by Greg Blake
Poker-faced Heidelberg United boss, George Katsakis will likely have little time for the hype surrounding Saturday night’s clash with Dandenong Thunder at headquarters. Katsakis mastered coach-speak long ago, and he will no doubt play a straight bat when acknowledging what may well be the grandest milestone game in the club’s 60-year history.
But come game time, I daresay even ‘Kats’ will dial down the laser focus momentarily and perhaps even suck in a breath or two, bite his lip and wipe aside the slightest of tears as Luke Byles, Les Doumbalis and Josh Wilkins step out once again to defend Warrior soil. For on Saturday night, we celebrate 200 club game milestones for Byles and Doumbalis and a century up for Wilkins.
Not a single person at the club can recall a game in which three triple figure milestones were celebrated in unison, and three already carved-in-stone club legends of the modern era to boot. And to garnish the weekend’s milestone party, it is also worth noting that our women Warrior’s much underrated Lisa Fonua brings up her 50th game when Heidelberg host Alamein at Catalina Street on Friday night.
There are similarities. Byles, Doumbalis and Wilkins have shared pivotal roles in the league’s best defensive set-up for the past three years. They’ve shared centre stage in the greatest era in club history. And, well, they are all just really nice blokes. Byles has a dashing charm and is also always the first to turn and offer a greeting and a handshake. Doumbalis can be found post-game sharing a smile and a yarn with fans, usually with a stubby and a dart in hand. Wilkins is just this lovely, polite young man, who will always stop and chat, usually sporting a warming grin. All three do the Warrior Nation proud, on and off the paddock.
Byles is the best kind of skipper. On-field he leads through deed and no arm band is required. He leads by bold, brave and sometimes brutal example, ranging about authority.
Byles’ Grand Final performance last year was a signature game. The club’s report on that match declared that “the skipper has maintained that lofty standard for so long now that it’s almost taken for granted. His strong will, bold on-field leadership, trench toughness and cool head when the pressure inevitably came was critical”. Enough said.
Last year’s grand final similarly somehow defined Doumbalis 199 game career at Heidelberg. Not always a walk-up start, not always acknowledged as a club champion of some stature and often underrated – Doumbalis had to come off the bench at a critical stage of the Grand Final and do what he always has done – play full throttle and look as if he’d not missed a beat. Doumbalis is sensational. He’s the longest serving player at the club and has powered on relentlessly through the highs and ugly lows of a decade ago. Perhaps not footballing royalty, but Doumbalis – when he finally packs it in – has forged his place as a club icon.
And just when did super-sleek and shiny Josh Wilkins circa 2019 actually arrive as a bona fide star? We weren’t blind-sided, but his gradual upgrade from Commodore to Ferarri is now official, despite the absence of a particularly memorable breakout game or season. Wilkins’ transition has been incremental, but not startling, given his propensity for the sheer hard work he applies to learning his trade and maintaining peak fitness. Heaven help the rest of the league if he just continues to get better still.
For those of us who romanticise the game and the remarkable men and women who wear the yellow and black, Saturday night will be a rare opportunity to celebrate heartily and acknowledge three of the greats of the modern era – win, lose or draw. Except for ‘Kats’, I would imagine, should the Warriors lose, that is!
15/3 R4 NPLW – Heidelberg United v Alamein FC, Olympic Village, 8pm. Streamed live by HUFC TV on Facebook
16/3 R5 NPL – Heidelberg United v Dandenong Thunder, Olympic Village, 6pm, Streamed live by HUFC TV See program schedule