Liam Boland is often up before 4 am. Like NPL players around Australia, he’s working days, training nights. The Melbourne-based NPL goal machine lets FTBL into his life as a semi-pro.
This week, like most in winter, NPL players are arriving home late and exhausted after another long day.
These come off the back of long, draining off-seasons in summer where you’re smashed physically and don’t even get paid for the pleasure (more on that later).
It’s a grind. Especially in the middle of a bone-chilling winter in Melbourne.
Wet nights at training after a long day’s work, FFA Cup preliminary games midweek and league on the weekend, in front of hundreds rather than thousands: no fame or fortune, just the endless driving, training, playing and the anonymity nine to ten months a year.
It’s especially tough for guys doing trade work, getting up at 5 am for work.
“Some jobs the boys have makes it very hard to perform at a high level. But they seem to do it, which speaks volumes for their character,” the Avondale City striker, FFA Cup hero and current NPL Victoria joint top goalscorer Liam Boland tells FTBL.
Boland, 27, can be seen early doors, Canon kit in hand, tripod, and lenses at the ready, shivering as he searches for a sunrise shot for his photography business (Instagram at @liamfboland and www.liamboland.com.au
Or you may see him at your mate’s wedding.
He’ll be the guy capturing the moment on weekends when couples tie the knot.
“If I’m up getting a sunrise shot, it’s a long day if I’m training that night," he says.
“In the summer, I’m up at 4 am or earlier for sunrise and driving a couple of hours, say if I’m shooting in Mornington.
"Maybe there for around four hours. Drive home, stare at a computer all day then drive to training.
“It was a lot worse and much later getting home when I played at Gully and Hume. A very long day. It’s tiring.”
Boland trains in Brunswick so with rush hour, it’s a 45-minute drive from the city.
But by the time his long day ends, he usually walks in his home’s door around 8.30pm.
He’s one of the luckier ones. Many NPL players wouldn’t be home till 10 pm.
Avondale coach Zoran “Zocky” Markovski’s astute management of his players’ time means they aren’t hanging around the club longer than 8 pm most nights - on the pitch by 5.45pm for a 6 pm start is his mantra.
“If you have a happy dressing room at this level, it’s half the battle,” Boland says. “We don’t train silly hours. Most of us do recovery on our own.”
It’s working with Avondale five points clear top of the ladder and Boland joint top scorer in the league on 18 goals (along with Gully's Alex Salmon).
Why do it?
It’s a question many would ask themselves as they’re driving home through the streets of their city late at night, hoping to steal a few minutes with their partners or kids before falling, exhausted, into bed and doing it all again before the sun rises in another few hours.
To answer the question, why, for many, it would be the chance to play professionally in Australia.
Or even just that glimpse of the spotlight in the FFA Cup Round of 32 onwards.
But with so few clubs and one professional league, demand outstrips the need for supply in Australia right now.
However, perhaps the most frustrating aspect for players are NPL contracts.
In essence, no-one gets paid for pre-season.
That’s three to four nights a week for around three months.
It’s mainly pay to play with a base wage and some bonuses.
“That’s how it works at this level,” explains Boland, who moved to Melbourne from Perth five years ago.
“The hardest thing with the NPL is pre-season. It takes up around four days a week and that’s not paid at around 99% of clubs.
“So you’re dedicating all that time in pre-season for three months, and you’re not getting paid. It’s a lot of time to put in. A lot of sacrifices.
“I’m not sure people understand that," Boland says.
“It’s very tough for boys who get injuries, too.
"Luckily my club Avondale will help you out if you need surgery.
"They’ve been great but not all clubs are like that and it’s things like this that can be serious issues for player welfare."
Work and family life balance?
Ask any top level NPL player, and he’ll tell you it’s a huge challenge.
"Well, this is just another huge challenge compared to the A-League boys. My wife is very understanding,” says Boland.
“She works full time and long hours. I may only see her for an hour on the day I train.
“We’re kinda lucky as she can sometimes work from home, but I can see it as being a bigger issue for a lot of other couples who don’t have that luxury.”
For A-League players to get a first-hand look at NPL life might just be the best thing for them.
To realise how lucky they are. And how well looked after they are in the professional ranks in Australia.
Brendon Santalab tells FTBL his first month in the NPL has been an eye-opener, in more ways than one.
“Sometimes I turn up to training and I can see some of the boys and they look so tired. Honestly, I feel sorry for them.
“Especially boys with families and kids. When they finish work and training, they sometimes aren’t home till 10 pm.
“They go straight to bed, they haven’t even seen their family. And they go straight to work the next day. They may see their family for 24 hours.
“It’s very difficult for them. It’s not easy. It’s a challenge to train and put the effort in and it’s been great for me to see.
“It’s opened my eyes up. I’m proud to be a part of this team and be with them.”
The former Perth Glory, Sydney FC, and Western Sydney Wanderers striker ended his almost 20-year professional career in May, and since then, the 36-year-old Asian Champions League winner has been doing it tough in a relegation battle in the Victorian NPL with Dandenong City.
“I take my hat off to NPL players. My teammates who come off job sites and wake up at ridiculous hours in the morning to go to work, and work their backside off all day and come to training in the cold and still give the 100% effort.
“I admire them. I really do. It’s very difficult to do. I’ve been very lucky to be a professional for my entire career. To step down into NPL level, and see how tough the boys do it.
“I see these guys and I can see I had it very, very good at the top level. We’re very lucky to be professional athletes.
“They just love the game in the NPL, the boys. You don’t play in the NPL if you don’t love the game.”
Despite scoring one of the greatest FFA Cup goals in history to help knock off Central Coast Mariners, and despite being the joint top scorer in the NPL, Boland has never had a sniff of an A-League contract.
The pathway is very narrow, and for every Elvis Kamsoba, Matt Millar or Andy Brennan who earn a pro contract, there are hordes still plugging away, manfully, on poor pitches and in virtual anonymity as they juggle work and football.
“You’ve got to find motivation within. And it’s tough for young players with aspirations trying to get noticed when you’ve worked all day," says Boland, who stresses he still feels lucky with the life he has.
“I’ve probably had my best year, we’re top of the ladder and I’m joint top scorer with Alex Salmon at Gully,” says Boland.
“I”m 27 years old, I would be a mature age rookie. There’d be no loss to an A-League club to take a risk on me. But it doesn’t look like it’s happening right now."
But Boland plugs away and like many, hopes, while he builds his day job profile.
He adds: “I love my photography. It’s a passion. It’s kept me sane.”