Which former A-League cult heroes are making their mark in the NPL?

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The sight of any NPL team sheet is usually enough to take the ordinary A-League fan on a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

While many have voiced concerns surrounding the recent lack of transition for NPL talent to the A-League, the same cannot be said for players moving in the opposite direction.

From experienced stars seeking one last taste of competitive football to players mid-career rebounding from an underwhelming stint in the professional game, a multitude of household names grace their respective domestic competitions.

Last season’s ground-breaking livestream deal granted the Australian footballing fraternity the perfect fix of entertaining local fixtures to last them the long A-League off-season.

If you haven’t immersed yourself in the nation’s existing second division(s), you are well and truly missing out.

Here is some additional motivation to do so come March 2020: a comprehensive countdown of fifteen familiar faces who are flying within their respective National Premier Leagues.

15. Marc Warren

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Age: 27

A-League Career: Central Coast Mariners (2010-11), Sydney FC (2013-14), Perth Glory (2015-18)

NPL Career: APIA Leichhardt (2014-15, 2018), Marconi Stallions (2018), Sutherland Sharks (2019-present)

The fullback developed a remarkable level of cult hero status during his time in the A-League and has since returned to the NPL NSW where he skippered Marconi Stallions in 2018 and most recently Sutherland Sharks.

Despite a disappointing 2019 for Sutherland, Warren’s leadership and eye-catching performances earned himself a spot in the 2019 NPL New South Wales team of the season.

14. Michael Thwaite

Age: 36

A-League Career: Melbourne Victory (2008-09), Gold Coast United (2009-12), Perth Glory (2012-16), Western Sydney Wanderers (2017-18)

NPL Career: Gold Coast United (2019-present)

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A renowned character by all accounts (who could forget his ‘pants down’ antics!), the 35-time Socceroos defender’s career has gone full circle with his return to Gold Coast United in 2019.

This season he chipped in with a handy four goals in 26 appearances, as United earned a respectable 7th place finish.

He is currently playing a mentor role within the squad and in the process of completing his coaching badges, so expect to see Thwaite make the step into the technical area post-retirement.

13. Todd Howarth

Age: 37

A-League Career: Perth Glory (2009-12)

NPL Career: Bayswater City (2013-present)

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Considered a legend at both Perth Glory and Bayswater City, the central midfielder was a mainstay for the Glory over three seasons.

His final appearance for the club was their infamous 2012 Grand Final defeat in Brisbane. Since then he has gone on to win four premierships and two club player of the year accolades with Bayswater.

12. Alex Smith

Age: 34

A-League Career: Gold Coast United (2011), Wellington Phoenix (2011-13)

NPL Career: Fraser Park (2010), Sydney Olympic (2011), Oakleigh Cannons (2013), Sunshine Coast FC (2018), Olympic FC (2018-2019)

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The playmaking journeyman wrapped up his career in style with Olympic FC this campaign.

Despite constantly battling with an injury he managed a remarkable 18 goals to inspire his side to the NPL Queensland top four and grand final, earning himself eight team of the week appearances and a team of the season spot in the process.

11. Kofi Danning

Age: 28

A-League Career: Sydney FC (2009-11), Brisbane Roar (2011-12, 2014-15)

NPL Career: Brisbane Roar NPL (2014), Oakleigh Cannons (2015), Hume City (2016), Canberra FC (2017-present)

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Kofi Danning burst onto the scene for Sydney FC back in 2009 with his blistering pace and delicate poise in front of goal. After earning himself a move abroad to Belgian club C.S. Vise, injuries cruelly disrupted the winger’s progress and led him to return home with the Brisbane Roar.

The Ghanian-born attacker has since enjoyed stints in the Queensland, Victorian and Capital NPL, where he boasts a goalscoring record of 18 goals in 46 games with Canberra FC.

At the age of 28, Danning remains in the prime of his career and has made his intentions clear to one day push for an A-League renaissance.

10. Evan Kostopoulos

Age: 29

A-League Career: Adelaide United (2010-13)

NPL Career: Adelaide Olympic (2007-08), Adelaide Comets (2009, 2015-16), Adelaide Cobras (2010), Sydney Olympic (2013-14), Adelaide City (2017-present)

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Kostopoulos struggled to make his mark at Adelaide United, scoring three goals in as many years with the club.

Since then the winger has enjoyed stints with Sydney Olympic and a year in the Hong Kong First Division with South China, before returning home and settling at NPL South Australian outfit Adelaide City.

9. Joey Gibbs

Age: 27

A-League Career: Sydney FC (2010), Western Sydney Wanderers (2012-13), Newcastle Jets (2013-14)

NPL Career: Manly United (2009, 2010, 2011), Marconi Stallions (2012), APIA Leichhardt (2014), Blacktown City (2015-present)

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Many will be shocked to hear that Joey Gibbs is still only 27 years of age. A clinical striker who was on the brink of establishing himself in the A-League on multiple occasions, the majority of his career has been resigned to the NPL NSW (where he has scored over 50 goals).

Gibbs is currently enjoying a successful stint with Blacktown City where he notably scored a deadly brace to topple Central Coast Mariners in a magical FFA Cup night back in 2017.

8. Marko Jesic

Age: 30

A-League Career: Newcastle Jets (2008-2013)

NPL Career: Rockdale City Suns (2014-15), Marconi Stallions (2015-present)

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The former Jets marksman proved a shrewd marquee signing for the Marconi Stallions as they sought to restore a position in the NPL NSW 1 after the historic club were relegated in 2015.

