PLAYER OF THE YEAR
In recent years, Back of the Net has had the player of the year count, before it went in camera, as a guide to predict a winner. This year, though, it’s a stab in the dark. That’s even more so given coaches decide polling by a points count of between one to five for one player in the opposition in each game. In 2017, American Jalon Brown won for his stellar golden boot season with Valentine and Kane Goodchild did the award double while at Hamilton a year earlier. If that is a guide, then Lake Macquarie striker Sam Walker appears a good bet. His tally of 16 goals secured him the leading scorer title and, given the effort was with the eighth-placed Roosters, he is likely to take the lion’s share of votes from his games. It would be great reward for Walker, who stuck with Lake Macquarie through their time in second division and narrowly missed the top scoring honour twice. Other contenders include Magic’s Kale Bradbery, who finished with 17 goals, including finals, and Edgeworth defenders/midfielders Pat Wheeler and Dom Bizzarri. However, all three are likely to lose votes to teammates given the depth and success of their clubs. Honourable mentions must go to players like Maitland’s Carl Thornton and Alex Read, Hamilton’s Tom Davies and Rhys Cooper, Lambton Jaffas’ Ben Hay and Marcus Duncan and Charlestown’s Matt Tull and Tom Smart for full and consistent seasons.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Well, this is a bit easier to work out. Damian Zane fell short of grand final victory and another FFA Cup round of 32 appearance with his Eagles but their efforts to win the league by 11 points surely gives him a fourth consecutive coach of the year title. It was perhaps his greatest achievement so far in a run that includes four premierships from four attempts, four grand final appearances for two wins, a national NPL final and a round of 16 Cup effort. After losing a host of players, including six regular starters, Edgeworth cruised to the title with minimal recruiting, exceeding all expectations. In Zane’s previous three premierships, Edgeworth won by only three or four points, making his performance this season with an arguably weaker squad even more remarkable. Broadmeadow’s Ruben Zadkovich would likely win in any other year after a grand final victory and round of 16 run in the Cup. Michael Bolch was another worth a mention after taking Maitland back to the finals in his first year.
TEAM OF THE YEAR
Previously, Back of the Net has compiled an NPL team of the year using an inclusive criteria with at least one player from each club selected. However, after many failed to grasp the concept, I’ll keep it simple this year and pick the best, from mainly the best clubs, squeezed into a 4-3-3 with a holding midfielder and two No.10s.
Goalkeeper: Paul Bitz gets the nod after keeping the most clean sheets and helping Magic concede just 20 goals in the regular season – his first at the club. Edgeworth used two keepers – Nate Cavaliere and Josh Low – and both did well behind an excellent defence. Matt Trott was a close second to Bitz after letting in just 21 at Maitland.
Defenders: With the top-four sides conceding 21 goals or less this season, there are plenty of contenders here. Given Charlestown led for the opening nine rounds and made the FFA Cup round of 32 for the first time, they deserve at least one selection and right-back Tom Smart was one of their best. Edgeworth skipper Josh Evans picks himself as one centre-back and Maitland’s Alex Read gets the other spot given his efforts in defence and threat posed late in games as an extra attacker. Dom Bizzarri gets the left-back position, which he played in the grand final. He spent most of the season in midfield, where he excelled, but he deserves a place somewhere. Josh Rose starred at left-back for the Eagles but played only half the season. Tom Davies, Marcus Duncan and Luke Virgili are others who could easily claim a position given their seasons.
Midfielders: Another tough one to narrow down, especially with so many in-form defensive midfielders. Edgeworth’s Pat Wheeler, who also played at centre-back, more than earned his place but Carl Thornton can count himself as unlucky to miss out after another outstanding year. Riddled with injury, the Jaffas had only a few that played a majority of games, and one was Ben Hay. He gets the left-side spot alongside Hamilton's Rhys Cooper, who was again a standout attacking midfielder. Honourable mentions go to Justin Broadley (Magic), Leo Bertos (Olympic) and Matt Tull (Blues) for consistently solid performances.
Forwards: This was the easy part. Sam Walker is a must after his league-leading performance with a lower-ranked side and Broadmeadow speedsters James Virgili and Kale Bradbery were not far behind with 14 each in the regular season. Teammate John Majurovski was also excellent in his comeback year, while Scott Pettit was consistently Olympic’s best up top.
LETDOWN OF THE YEAR
Valentine, followed closely by Northern NSW Football’s presentation of premiership trophies. Phoenix fell from narrowly missing the finals on 35 points in 2017 to last with just 11. Player of the year Jalon Brown was excellent, but that loss should not signal a fall of that magnitude. As for the trophy presentations, NNSWF won no friends when they failed to have the silverware on hand for Edgeworth’s penultimate round win on their Old Boys’ day. Again on Sunday at Adamstown, all four youth grade premiers bowed out in semi-finals without first getting a trophy for finishing atop the table.