2021 Capital Football NPL1 Season Review by Russ Gibbs, Lead Commentator, BarTV Sports
Somewhat fittingly the last goal of the 2021 National Premier League (NPL) Canberra competition before the enforced COVID related lockdown was scored by the Tigers. It was strike of pure poetry from one of Head Coach Ryan Grogan’s mid-season signings as Niko Ujdur curled a stunning 25-metre effort that arced majestically over the head of Monaro Panthers shot-stopper Evan Alexandrow-Ridley.
It was one of three league goals that Ujdur provided when putting pen to paper in June, alongside Daniel Fabrizio whose own contribution was cruelly curtailed due to an ankle injury suffered in training. But it was a measure of the quality of the group that Grogan had assembled that they didn’t miss their newest recruit, indeed, they could even afford for top scorer Nik Popovich to miss a swathe of games late in the campaign as Josh Gulevski stepped ably into the breach.
The Tigers had started the season with only five points from their opening four matches, a brace of draws following a victory over Gungahlin United, secured courtesy of a freakish own goal from Gunners’ talisman Jack Green. Gallingly, they led Tuggeranong 3-1 only to ship a couple of late draws in a six-goal thriller at the AIS.
The tide turned in midweek when Weston-Molonglo FC were brushed aside in the fourth round of the Cup, a slick half-a-dozen goals advancing Tigers into the semi-finals and continuing the progress kick-started with a pre-season Round 3 win over Gungahlin. After that they didn’t look back, not conceding a goal in the cup until the Final confrontation with Monaro Panthers and netting five in successive NPL matches in putting Canberra Olympic and West Canberra Wanderers to the sword, the latter match including a wonderfully-taken hat-trick from Julian Borgna.
Borgna was one of four Tigers players to net six or more in all competitions, Roko Strika, arguably their most inventive and vital asset, bagging seven, Gulevski, who slotted a critical brace in the 2-0 win over title rivals Canberra Croatia, ended with eleven, whilst Popovich went one better with an even dozen despite his lengthy absence with a calf injury.
Even with their riches going forward, which included the calming presence of Antoni Timotheou, the pace and trickery of Jay Kelly, the tireless work of Sam Whithear, and the lead-by-example, thou-shalt-not-pass qualities of Nathen Megic, it was defensively where the Tigers had improved in their 2020 showing. Partly this was down to the signing of Lachlan Griffiths. The central defender had, in the opinion of this writer, one of his best seasons and was in the reckoning for player of the year.
His vision and perception, able to read the play well in advance, are inbuilt traits which shone, allowing Griffiths to marshal a back-line that saw effective contributions from full-backs Christian Junna and, after a slow start to the season, the underrated Luke Dark. Behind this defensive line, which was only breached four times in its final seven outings, was goalkeeper Jakob Cole.
Cole brought up a century of NPL appearances during the season and was in fine form conceding the least goals in the league and saving three times from the spot, notably preserving a crucial three points in a 1-0 success over West Canberra Wanderers at Nijong Oval when denying Gabe Cole from twelve-yards in stoppage time.
Every champion side is not just built not on numbers 1-11 though, but on numbers 12-18, and in that respect the Tigers were well served by those who weren’t regular starters in the campaign. Ross Costanzo and Jared Tonini provided excellent cover defensively when called upon whilst Tony Madaffari was a good option as a replacement, his pace and direct running causing problems for opposition defences, capped by an outrageous goal in the FFA Cup Qualifying Final. Substitute goalkeeper Dean Cowdroy also saw game-time, a half against Olympic and starting in the absence of Cole in the season finale against Panthers.
Off the field the team were well led by the thoughtful Grogan and his trusty lieutenant Antoni Jagarinec. The duo came to every game with a carefully constructed plan, a plan that their players brought into, believing in the vision outlined to them and, from the outside at least, prepared to accept the defined roles they were to play.
Despite the season ending sooner than expected, it’s hard to discredit the notion that the Tigers were deserving winners. Every successful team needs a solid rearguard. Check. Every successful team needs a creative and combative midfield. Check. Every successful team needs a proven and reliable goalscorer, or two. Check. Just as important, every successful team needs a coaching team, structure and coherent gameplan that is well communicated to their charges. Check.
Winning back-to-back FFA Cup Qualifying Finals was no mean achievement and backing it up with their league title, only the third in Tigers history, completed a memorable year. Tigers FC roared in 2021. Now the key was to do it all again as the hunters become the hunted in 2022.
FFA Cup R3: Gungahlin United (a) W 3-0 (Gulevski 8’, Popovich 35’, Strika 65’ (p))
R1: Canberra Croatia (h) L 0-3
R2: Gungahlin United (a) W 2-1 (Strika 7’, Green 40’ (og))
R3: Tuggeranong United (h) D 3-3 (Popovich 4’, 41’, Timotheou 58’)
R4: Belconnen United (h) D 2-2 (Popovich 85’, Borgna 90+3 (p))
FFA Cup QF: Weston-Molonglo FC (a) W 6-0 (Popovich 19’, Strika 34’, 62’, Borgna 51’, Whithear 54’, Gulevski 87’)
R5: Canberra Olympic (h) W 5-0 (Popovich 16’, 53’, Borgna 30’, Gulevski 32’, Kelly 83’)
R6: West Canberra Wanderers (a) W 5-1 (Strika 15’, 52’, Borgna 25’ (p), 58’, 75’)
FFA Cup SF: Yoogali SC (h) W 1-0 (Popovich 90+1’)
R7: Monaro Panthers (h) W 3-1 (Popovich 18’, 71’ (p), Gulevski 75’)
R8: Canberra Croatia (a) L 1-2 (Gulevski 44’)
FFA Cup Final: Monaro Panthers (n) W 5-2 (Calabria 2’ (og), Gulevski 32’, 76’, Strika 43’ (p), Madaffari 88’)
R9: Gungahlin United (h) – Match Postponed
R10: Tuggeranong United (a) W 2-1 (Popovich 11’, Gulevski 62’)
R11: Belconnen United (h) W 1-0 (Timotheou 44’)
R12: Canberra Olympic (a) W 2-1 (Popovich 26’, Kelly 70’)
R13: West Canberra Wanderers (h) W 1-0 (Ujdur 34’)
R14: Monaro Panthers (a) – Match Postponed
R15: Canberra Croatia (h) W 2-0 (Gulevski 29’, 75’)
R16: Gungahlin United (a) W 3-1 (Gulevski 18’, Ujdur 32’, Griffiths 81’)
R17: Tuggeranong United (h) W 3-0 (forfeit)
R14: Monaro Panthers (a) D 1-1 (Ujdur 76’)
APPEARANCES (NPL ONLY)
15 Lachlan GRIFFITHS, Josh GULEVSKI, Roko STRIKA, Antoni TIMOTHEOU, 14 Jakob COLE,
13 Christian JUNNA, Nathen MEGIC, 11(2) Nik POPOVICH, 10(5) Sam WHITHEAR, 9(6) Ross COSTANZO, 9(3) Jay KELLY, 7(7) Luke DARK, 6(6) Julian BORGNA, 5(6) Jared TONINI, 4 Niko UJDUR, 3(9) Tony MADDAFRI, 1(1) Dean COWDROY, (1) Daniel FABRIZIO
GOALS (ALL COMPETITIONS)
12 Nik POPOVICH, 11 Josh GULEVSKI, 7 Roko STRIKA, 6 Julian BORGNA, 3 Niko UJDUR, 2 Jay KELLY, Antoni TIMOTHEOU, Own GOALS, 1 Lachlan GRIFFITHS, Tony MADAFFARI, Sam WHITHEAR