Inter Lions FC: From the NSW fifth tier to Australia's top 16
Jubilation and heartbreak are closely aligned terms in Cup football. For Inter Lions FC, their dream Australia Cup run unfortunately ended dramatically last week, when NPL SA side the MetroStars snatched a late winner in stoppage time. The Lions were minutes away from extra time and a chance to make the quarter-finals. It’s fair to say that a top-eight finish would have been one of the competition's greatest stories. Front Page Football recently spoke to Inter Lions Head Coach John Theodoropoulos to discuss the club's remarkable campaign.
Despite the result, a Round of 16 finish for a team competing in their state's second tier is incredible. Given their sixth-place finish in the FNSW League One (or NPL 2) this season, it is highly commendable that the Lions competed with a 2023 NPL powerhouse in the MetroStars.
Inter Lions celebrate their 6-0 win against Hellenic Athletic in the Australia Cup Round of 32. (Facebook: Inter Lions FC 1983)
Head Coach Theodoropoulos said reaching the last 16 exceeded the club's initial expectations.
“We recruited well this season, which gave ourselves an opportunity in the tournament. We planned to give it a good go, but reaching the Round of 16 was beyond our expectations,” he told FPF.
“We were extremely proud of getting this far; I can’t hide the emotion, though. There was definitely a sense of disappointment knowing we were very close.”
Being clear underdogs in the Metro contest, Theodoropoulos expressed that despite employing a defensive set-up, he wanted his side to impact the game early.
“In the first few minutes, we wanted to put a bit of pressure on to see how they (Metro) responded. The early pressure was something we talked about, and it nearly worked. However, we were always going to fall back and soak up the pressure to catch them on the break. It almost panned out for us, but I think the nerves got the better of some of our boys,” he said.
Theodoropoulos (middle) celebrates a win with fellow club associates.(Facebook: Inter Lions FC 1983)
Many Australian football fans started to take notice of the FNSW League One side after their exhilarating 2-1 cup-set win against NPL NSW title challengers Rockdale Ilinden in the preliminary rounds. Theodoropoulos explained how that result sparked growing confidence in his side.
“That was the highlight of our season. We set up really well. We had a plan, and we were extremely dominant. We held the ball well and created the better chances, which helped us nullify them. Every single player did their job. It gave us the belief that we could go on and do some amazing things in this competition."
The Lions' euphoric campaign did not end there, as they secured their place in the last 16 with a convincing 6-0 win over Football Northern Territory side Hellenic Athletic in the Round of 32. The result highlighted NSW football's growing strength, as the Inter Lions became the lowest-ranked side in this year’s Round of 16.
What might be a shock to those who tuned into last week's clash against the MetroStars is that the Lions are an unfamiliar team to the FNSW League One, never mind the last 16 of the Australia Cup. Their familiar territory was in the FNSW League Two competition, which they had played in for some time. After their impressive title run in 2022, the Lions were promoted to the FNSW League One for the first time in the club’s history. But before that promotion, they had competed in the third tier and had done so since 2005.
The season prior, in 2004, the Lions won promotion from the then-called NSW League Three, which sat on the fourth tier of the state's football pyramid. They were promoted to NSW League Three after becoming the NSW League Four premiers in 2003. This league sat on the fifth tier of the pyramid. So, in under 20 years, the Lions have progressed from competing in the fifth tier of NSW football to becoming a top 16 team in the nation.
Being watched by many Australian football fans for the first time, the Inter Lions will have been disappointed with how their MetroStars contest panned out. Nonetheless, they should be incredibly proud of their efforts to progress from the Australia Cup preliminary rounds for the first time. Considering the club's brief history, making the last 16 of the Australia Cup whilst competing in the FNSW League One is impressive.
An Inter Lions squad pictured in the 1980s. The club was originally known as Majors Bay Soccer Club. (Inter Lions FC)
Founded in 1983 by passionate Italian migrants who were avid Inter Milan supporters, Theodoropoulos commented on the Lions’ relatively young history and how the club is unwavering in its pursuit to climb the ranks in NSW.
“We’re ambitious. We have plans to move further and our facilities are second to none. We are always looking to progress.”
An aerial of Major Bay Reserve, Inter Lions' home ground. In 2018, Mayor Angelo Tsirekas announced a $4.4 million funding upgrade in conjunction with a $2.3 million upgrade from the NSW Government. (Inter Lions FC)
The Inter Lions’ sudden Australia Cup success and continuous rise up the NSW pyramid may well prove the best is yet to come. Being only a few wins away from a promotion place into the NPL NSW this season, could the Inter Lions become a more prominent team within the Australian football landscape? Improving every season, Theodoropoulos and his side will be hoping their peak is yet to have been reached.
With the club able to secure former A-League defender and Macedonian international Daniel Georgievski last season, their owners are committed to improvement. Theodoropoulos says the investment in having a young and experienced mix of players has helped on the pitch and also helped engrain a positive mindset in the dressing room.
“Some of the boys we have brought in, such as Oliver Green, have been instrumental in our title win last year. Having experienced boys as well, such as Daniel Georgievski, has really helped around the training ground and has been immense in engraining belief into our side,” he said.
Since the Australia Cup’s inaugural season in 2014 - known then as the FFA Cup - amateur and semi-professional clubs alike have been put at the forefront of Australian football fans and have travelled around the nation. It is no wonder phrases such as 'the magic of the cup' get thrown around consistently. Typically constrained within their local region, semi-professional players with alternative career paths and external lives can play on the national stage like a professional, often for the first time. The structure, in turn, allows clubs at a similar level to the Inter Lions to have faith in producing an exciting cup run. Lions were fortunate enough to experience this cup magic, which brought about bonding and memories of the most remarkable nature. Theodoropoulos highlighted this aspect, stating that travelling to Darwin and Adelaide helped drastically in creating an interconnected side.
“Those trips have been absolutely fantastic for us. They have really brought us closer together. That’s something we discussed post-game (against the MetroStars). It’s incredible how these little trips have done so much in bringing us that little bit extra tighter.”
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The Inter Lions arriving in Adelaide for their Round of 16 clash against the MetroStars. (Facebook: Inter Lions FC 1983)
Assured to have created some unforgettable and lifelong memories for the club, the 2024 season couldn’t come quicker for the Inter Lions. Inspired by their 2023 success, Theodoropoulos' attention will soon turn to pre-season. He will continue to diligently enforce a style of play reminiscent of their Italian counterparts (to the untrained eye) in the bid for an unprecedented NPL promotion.
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