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Soccer: NPL outsiders Oakleigh hoping to shock powerhouse South in grand final

Steve Pantelidis during his Melbourne Victory days. Photo: John DoneganPut it down to the impact of the FFA Cup if you like.
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But in the 11 years since the first FFA chief executive John O’Neill coined the phrase “new football” to differentiate the A-League from the “old soccer” that had been its predecessor in the NSL, the links between the two sides of the same game have become closer.

These days many of the so-called “traditional clubs”, those who now play in the various state-based National Premier League competitions, enjoy a higher profile than they did a decade ago when it seemed everything was being done to whitewash them from Australian soccer history.

The FFA Cup has had a lot to do with that, given that clubs such as Victorian NPL sides Hume and Bentleigh Greens have reached the semi-final of the tournament in its first two years, only bowing to A-League opposition at the penultimate stage of the competition.

More and more A-League scouts are trawling the state leagues looking for diamonds in the rough, young players who were perhaps discarded or overlooked by A-League teams in their formative years but who are rebuilding their careers one level down. Melbourne Victory signed Jai Ingham from Hume City after he impressed Kevin Muscat in last year’s FFA Cup, and Ingham has since played in the A-League and the Asian Champions League .

The NPL Victoria is regarded as one of the strongest leagues below the top tier and two of its best teams, South Melbourne and Oakleigh, will contest the grand final this weekend.

It is a fascinating clash between two clubs who were established by Melbourne’s soccer-loving Greek community, South in the 1950s, Oakleigh in the early 1970s.

South Melbourne need little introduction. Oceania’s team of the 20th century, the club from Albert Park was a powerhouse of the old NSL, where it won four championships: Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou is one of their famous old boys.

Oakleigh is a minnow in comparison, the team from Melbourne’s South Eastern Suburbs never having won the Victorian Premier League or its NPL successor.

“We have come close on a number of occasions, ” general manager Aki Ionnas said. “In 2006  we won the minor premiership by 13 points but lost our two finals games. We were beaten in grand finals in 2011 and 2012, and in 2014 we finished runners-up when there was no finals system that year.

“Winning the championship this weekend would be a fantastic boost to the club. It would help with publicity and sponsors, but more important would be the sense of achievement we would get from winning the title. It would be a great reward for all the people who contribute to the club and the players and coaching staff who have turned things around so well during the season.”

Peter Tsolakis, who took over as head coach with Con Tangalakis at the start of this season, is looking to succeed where predecessors Stuart Munro (in charge during that tremendous 2006 campaign) and former Brisbane Roar and Gold Coast United coach Miron Bleiberg just failed.

Tsolakis, who took a two-and-a-half-year sabbatical from coaching after parting company with South Melbourne in 2013, believes the key to Oakleigh’s unexpected success this season has been the squad’s togetherness, along with consistent performances from key players such as goalkeeper John Honos, former Melbourne Victory championship defender Steve Pantelidis, striker Dusan Bosnjak and attacker Dimi Hatzimouratis.

Pantelidis is a link between all phases of the Australian game in the past 15 years. Now 33, the former Young Socceroo defender played for Altona East in the old Victorian Premier League, Melbourne Knights in the NSL and was a part of Melbourne Victory’s first squad, winning an A-League grand final with Ernie Merrick’s team in 2007.

He also played in the A-League for Gold Coast United and Perth Glory (where he was in the losing grand final side in 2012) and, reflecting Australian soccer’s closer engagement with Asia, had spells in Indonesia and Singapore before coming back to Melbourne with Oakleigh.

“It’s great having a player of Steve’s experience here to help out. He’s dedicated and very professional and I will often run things by him in training or tactically. His knowledge and leadership has been important in getting us to this stage of the competition,” Tsolakis said.

“John Honos, too, our goalkeeper, is excellent at playing the ball with his feet and he has a lot of experience after playing in Greece earlier in his career.”

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