A humble setting for history to be made, the floodlights shining down on the turf of Green Gully Reserve could be spotted blocks away in the north Melbourne suburb of Keilor Downs.
Anticipation built, and so did the crowd, as many regular National Premier League attendees were confident – quietly or otherwise – of an upset; a ‘cupset’ as it were.
Once among the top football clubs in Australia, nine time Victorian Premier League Champion and five time Dockerty Cup winners Green Gully had thrust itself well and truly into the national sporting spotlight.
Their opponent on this now infamous Tuesday night? A club that might have called itself the top football club not so long ago but now a tumultuous period in the Central Coast Mariners’ short history has most recently turned out its worst A-League season yet, winning a meagre three games and picking up its maiden wooden spoon in the process.
Arthur Papas smelled blood.
“We had enough confidence in the ability of the players to run out the game at high intensity even though we were playing against a professional team,” Papas said. “I think you saw that in the second half, the amount of times we would win the ball high up the ground and start another attack. You maybe create your own luck but also if you work on certain areas it’s not by chance that it happens to this team many times this year that they can go on and win games from losing positions.”
At just 36 years of age, Arthur Papas has amassed an impressive list of coaching honours on his CV. In 2010, Papas became the youngest coach in the Victorian Premier League’s history when he was announced as head coach of Oakleigh Cannons. The following year, Papas would lead Oakleigh to the Grand Final against Green Gully, where his side lost 3-2. Papas was awarded the coach of the year award at the end of the season.
He would return to Oakleigh in 2015 following coaching roles at A-League side Newcastle Jets and numerous roles in India. Despite a disappointing season in the league, Oakleigh progressed to the quarter-finals of the FFA Cup, before being knocked out by Hume City. In its three-year history, Papas became the first person to coach two separate NPL sides to the national phase of the FFA Cup when Green Gully defeated Bulleen Lions 1-0 on Wednesday June 8, 2016.
Eight weeks later on Tuesday August 2, 2016, Arthur Papas would become just the second person to coach an NPL side to a win against A-League opposition in the FFA Cup.
For Papas, his journey started well before his time at Oakleigh.
“My grounding started way before that. Prior to that I had already completed a degree in Exercise Science, I had been at Altona Magic as an assistant,” he said. “For me the pivotal moment in my coaching journey is the Australian Institute of Sport.”
Papas was 28 when under the tutelage of Dutch coach Jan Versleijen and Gary van Egmond at AIS. Working through a scholarship, he was able to hone his craft and complete his Masters in Coaching. Building on what he had learnt from his first coaching course when he was 16, Papas was able to work with a number of up-and-coming Socceroos at AIS, including Trent Sainsbury, Mustafa Amini and Terry Antonis.
Though he played as a junior for local club Fawkner, injuries hampered any chance at a professional playing career for Papas. His first knee operation came when he was 18 years old and after five more, attention eventually turned to coaching.
“The brain was quicker than the body.”
“The beauty of those injuries is it actually motivated me to study so I learnt, first of all, why training programs that I had to be a part of weren’t actually good for you.”
Recalling his earliest memories of football and what sparked a life-long passion, Papas cites none other than Diego Maradona as a childhood hero.
“The 1986 World Cup was the first time I ever watched football, I was six years old. You watch the things Maradona was doing and you couldn’t help but be inspired by it. The passion and the skill of the game.”
Also inspiring was the chance to meet the legendary George Best when he came to Melbourne for a training clinic at local club Frankston Pines.
“I was maybe 10 years old and George Best came out to Melbourne… my idol Paul Trimboli was there as one of the coaches.”
“I just saw how humble both of them were and how tremendously talented they were and you fall in love with the game. You have experiences with people you look up to and have achieved great things, you start to dream.”
Green Gully had been the better side in the second half against Central Coast but still trailed through Blake Powell’s goal in the 15th minute. With five minutes remaining on the clock, Gully huffed and puffed but the fairy-tale finish was slipping from Papas’ grasp.
When Mariners’ winger Kwabena Appiah was able to pick up the ball after a partially cleared corner, it looked as though a break might come for Central Coast after surviving a mountain of pressure from a determined Gully outfit.
In a moment that perhaps best exemplifies Arthur Papas’ coaching philosophy, midfielder Evan Christodoulou recovered the ball from under Appiah’s feet and launched the ball back in towards goal for another attacking foray. The ball would eventually find its way to captain Daniel Jones who would give the part-timers from Keilor Downs a thoroughly deserved equaliser.
“It’s something that I like to see in my teams,” Papas said. “The first thing is not to be sitting too deep. Not to play a reactive game. And to be able to press, and press aggressively. At times we’ve got it right and times you don’t get it right. In the first half a couple of times we were off the mark and their quality exposed us in that area. But I thought in the second half overall, the balance of the team improved considerably.”
By his own admission, Gully striker Liam Boland was ‘having a stinker’ of a game. That mattered for little however, when a poor turnover from Mariners’ striker Roy O’Donovan saw the ball fall at the number 38’s feet in the final minute of the game.
“I’ve tried it a few times in the league this year and come close but for it to come off on the national stage, I’m pretty happy that it came off now,” Boland said of his match-winning goal after the game, which quickly went viral following the historic victory.
A sensational strike from about 40 metres out, the 24-year-old hit the ball first time and it flew over goalkeeper Ivan Necevski’s head into the back of the net and Green Gully Reserve erupted.
With the benefit of hindsight, the choice was obvious in keeping Boland on the pitch despite not having made an impact for much of the game. But coach Arthur Papas never doubted the striker.
“In the end if you want to win games you don’t take off the guys who can score goals. That’s the decision in the end to keep him on because he does have that in his locker,” Papas said. “The decision to keep him on was because – not because he’s having a poor game so you just take him off – it’s about who can go on and win games and who can score goals.”
The result sent shockwaves among the Australian footballing community. In the fallout from the game, Central Coast Mariners coach Tony Walmsley would be sacked just a week later, and has since been replaced by Paul Okon. Yet among the candidates to take on the newly vacated role was Papas.
“To even be mentioned for positions like that is something that you obviously want… it’s flattering and nice to be acknowledged in those circles.”
Indeed, Papas has unfinished business at Green Gully in the immediate future, as he is set to do battle with another juggernaut of Victorian football. Among the most well-known football clubs in Australia, Melbourne Knights have produced a near endless list of footballing talent – most famous of all being former Socceroo Mark Viduka, whom the man of the match medal in the FFA Cup final is named after.
Should Papas claim victory on Tuesday night, he will have matched his efforts at Oakleigh last year. But with the elimination of two A-League sides against NPL opposition in the competition already, some are starting to think this may be the year an NPL side can claim the trophy.
“It’s going to be very difficult, but if any club can do it it’s my club. Because I believe always that every game I go into I have a chance of winning and I think the group believe that as well.”