The last time Broadmeadow goalkeeper Paul Bitz was in the hunt for a major trophy, Ruben Zadkovich was his skipper.
Now, he jokes, Zadkovich "just yells at me".
But it was a call from Broadmeadow coach Zadkovich, his former Wollongong Wolves teammate, last year that has taken the 31-year-old from having a season off to the Northern NSW NPL goalkeeper of the year award and a shot at grand final glory on Saturday night at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Bitz has kept nine clean sheets to lead the league in his first season at Magic, helping the renowned attacking side post the second-best defensive record of 20 goals in the regular season. Their opponents on Saturday night, Edgeworth, were the best with 16.
For Bitz, this season, which has included a run to the FFA Cup round of 16, has been a welcomed change after finishing down the ladder with Charlestown in 2015 and Adamstown in 2016.
After an ankle injury, he “threw in the towel” halfway through last year with Rosebud and was ready this season to hang up the gloves and focus more on work with his family’s earthmoving business, which was the reason for his move to Newcastle.
“It's always tough coming into new clubs, not knowing anyone,” Bitz said. “I had an OK time at Charlestown football-wise, but at Adamstown, I just couldn't find my feet.
“I was actually thinking about not playing at all this year before Ruben rang me. I thought, no, I'll put my head down and see what I can do for him.
“It's a very big change and it's good to be a part of it.”
Zadkovich played with Bitz in juniors at Wolves before going on to a professional career. Bitz, who stayed and played in the Illawarra league, was grateful for the chance at silverware again.
“I played in semi-finals and cup finals back home, but the last big trophy I won was with Ruben in the grand final against the Newcastle Breakers in under 17s,” he said. “It's strange. I dug out Mum's archives and there were a whole list of names from that game and some of boys play in this league now.
“It's a small world. I don't play with Ruben anymore, I just get yelled at by him. But it's all good. It keeps me on my toes.”
Zadkovich said he raised eyebrows when he declared Bitz the best keeper in the league after recruiting him, but he was confident he had the right man for the job.
Bitz showed his class on Sunday when he stopped a penalty to help Magic win the tie against Maitland 3-2 and Zadkovich said he had been fantastic for the club all season.
“I brought Bitzy in for his well-educated, quality skills in between the sticks, but more importantly because he is a humble, good-natured person who adds to our team culture,” Zadkovich said. “Back home in Wollongong, he has the big reputation like Danny Ireland may have here. Considered one of the best. I couldn’t believe my luck that he was knocking about up in Newy.”
Bitz was pleased with his season.
“You have to prove yourself when you come to a new town, so it was hard to establish myself again, but this year I've had a decent year, which is good for me and the club,” he said.
“We've got a very decent backline in front of me so that makes my job a lot easier. Ruben's got an established group of boys there and they made it very easy to come in and slot right in.”
Although made to feel welcome, Bitz has been the target of plenty of lighthearted ribbing at Magic.
“I cop it and it's good,” he laughed.
“I would rather have it that way. It's good banter and good fun being around the boys. We all have a laugh.”
Zadkovich said the banter was all part of the plan.
“He can be a little too nice and switch off and day dream,” he said.
“I spend most of my sessions and games smashing him to be better, always pushing him and rarely praising him.
“He cops a constant barrage from myself and the lads and it’s become a running joke now. The lads ride him, which is fitting because we nicknamed him ‘the big horse’.
“But again his resilience and strength, paired with a smile on pasty face of his, seem to fend off most of the banter.
“He is a big lad, with a big heart. He gets through his work like a Clydesdale. No fuss. Just solid. And he loves the big moments. That’s when he really shines.”