Feature Image: Mark Avellino
The North Sunshine Eagles are no strangers to adversity.
The State League One promotion hopefuls were in danger from dropping out of the third tier last year following a twelve point deduction. Instead the Eagles dismantled any relegation fears to finish third between the Altona Magic and Preston Lions.
Had it not been for the points loss, the St Albans-based outfit would have finished the campaign two points behind the eventual Champions whom they beat on away soil. The man in charge of that impressive feat is one of the youngest managers in Victorian football in Arben Isai – the 31 year-old player-coach who took up the managerial reins following the departure of Paul Donnelly.
The central midfielder explained how he took up the role and the challenges he has faced in his first 12 months in charge of the club.
“It was a long night at Tony Gashi’s – our Technical Director’s office – discussing the role. I’ve been involved with the coaching scene at the club for four-five years before that as an assistant whilst also playing,” Isai said.
“With the structures we’ve put into place in the last five years, they thought it was best for me to take the role on particularly the style of football and how we are trying to play here. A lot of it has come down to the planning me and a few other boys have down.”
“It is different being a player-coach and must admit it was hard at the start balancing between the two. But having said that coaching the boys and putting on training sessions is easy.
“The hardest part about it is managing the players’ expectations but as the season went on the boys responded well and it became pretty comfortable even with the fact that I had to drop players who I have been mates with for 10-15 years.
“We did it and they have shown nothing but respect to me and hopefully we continue to build and go forward and tonight is another step into the direction”, he noted.
A veteran at Larissa Reserve, Isai joined the club in 2002 and has been with the Eagles through all of the ups and downs the last decade and a half has brought. In 2011, North Sunshine were plying their trade in Provisional League One – the state’s fifth tier – and have achieved two promotions in the next four years.
“I’ve been at North Sunshine for 15 years now. I came here when I was 16-17 years old. And have learnt a lot from the experienced players and coaches that have come through at the club” said the 31 year old.
“I consider myself as a ball player and that is what I’m trying to instil in the side to be an attacking, entertaining team which produces a bit of a wow factor for our fans and lovers of football in general.”
He started Wednesday night’s Round Five FFA Cup tie against Preston and played just under an hour on the park where he dictated proceedings in midfield before making way for former New Zealand youth international Stjepan Trbuhovic and admits that the injuries sustained in the past few years have had an effect on his playing capabilities.
“As a player in the last two to three years I’ve unfortunately had a couple of knee reconstructions and injury problems, so I have only played about 12-13 games in that period. I’ll have to work on trying to get that average up.
“Even tonight around the 50th minute, I was cramping being 31 years-old and with the injuries I’ve had so I have to manage myself properly. We’ve got a big squad who help me do that so eventually I have to sit out of games.”
The penalty-shootout triumph over their fierce rivals on Wednesday night has been classified by some as one of the greatest games in the FFA Cup’s short history with the ten-man Lions crawling their way into the match having been behind three times before taking the lead in extra-time through four-goal hero Chris Davies.
The match seemed lost until the 120th minute when Shane Rexhepi headed home past Douglas Lindberg to send the game into penalties. Goalkeeper Frano Saric saved Angel Taravillo’s effort before Davies skied his spot-kick high as the Eagles converted all four of their attempts. An eight-goal thriller on a night of high drama at George Andrews Reserve had captivated the imagination of much of Victoria’s football community who had gathered around their screens to watch the Facebook live stream of the clash.
Isai spoke post-game about the rollercoaster of emotions he and his Eagles players had throughout the pulsating 120 plus minutes of football in Dandenong South.
“The emotions went up and down throughout the match. We were up 3-2 in the last minute and then we conceded, all while they had 10 men so credit to them as they put up a brave fight and made a game of it. I’m glad we got the win in the end and even though it went to penalties, so be it as we’ll take it.”
While such an encounter was memorable to Eagles officials and supporters alike, Isai does not believe that the victory is North Sunshine’s best of all time.
“It’s definitely up there. We’ve had quite a few big games in recent years especially last season with the 12 point deduction and getting through it quite early in the campaign. That was a massive achievement as was finishing third which was remarkable for the boys.
“There was a game two years against Sunshine George Cross in the FFA Cup where we were down 6-4 with nine men and came back to win it on penalties and that is the game that I’m going to remember most.”
A closer inspection of the Eagles team sheet saw the repetition of many names with brothers and cousins in abundance as the surnames of Dragovic, Memishi, Shannon and Trbuhovic. Isai credits this to the close-knit nature of the playing group and believes many of his side would be automatic starters at NPL and NPL2 clubs across the state while emphasising the building of positive dressing room culture was one of the key priorities set by the administration at Larissa Reserve.
“Five-six years ago when the current administration took over we thought to ourselves that there is a few things we needed to fix. Some of those things weren’t just about what was happening on the park”, he said.
“We wanted to build a bit of a culture which attracts players and not for money but for family reasons and want to be playing for each other as mates with many of these boys having grown up with each other and that’s attributed to a lot of the success we have.
“There is no secret that there is a lot of hard-work that goes into getting these boys here and keeping them and we’d like to think we offer our players a few things in dinners and taking them out. So we’ve definitely tried to work on forging a good culture and that has paid dividends and you saw that tonight.
“We’ve got an average age of 22 and I’m one of the oldest players out there so things are looking good and we’re happy with where we are at.”
Going into this year, the 2014 State League Two Premiers were hopeful of mounting a promotion charge having brought in the likes of Rexhepi, Lewis Shannon and Reardo Luka while retaining much of the side who had done so well in 2016. Despite losing 3-0 to promotion favourites Magic a fortnight ago, Isai and the playing group are not deterred and see elevation into NPL2 as a realistic goal for this campaign.
“Our goal is still promotion and we believe that we will still be up there. We need to work on a few things and assuming all goes well in between now and our next game against the Magic, we’ll be ready to give it our best show at our ground.
“We believe we’ve learnt a lesson from that game and they are a very good team.”
While acknowledging the difficulties of such an achievement, he praised the growing standard of the league and believes that even if promotion isn’t achieved this term, the future is bright at Larissa Reserve with a young squad determined to rise to any challenges that come their way.
“As a whole, this league is tough and everyone has stepped it up a notch and I’ve watched a lot of pre-season games in reviewing the opposition and the quality has definitely risen. It’s great to see for Victorian football as crowds have soared as has the entertaining football on the park.
“Our goal is promotion and we will try our best to get there. If it doesn’t happen, as I’ve said we have a pretty young squad that we believe in the next two-three years can achieve that.”