When the Newcastle Jets signed Nikolai Topor-Stanley from Perth Glory in 2009 I was struggling big time with that decision.
I did not rate him at all. Lanky, awkward, too casual – a non-athlete if ever I saw one. How wrong I was. Over time he won me over and more importantly, other Jets fans.
Nikolai grew up in the ACT and one of his earliest footballing memories was “wearing his ‘fake’ Brazil shirt while watching the ’94 World Cup Final, played in the USA between Brazil and Italy.” For the record, Brazil won on penalties.
He was also a regular follower of the NSL and therefore the Canberra Cosmos. “They were my local team to look up to and aspire to. A visual taste of professional football.” As a 15/16-year-old he trialled with Canberra and was bluntly told he was “not good enough.” This in no way deterred the young Topor-Stanley.
In 2006 he secured a contract with Sydney FC, effectively as an injury replacement. He’d spent time at the AIS and was with Manly FC, but had been training “when he could and with encouragement from Sydneys Assistant coach Ian Crook.” Terry Butcher (Sydney head coach) liked what he saw in Topor-Stanley and his professional A-League career began.
He then headed west and linked up with Perth Glory for two seasons and he returned to the east coast joining the Novocastrians in 2009. At both Perth and Newcastle he won player of the season awards.
It was his transfer to the Western Sydney Wanderers that proved to be life-changing. In four seasons with the Wanderers they won the Premiers Plate, played in three grand finals and miraculously won the Asian Champions League in 2014. On that Champions League win Topor Stanley recalls it as “clearly a David and Goliath story. We managed to do the near impossible.”
He is unsure if that will happen again any time soon. He did expand on Australian football’s place in the world. “Australian football is in its infancy. We’ve got a long way to go if we want to develop as a top footballing nation in the world, not just Asia. We have to keep pushing the envelope and aspiring obviously to be that. It’s clear for everyone to see we’re lagging a bit behind. It’s something we can aspire to though.”
More importantly for Topor-Stanley though, was his connection with coach Tony Popovic. “He came into my life at a time where I matured as a person. Without him, I might have been out of the system by now. He showed me what it was to be a professional and I’m thankful that I got the opportunity to play under him at that time. He gave me the tools to grow as a footballer and as a person. I’m very thankful for that.”
Topor-Stanley then opted for a stint playing for Club Hatta in the UAE. This in itself was “a challenge, an eye-opener and a different experience. The style of both the football and refereeing was different. I also got to experience promotion and relegation for the first time.”
2017 and Topor returned to the Hunter and was an integral part of the rise of Newcastle from wooden spooners to grand finalists. He believes that this seasons team has got all the necessary ingredients too to play finals football.
Talking of “being in every game apart from the Sydney match”, he goes on to state, “football’s not entirely forgiving. It doesn’t always reward those that deserve.” On his current defensive partner, 24-year-old Lachlan Jackson: “He has all the attributes and ability to become a good player in this league. I expect him to do that. I don’t expect him to play badly. People play consistently well and it’s a surprise? It should be the other way around. He’s paid to do the job. Not taking anything away from him he’s a fantastic young player and he’s getting the opportunity to get some consistency in his game. It’s up to him to put in solid and consistent performances.”
Encouragingly also for the Newcastle faithful Topor-Stanley believes, “this competition has shown that underdogs can compete for titles and there’s no reason why we can’t do that.”
I wasn’t initially game enough to bring up my own personal thoughts on Topor-Stanley when he first arrived at Newcastle. I left it until late in the interview. He was fine with it. “You’re not the first to write me off. My 13s State League coach tried to turn me into a ‘keeper. He said I couldn’t play! I’ve had plenty knock me in the past. If I’d listened to all the critics then I probably wouldn’t have made it. To make it in this game you have to have tough skin. You have to be able to take criticism.”
Topor-Stanley turns 35 next year but at the moment there seems to be no stopping him. “I feel good, I’m training hard and I feel like physically and mentally I can contribute.”
This weekend’s fixture against Melbourne City is his 300th A-League game. A fantastic milestone for one of the league’s finest professionals. An appreciated player and very much a cult hero in the Hunter. I end the interview asking if he recalls who his last goal scored was against. “Melbourne City.”
It’s been a while since he’s scored, it’d be a great way to cap his 300th.
The Newcastle Jets have quietly undertaken one of the largest rebuilds of any A-League club in recent seasons. Coach Arthur Pappas has ushered in several young players with great promise while trying to find senior professionals to add experience to his side.