Australia Cup qualifiers Goulburn Valley Suns putting Shepparton back on the map
Goulburn Valley Suns FC were one of three regional Victorian sides created in 2013 - along with Bendigo City and Murray United - to compete in that state's inaugural National Premier Leagues season. Now, they are the first of the trio to qualify for the Australia Cup Final Rounds.
Goulburn Valley Suns supporters celebrate their team qualifying for the Australia Cup Final Rounds. (Shepparton News)
Goulburn Valley Suns (GV Suns) are based in the inland Victorian city of Shepparton, about 190km north of Melbourne. With a population of around 50,000, Shepparton is Victoria’s fifth-largest city. It is one of the smallest populations represented in the 2023 Australia Cup.
But Shepparton is a prime location for football, having hosted the Joeys' qualifiers for the U17 AFC Asian Cup in October 2022. Goulburn Valley is the greater region’s most prestigious football club, competing in the Men’s NPL 3 competition. It is currently the only local side to play at a state level.
The Suns began their Australia Cup journey in Round 4 of Victoria's preliminary rounds, defeating Pascoe Vale 6-0, Lalor United 3-2, and Whittlesea Ranges 3-1 to reach Round 7 and a playoff for a spot in the national Round of 32 against Hume City, a club with a rich cup history themselves. The Suns’ won 2-0 against the NPL side, clinching a spot on the national stage for the first time in their short history. Goulburn's results come from the player development philosophy undertaken by former player and now head coach Craig Carley. He spoke exclusively to Front Page Football about his journey with the Shepparton side.
Goulburn Valley Suns FC head coach Craig Carley. (The Border Mail)
“I came to Australia probably 13 years ago (from England), originally as a player at Cobram Victory,” Carley told FPF.
“When the GV Suns got their license, they approached me to come across as a player; spent a couple of years there at GV Suns, also spent some time at Hume City and Avondale.”
Carley was the player-coach of GV Suns from 2017 to 2022, departing the club briefly before returning as head coach for this season.
“There was a period last season where I stepped back for a little bit...but a new board [has] come in this year and sort of took the reigns of the club and asked me to come back in and be [the] senior coach again this year,” Carley said.
It has been a challenge for Carley and the Suns to continuously compete against some of the better-financed Melbourne and Geelong-based clubs, who enjoy much larger catchment areas to draw players from. Carley recounted GV Suns' difficult inaugural season.
“When the NPL was reformed, we got told two weeks before the start of the season that we had a top-tier NPL license, and literally, we had two weeks to get a team together,” he said.
Carley added that the developing club had “no pre-season whatsoever.”
GV Suns were relegated in their first season of NPL football. Carley acknowledged that in these early days, the club provoked local Shepparton teams by recruiting their players, alluding that they had not bought into the idea of the NPL yet. The Suns had competed in the Men’s NPL 2 competition until their relegation at the end of the 2022 season. Carley said the club's ambition is to compete at the highest possible level, and he sees cultivating a local player base as one of the keys to achieving this objective.
“Our focus is a little bit different, to say, some of the more established clubs. I guess we, being a regional side, we’re a club that really do pride ourselves on developing our own young talent in players,” he said.
“I think one of the major points with us is it’s obviously not only about developing good football players but, more importantly, good people."
The Suns’ inaugural qualification for the Australia Cup Final Rounds has come at a good time for the club, as Carley works to win promotion back up to NPL 2. A cup run has the potential to put some genuine wind behind the team and give his youthful side the necessary experience heading into the season's latter stages.
John McEwen Reserve, the home of Goulburn Valley Suns FC. (Austadiums)
“It’s huge. We’ve had calls from the Mayor of [Greater] Shepparton, [and] local businesses, all wanting to get on board and back us. It's absolutely huge, and it just goes to show that local players can come through the system and compete against some of these big major teams in the NPL," Carley said.
Having come into the 2023 season aiming to rebuild the squad to reverse the club’s relegation, Carley has been pleasantly surprised by his side's performances.
“I didn’t truly believe we would get this successful this quickly. It puts Shepparton back on the map in terms of football,” he said.
GV Suns' promising future under Carley has assisted in the club mending its relationship with local sides in their area and working with the Shepparton Junior Soccer Association.
“All the local clubs have jumped on board with us. We try and incorporate them in everything we do," Carley said.
There is now a shared vision in Shepparton's football system to prioritise developing individual players, which occasionally means sacrificing club achievements.
“We’re there to develop players, to develop people. I think we have to put the player at the centre of everything,” Carley added.
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Socceroo Garang Kuol played his junior football at Goulburn Valley Suns. (Shepparton News)
Carley is confident his GV Suns can be competitive in the Australia Cup. He hopes the greater community will rally around them.
"We'll take each match as it comes. From a player perspective, I've got a firm belief in the boys that we've got that we can actually shock a couple of people in this competition," he said.
"Any help that we can possibly get in terms of exposure, in terms of opening up the football landscape in Shepparton, we'll certainly be trying to jump on that as much as we can. Locally, we get some awesome coverage from local newspapers here; TV, radio, it's really good there."
Carley highlighted the fruits of GV Suns’ development-focused strategy, with players such as the Kuol brothers, James Nieuwenhuizen, and Alec Mills coming from their system. However, the head coach is also optimistic about the current crop and hopes the cup can provide some exposure for them.
"We've also got some young talented players in our club at the moment in the senior team, and hopefully, this (the Australia Cup) opens up some opportunities for them," he said.
He is also optimistic about the future of football in Shepparton, noting the increased interest in the area's local football from the A-League Men.
"What I can say is that I now have a lot more dialogue with A-League coaches that give me a call and ask for my opinion on some of our players," he revealed.
But ultimately, Carley values the development of his players above all else.
“I am certainly a coach that would never hold anyone back. I get far more success seeing people go on and playing at a higher level, sometimes [more] than winning trophies. It’s about making lives better for people,” he added.
Goulburn's Australia Cup Round of 32 opposition will be revealed tomorrow night, with the draw at 7 pm AEST. After discovering their opponent on the national stage, the Suns will turn their attention to climbing the Men's NPL 3 table when they travel to Essendon Royals this Saturday night.
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