’s southeast and, hopefully, complete his first full year in charge at City in the months ahead, the 2010 AFC Asian Player of the Year said that there was an air of anticipation throughout the competition – buoyed by the potential arrival of a national second-tier.   

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In recent months, The Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) – a representative body of NPL clubs – delivered a report detailing their preferred model and costings of a national second tier, and Football Australia CEO James Johnson – who has flagged that his organisation is doing their own modelling – has said the competition is a matter of when and how and not if. 

“There’s definitely a shift in mentality,” Ognenovski said. “I think this year a lot of Melbourne clubs that are interested in the B-League want to really showcase their club as clubs that are ready to take that next step. 

“I think there’s been a big mentality shift, particularly now that the A-League is not affiliated with Football Australia. 

“Now, there’s a genuine possibility that this B-League will go ahead. We don’t know at what point or how yet but there’s certainly a lot of hope behind that and in turn, the clubs have that mentality shift of we need to make sure that if it does happen we’re ready for it. 

“So they’re sort of building up to it and you can definitely notice.”

Ognenovski’s 2021 NPL Victoria season is set to commence on Friday night when he and his side make the short drive around the corner to take on Dandenong Thunder at George Andrews Reserve. 

Whereas Dandenong City completed 2019 with a collection of well-established, veteran figures of the game such as Carl Valeri, Brendon Santalab and Adrian Leijer amongst their ranks, its 41-year-old coach has constructed a much younger roster for 2021. 

The 22-time Socceroo – who began his celebrated senior career with Preston in the Victorian state leagues before transitioning to the NSL and beyond – said that this was a deliberate strategy on his and the club’s part – an effort to create a clear pathway from juniors to seniors that he felt was lacking in the modern game. 

“It’s about watching kids that have come up through the ranks at our club and watching them play senior football,” he explained. “I think that brings more joy to supporters than bringing in a star player. When you see one of your own boys that have come through the ranks and are playing now for the senior team, that brings an element of excitement. 

“That’s a focus that we are trying to do and that’s promote from within and not bring in superstars – develop our own. 

“It’s a bit hard to do that now in this day and age because if you get some kids in the NPL space that have played junior NPL for five or six different clubs because there are trials every year. For me, it’s pretty frightening.

“We sort of grew up playing for one club and you only left that club if your level was too high for that league whereas now I guess parents are more willing to chop and change and have the kids come in and out of clubs as long as they think it’s a little bit better than the next one. I think that that loyalty is a little bit lost 

“But we’ve had guys that have been at Dandy City for three, four, or five years and they’re in our senior team. But one of the boys that’s on our senior list, Dylan Muhar, he’s been there since he’s been able to walk. So that’s one kid that we’ve put on the senior list. 

“Jacob Britto is another one that’s sort of been there for four years – he’s only 17 – he debuted last year as a substitute in the Dandenong Derby last year in the first round as a 16-year-old so that’s what we’re trying to promote and that’s what we’re trying to create at the club. 

“We’re putting in place measures that means we have talent that can step up to senior level and give them a pathway – I think that pathway has been lost in Australian football completely. 

“If we’re one club that can do it, then hopefully others can see the benefit of it and try and do the same, I guess.”

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