Champion by action, Champion by name. The O’Connor Knights have emerged from the wilderness years to claim a first Capital Football National Premier League title, and a first top-flight crown of their 26-year history.
Not only have they shown what building a club with a solid foundation can achieve, they have done so in style, with a series of performances that have often dazzled and kept supporters on the edge of their seats. They’ve scored plenty, and conceded few, and always played on the front foot. They are worthy Champions.
Identifying the tendency to ship too many goals in their debut season of 2022, Head Coach Miro Trninic, and his trusty lieutenants Aleks Trninic and Nick Tither, identified the back-four as in need of rejuvenation.
This trio were backed by Assistant coach and physiotherapist Davor Nemet, who helped manage injuries expertly, and team manager Michael Skrtic, who Miro says is the best team manager he has ever had.
Who would have thought in January 2023 when the new year ticked over, that the quartet of players from a team that ended the preceding campaign seventh would be the answer.
Central defensive lynchpins Connor Bill and Lachlan Fields have added a miserly touch to the Knights rearguard. Fields has shown himself to be a leader of men, whilst not wearing the captain’s armband, still cajoling from the front, sometimes literally as vital match-winning goals against Canberra Olympic and Monaro Panthers showed. When unavailability has stymied their attendance, Kristian Tokic has been an able understudy.
Outside of these twin towers, James Driscoll and Harrison Palic have rampaged up the flanks, causing havoc amongst opposition defensive schemes, Palic scoring a memorable goal in a top-of-the-table hammering of Tigers FC at Hawker Football Centre.
Behind this defensive steel stood young stopper Seb Arranz. Gifted, agile, communicative and an athletic custodian, he grew as the season progressed, entrusted with the shot-stopping duties, and supported by the more experienced Alex Connell.
Holding midfielder has seen the role rotate, but the Knights are never better than when the hugely underrated Daniel Roberts is present. His metronomic ball-winning ability, and eye for a pass, has been a massive influence. The evergreen Regan Walsh, dead-ball expert and 97th minute scourge of Canberra Croatia has been superb, aided and abetted by young tyro Harry Martin.
The silky skill-set of Micheal Adams, the ability to turn on a sixpence and find space where none exists before gliding effortlessly across the turf has been instrumental. There were cameos from Patrick O’Rourke in midfield and a couple of displays from the legendary Josip Jadric, hitting 100 NPL appearances in the process.
Up top, the excitement machines. Pace, pace, and even more pace, in the form of the direct running of Tyson Livermore, the intricate skill-set of Phakedi Manda, and the terrifying one-one-one class offered by Niko Kresic. And, if they didn’t get you, hit-man Aisosa Ihegie invariably would, adding an x-factor that was almost impossible to contain.
It doesn’t end here for Knights though. Lachlan Campbell, Sam Van Dooren, Vinnie Sanchez, and Jak Matic all appeared at least once from the bench. The next generation of talent from a frighteningly good youth development program, patiently awaiting their chance.
And there’s the rub. It’s not just been about claiming the First-Grade title, despite all the honorifics and need for polish that it brings. The Knights have developed a family. A club that gains as much pleasure from an U12 success as they do in a derby day triumph over their illustrious Croatian friends. That basis has formed the success that has followed. Get them young, coach them well, and reap the rewards.
One point from the opening pair of matches to start the season never hinted at what was to follow. It was relentless. Seven straight wins from Round 8 to Round 14, including a nine-goal annihilation of West Canberra Wanderers, which saw eight goals netted before half-time, the highlight of a run that blew the competition out of the water.
A win over the Panthers at the Riverside put them on the brink and a first-half stoppage time curler from James Driscoll against Gungahlin United at the Australian Institute of Sport on a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon sealed the title.
Clubs are often labelled worthy winners, as if any triumph does not fall under that category, but the Knights are just that. Worthy Winners. First Place. Champions.