A product of Essendon Royals and the Victorian NTC program, Jonathan Vakirtzis arrived at Melbourne Victory at a time when they were flying high, promoted to the top flight of Victorian football for the 2016 season and loaded up with talented players such as Thomas Deng, Joey Katabian, Anthony Duzel, Christian Cavallo and Kieran Dover.  

“I definitely felt like I was in the perfect place to step forward and make a career out of it.”

Having quickly earned playing time upon entering the Victory setup, the youngster was one of three Victory products – Lucas Derrick and Pierce Waring the others – selected in Australia’s U17 World Cup squad in Chile. He would go on to play the full 90 minutes in all four of the Joey’s games at that tournament.

However, a changing of the guard in the Victory youth ranks saw the club win just three of their 26 games, Victory was relegated from NPL Victoria after just a single season and finished bottom of Conference A in the 2016/17 Y-League season.

“We got promoted to the NPL in our second year of playing, but what happened was all those 17, 18-year-old kids who I was playing with, they were all [replaced with] young players.

“We’d go into every game and we’re just getting belted most games. I don’t know if it was a reflection of the youth setup, but it didn’t really benefit us too much losing week in and week out. We tried to develop and keep playing our football, but it was pretty disheartening coming out and getting beaten 3-0, 4-0.

“I definitely think the Y-League was more beneficial because you’re playing against the cream of the crop of your age in the country whereas getting thrown into that senior environment with such a young squad in the NPL we kind of struggled.”

The young defender ultimately departed Melbourne Victory having never been able to crack the first team of then-Head Coach Kevin Muscat, signing with NPL Victoria side Pascoe Vale in 2018.

Looking back, Vakirtzis acknowledges there were things he could have done better in his quest to reach the A-League, but also thinks that there are some structural areas that could be improved upon.

“With my first year of NYL, I think that year and the year where I was in and out of the national team camps, that’s when you really develop and you really feel like you’re on the path to professional football.

“I think an extended league would be a pretty good idea but if you’re expecting clubs to be flying interstate and playing there needs to be a big push for funding and a lot more emphasis on a link between the youth and senior setups.

Playing in the NPL, it has its benefits playing against men but at the same time, it’s probably more beneficial playing against the cream of the crop in your own age group.

“I definitely think if you push for more funding and make it as close to a senior team environment you’re going to be getting kids who are probably developing quicker and are a lot more willing to be training full-time.

I still kept up with my university studies and I was working while I was training as a Y-League player. It didn’t really make sense that I could have got called up to play first team on the weekend and I probably still worked 8-5 in a warehouse on Friday.

“But towards the end of my Y-League career I just kind of drifted away from the likelihood of having a career in football and had to focus on making ends meet, working and getting a Uni degree. Which luckily, I have done now.

“That just sums it up, football wasn’t really a priority for me at stages of the Y-League when it should have been, and that’s a reflection on the money and how I saw more development going.”