By Lance Jenkinson
North Sunshine Eagles had a vision to build up to National Premier League standard in a five-year block and it achieved its timeline to perfection with promotion from the Football Victoria men’s state league 1 north-west on Saturday.
The Eagles secured their elevation to the newly formed NPL 3 next season with a commanding 2-0 win over Essendon Royals on the road at Cross Keys Reserve.
It was a landmark day for Eagles coach Ben Isai and his club, which had gone so agonisingly close to promotion 12 months earlier, missing out by two measly points.
The Eagles would not be denied this time and confirmed their NPL status for the first time in the club’s history.
“Everyone is ecstatic, the players, coaches, club, committee and sponsors,” Isai said.
North Sunshine ended the season on a five-game winning streak.
The Eagles promotion hopes were looking shaky after champions Preston Lions beat them 3-0 on July 28. The never-say-die Eagles have been flawless since that day, claiming a maximum 15 points in that time.
“The Preston game did knock us a bit because we didn’t think we were a three-goal worse team,” Isai said.
“We went there with such high hopes.
“I’m proud of the way they responded after that game. We could’ve easily drawn another game or lost another game and we wouldn’t have been going up.
“We’ve won a lot of games that we’ve had to come from behind or just hang on.”
Isai led a change in mentality, going away from his own defence-first approach and allowing his players to express themselves on the ball.
Sure, the Eagles conceded a few more goals than Isai would have liked, but they were able to out-gun their opposition more often than not.
“We’ve changed our structure a little bit and we’re a bit more attacking compared to what I’m traditionally used to doing,” Isai said.
“We gave them a bit more freedom and I think that helped them a lot.”
It was fitting that Nick Epifano got on the scoreboard for North Sunshine on the day it was promoted as he has been in scorching form with 15 goals in 14 games.
He not only scored the opening goal from the penalty spot, he created the penalty when he was taken down.
After much huffing and puffing without luck in attack, North Sunshine finally got the insurance goal through Ryan Dragovic.
The set up play by Diellon Memishi was just as important as the slick Dragovic finish.
“It was good work by Diellon [Memishi] who chased down a lost cause and cut it back to Ryan, who placed it nicely from around the penalty spot,” Isai said.
In a game where North Sunshine had contributors one through to 11, captain Shane Rexhepi was the one player to stand out.
He controlled the tempo with the ball in central midfield and did a fine job of keeping the Royals star midfielders relatively quiet.