He has prolifically led the line for the Stallions, notching over 50 goals during their return to the top flight and last season helped secure an FFA Cup Round of 16 spot and Waratah Cup title.

7. Hamish Watson

Age: 26

A-League Career: Wellington Phoenix (2013, 2014, 2015-18)

NPL Career: Melbourne Knights (2019-present)

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The physical striker scored six goals over three stints with the Nix but has already eclipsed that tally with nine in his maiden NPL Victoria season for the Melbourne Knights in 2019.

He also popped up with some crucial strikes on the Knights’ road to the Dockerty Cup Final and a glamour clash with Adelaide United the FFA Cup Round of 32. 

6. Ruben Zadkovich

Age: 33

A-League Career: Sydney FC (2006-08), Newcastle Jets (2010-14), Perth Glory (2014-16)

NPL Coaching Career: Broadmeadow Magic FC (2017 to present)

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Ruben Zadkovich is another individual who has secured true A-League cult hero status with his unforgettable long-range efforts on goal and inexplicable 17-second dismissal.

However, in all seriousness, the former Jets skipper is being touted as a future A-League coach by many after an impressive start to his coaching career with NPL Northern NSW club Broadmeadow Magic.

After injury brought a premature end to the former Socceroos midfielder’s career, three seasons with the Magic have produced a vast list of achievements including the 2018 NPL Northern NSW Championship and a Round of 16 FFA Cup run.

5. Lachlan Scott

Age: 22

A League Career: Western Sydney Wanderers (2016-19)

NPL Career: APIA Leichhardt (2015), Western Sydney Wanderers NPL (2016-18), Wollongong Wolves (2019-present)

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In 2016,  the fresh-faced youngster had the world at his feet after he scoring a brace on debut in the Red and Black’s 3-2 comeback victory over the Wellington Phoenix in the FFA Cup Round of 32.

However fast forward three years, Scott was restricted to less than 30 competitive appearances during a transitional period for the club and eventually released.

Still 22, the Australian youth international impressed upon his return to junior club Wollongong Wolves this campaign. If were not for injury, the former Wanderer could well have matched the incredible achievements of his strike partner (NPL NSW Player of the Year and Golden Boot) Thomas James.

He notched an impressive 12 goals in 19 matches which may well warrant a second shot at the A-League.

4. James Virgili

Age: 27

A-League Career: Newcastle Jets (2009-2015)

NPL Career: Newcastle Jets NPL (2012), Broadmeadow Magic (2016-present)

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At the age of 16 years and 180 days, Virgili was the youngest debutant the A-League had ever seen back January 2009. He went on to make 57 appearances for the Jets but was eventually released in 2015.

The Australian U17 and U20 representative now boasts an incredible strike rate of 56 goals in 76 games since returning to the NPL NNSW with Broadmeadow Magic.

His form saw Ernie Merrick take notice and invite him back to train with Newcastle in 2018, however, a move never eventuated. This resulted in the 27-year-old returning to Zadkovich’s side and playing an instrumental role in their 2018 championship run.

3. Chris Payne

Age: 29

A-League Career: Sydney FC (2008-10), North Queensland Fury (2010-2011), Newcastle Jets (2011-12)

NPL Career: Manly United (2008, 2010, 2012, 2014-15), Bonnyrigg White Eagles (2012), Sydney United 58 (2016, 2017-18), APIA Leichhardt Tigers (2019-present)

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A true journeyman in every sense, Chris Payne is one of the most consistent goal-poachers in the NPL NSW with a record that speaks for itself.

In 2019 he remarkably registered his highest tally yet, 23 goals, which spearheaded APIA Leichhardt’s charge to their first championship since 2003.

2. Brandon Lundy

Age: 23

A-League Career: Newcastle Jets (2014-16)

NPL Career: Newcastle Jets NPL (2013-15), APIA Leichhardt (2016-19), Avondale (2019-present)

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Brandon Lundy is a prime example of the many released A-League academy products who patiently go about their business throughout the NPL in the hope of one day returning to the professional game.

After departing the Newcastle Jets, the fullback established himself and won the 2017 NPL NSW Premiership within a hugely successful APIA side.

He boasts the unfortunate record of suffering three consecutive grand final defeats: two with the Tigers and most recently with his new club Avondale in the 2019 NPL Victoria decider.

Nevertheless, Lundy’s consistency and age prove he could prosper if granted another opportunity in the A-League.

1. Luke Wilkshire

Age: 38

A-League Career: Sydney FC (2017-18)

NPL Career: Wollongong Wolves (2018)

NPL Coaching Career: Wollongong Wolves (2019)

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Number one position of this countdown is of course the NPL NSW Coach of the Year, Luke Wilkshire.

The former Socceroo delivered the Wollongong Wolves to their fiercely desired first premiership in 33 years and national glory in the NPL Finals Series during his rookie season as coach.

The retired right-back could not have asked for a better maiden 12 months as a coach. His side showcased an expansive, high-intensity style of football that turned heads nationwide and provided the ambitious South Coast club with some much-needed silverware.

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Will Wilkshire’s Wolves back it all up next year and springboard him into an A-League coaching role? Only time will tell. http://gty.im/669096066

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Chris Curulli
Passionate Sports Media student and all round football obsessive, covering the Western Sydney Wanderers for the 2019/20 season.