Albion Park's journey to becoming the Premier League's latest premiers was no fluke. In fact, it's something that had been several years in the making.
While they narrowly missed the top-five in 2022, the White Eagles had been one of the league's most consistent performers in recent history, having not missing finals since 2018.
Park had slowly continued to build their squad during that period, and it has all come together in 2023, with the side wrapping up the IPL premiership despite two rounds remaining in the regular season.
As the dust continues to settle on their accomplishment, we look at some of the key factors that led to Albion Park's title victory:
All the right moves
Albion Park claimed their first big win of the year months before a ball had been kicked in anger, with the club announcing in mid-January that former Olympic mentor George Antoniou would take the reins as head coach. He replaced Alvin Ceccoli, who decided to put his coaching career on hold for 12 months.
Experienced coach Antoniou had gained a reputation within the local football community as a "winner", namely as a strong motivator and a good player manager, and was seen by the club as a potential key cog in their pursuit of success.
That move proved to be more than justified.
Antoniou was also influential in attracting plenty of top talent to the club, including former premiership-winning Woonona skipper Tyler Bromham-Fuller, young guns Joey Lavalle and Tory Musumeci, and ex-Wollongong Wolves gloveman Hayden Durose and veteran Brendan Griffin.
Former Wolves and Olympic sharpshooter Josh Macdonald also joined the club mid-season, while Japanese import Taiga Kitajami had a big impact during their campaign. These recruits complemented Park's already strong playing stocks, namely Cameron Morgan and Brendan Fordham.
How to make a fast start
They say that first impressions last - and the White Eagles wasted no time getting on the front foot in 2023.
Antoniou's men burst out of the blocks in emphatic fashion, claiming four convincing wins and scoring 13 goals in the opening month. They beat Tarrawanna in round one and followed up that result with victories over South Coast United (3-1), Corrimal (3-1) and Port Kembla (3-0).
In fact, Park would go undefeated all the way until early June until they finally slipped up, falling 2-1 to SCU in a shock defeat.
They would suffer their second league defeat a month later against Wollongong Olympic by 2-0, but it mattered little, as they pushed on to remain unbeaten again on their way to claiming the IPL premiership on Saturday afternoon.
(Good) attitude matters
While it's important to have the cattle, it's equally as crucial to have a good work ethic and belief in pursuit of success.
Fortunately for Antoniou, Park's squad had both of these aspects in spades in 2023.
"It's been fantastic. I think we're also at the top of the club championship which shows that we have great depth in our other two teams (second and youth grades). We have some good young talent coming through, which puts pressure on the boys in the firsts team," Antoniou told the Mercury.
"It's been a long, tough year and I'm so proud of the boys and the club. Where the club was last year, we just wanted to improve on last year and our goal was always semi-finals - and anything above that would be a bonus.
"But as the season went on, our goals changed a little bit and got a bit higher, and this was our target towards the end."
The key statistics
- Albion Park claimed the premiership with two rounds remaining, taking an unassailable lead at the top of the table with 50 competition points.
- The team's opening 20 rounds consisted of 16 wins, two draws and just two losses. The next best in terms of wins tally are the second-placed Cringila and third-placed Olympic (both 12).
- The White Eagles boast a +40 goal difference, after scoring 62 goals and shipping 40. They have the best for and against record in the IPL, followed by Olympic (+39) and the Lions (+37).
- Park's goal-scoring was nicely shared around during the 2023 campaign, but Cameron Morgan and Taiga Kitajima lead the way with 14 goals apiece.