When busloads of Heidelberg fans travelled up to Sydney in 1995 it was to protest the decision by Soccer Australia to axe the club from the National Soccer League. On that occasion, the return trip was filled with doubt about their club’s future. Cut to 22 years later and this time a convoy of Berger fans returned from Sydney celebrating a joyous win over Sydney United in the FFA Cup and a trip to the quarterfinals.
Looking at how far Heidelberg has come since that time Bergers coach George Katsakis, says their recent success is a testament to the club’s resolve and the undying passion of their fans.
“It’s just the highs and lows of football,” he tells Neos Kosmos. “Nothing different to a relegation, promotion or championship battle. Unfortunately, 20 odd years ago, we went there for a different purpose where we tried to show strength as a club to stay in the league.
“This time around we showed strength about how far the club has come in terms of its support and what we’re achieving at the moment. We are happy to celebrate another milestone because without a doubt this year has been something unprecedented. Something very, very different because we’re involved in every competition and we’ve won two pieces of silverware and who knows there may be more to come.”
While Wednesday night’s blockbuster FFA Cup home clash against Adelaide United is the one that everyone is talking about, Sunday’s Victorian NPL grand final against Bentleigh Greens is just as important. Then on Saturday 16 September Heidelberg take on Western Australia’s Bayswater in the Australian National Premier League finals series.
While three massive games in less than week would be a challenge for a professional club let alone part-timers, Katsakis feels the Bergers can handle each test, especially the FFA Cup.
“We are all very excited, it just shows you, and I am going to be strong in my message – the difference between A-League and NPL, confirming and reiterating what I’ve said before – the gap is narrowing,” he says with conviction. “Ourselves, Bentleigh Greens, Blacktown, and quite a few other clubs have beaten an A-League side. So, we’ll do everything we possibly can on Wednesday night to send that message out that we can do it again.
“I know we’ll be underdone because we’re coming off a three-day let off from our Grand Final straight into playing Adelaide United. For semi-professionals, it’s probably going to be very tough on the bodies. But no excuses, at the end of the day we did it last time against Perth and we’ll do it again against Adelaide. All we can do is take the game to them and apply ourselves as we have been doing all year.”
Heidelberg’s goal scoring hero in the 1-0-win FFA Cup win over Perth Glory Kenjok ‘King Kenny’ Athiu has been in sparkling form this season. The 24-year-old was the NPL top scorer with 21 goals this season and while the grand final is the main focus, the striker is finding it hard not to get excited about Wednesday night’s FFA Cup tie.
“The game against Adelaide is massive,” he says. “It does pop up in our minds here and there. If the boys have proved anything this year it’s that when we look like we’re out of it we put all our bodies on the line and we end up grinding out results. We’ll just rock up and everyone will do their best like we have all year.
“With our results over the last month or so you can see how much confidence the boys have. We just want to win every game. No matter what kind of game it is, we just want to win it. It just brings its own positive energy, it comes off everyone and comes to every game. We are coming into this game very confident, but it’s a cup final and in cup finals anything can happen. We haven’t got ahead of ourselves yet, but we’re obviously going into the game wanting to win.”
When Heidelberg coach Katsakis spotted Athiu playing for Box Hill three season ago he saw a 21-year-old striker full of raw potential.
But since then, the South Sudanese marksman has developed into one of the best players in the NPL and last year was awarded the Player’s Player of the Year.
Reflecting on his progress, Katsakis has nothing but praise for his now 24-year-old striker.
“He has developed tremendously,” he says. “First and foremost, he has developed as a footballer and as a person. He’s just a quality kid to have around the rooms. He doesn’t get ahead of himself and works towards targets. This year those targets have paid off. He’s just a hardworking kid who listens, develops in areas where he needs to strengthen and putting all that together he’s been able to be the leading scorer of this state and scoring some very important goals at all levels.”
Meanwhile Athiu also values the time he has spent under Katsakis and sees his mentor as more than just a coach. “Me and George have a pretty good relationship,” he says.
“When I first came to Heidelberg, Heffernan and Kane were the main strikers. But he explained everything to me and made it clear what he wanted from me and what he could do for me. From there he’s nurtured me into the role and the striker that I am today. If I need anything I can just call him and he will help me out. Our relationship is pretty awesome. He’s kind of like a father figure for the young kids at the club.”
Heidelberg have yet to win a Grand Final in the revamped NPL format and have never reached the FFA Cup semifinal. So, as the club heads into a potential historic making week, Athiu says the club’s fans will be a major source of inspiration.
“Obviously Heidelberg has a rich history, the fan base and everything. It’s talked about,” he says. “You go around the club and to the older fans and the players that used to play, they talk about when they won championships and we want to add to that. But we also want to create our own legacy for this team. Our coaches say that this is something that we can talk about into the future. We will always have a bond between us because of how amazing our season has been so far. We want to win the championship this weekend for ourselves and for the club and the people around Heidelberg.
“The best thing about playing at Heidelberg is the support for this team. They’re very passionate about the club and the team. No matter where we go we always have a good backing of supporters. We wouldn’t be talking about how much achievement we’ve had so far if it wasn’t for the supporters. They’ll do anything to help the team win. Even if it involves catching a bus to Sydney for something like 10 hours. Our supporters are amazing and we support everything they have done for us.”