Novak on Clube Condeixa, Forge, And Climbing His Career Ladder
When former Forge FC striker Anthony Novak announced that he had signed for Clube Condeixa, it came as an out-of-the-blue surprise for CPL fans. Now more than a month into his stint in Portugal, we caught up with the 27-year-old to see how his time in the Campeonato de Portugal has been going.
While his new club is situated in its namesake, Condeixa-a-Nova, Anthony and several of his teammates live in Coimbra, a beautiful but steep hill-based city built around well-preserved Roman-era structures, one of the world’s oldest universities, and an abundance of natural beauty: in short, Novak has found it easy to settle in with his new surroundings.
While the fruition of his transfer to Clube Condeixa came very quickly, the forward had told Bobby Smyrniotis and company that he was looking to do some climbing up the football ladder several months ago: the club was aware of his intentions before its Concacaf League fixtures against Arcahaie and CD Marathon, giving him its blessing and well-wishes to pursue an opportunity overseas.
Like his move to Forge some two years ago, his new playing opportunity progressed very rapidly: his agent has a partnership with a player agency in Portugal, and they were impressed with his highlight real from the hammers. After Clube Condeixa saw the video, they were immediately interested too – but only if Novak could arrive quickly, as the they were in the midst of a critical playoff push.
The coach asked if I could be here for next week. I said yeah. I left probably within the span of less than a week of knowing, and I made the decision of if it was a yes or a no within 24 hours. It was something that had to be moved on quickly, and I got here quite fast.Anthony Novak
With the agreement in place, the 27-year-old soon found himself arriving in a country where he didn’t speak the language, making two timezone-hopping flights and a train trip that saw him rely on an English-speaking conductor to let him know which stop was his, and no data plan to communicate with the club if he missed his stop. Fortunately, he made it without issue and soon caught up on what sleep he could before his first day as a Clube Condeixa man began.
Though he was still exhausted from jet lag, he didn’t want to say no when a club official asked him if he was ready to train the next morning. Tired or not, he wanted to meet his teammates and begin his new playing chapter at the earliest opportunity.
I showed up and got ready, and they were about to do video, so I just walked into a group of guys all staring at me. They were like, ‘This is Anthony. He speaks no Portuguese’ and I just sat down like ‘Hi, nice to meet you guys,’ you know what I mean? It was somebody’s birthday. What we did at Forge when it was a birthday was that we all had a bunch of water and you had to go through the tunnel running, but here they smack you on the back of the neck. Being a new player, I got the exact same treatment, so that was a fun first day.Anthony Novak
Now over a month into his time at Clube Condeixa, Novak is able to communicate in Portuguese on the pitch and has found himself settling in well. He’s been impressed with the facilities at the third division side, stating that he has good access to staff, physio, video, and all of the things one expects from a professional football club.
While the maple-drizzled breakfast sausage game is a bit lacking over there, Novak is absolutely loving the local foods: he’s a big fan of a post-game picanha, which is something he suggests one only looks up when they’re near a kitchen. Without fans in the stands, the club is using its stadium bar setup as a cookhouse spot for players, which he unsurprisingly describes as an ‘absolutely lovely’ culinary experience.
On the pitch, the experience is tougher: the third division side is in the midst of a playoff push, which means the length of Novak’s stay with the side is fluid. He’s contracted to remain with Clube Condeixa until the end of the season, which could either end in April or May depending on if the side can finish in or above the fifth spot of its group in the league table. It’s currently in sixth, one point away from fifth with a game in hand.
While CPL fans had speculated that either outcome would allow for him to return to Hamilton to rejoin Forge FC in time for the 2021 Canadian Premier League season, his focus is solely with Clube Condeixa for the moment, although he won’t rule anything out at this stage.
My focus is fully over here right now. The idea of coming here is that you come in and make an impression with the number of games that are left, and see if you can continue to climb in what is a great opportunity that Clube Condeixa has offered me. I’m nothing but grateful, and I’m just trying to prove myself here and keep going. Also, time is limited, right? It’s hard to rule out coming back to Canada afterwards, but nothing is for certain or written in stone.Anthony Novak
Having made a handful of appearances and notching his first assist in a 1-0 win over GDV Sernache, Novak feels like the overall level of play is pretty similar to the CPL, though it’s certainly different: he states that the technical level is a bit more crisp in Portugal, though the overall intensity of matches in terms of physicality and pressing is less than it was in the CPL.
There’s a lot on the line for Clube Condeixa, with the Portuguese FA changing the structure of its football pyramid next season: the third division that currently hosts eight groups of twelve teams will be replaced by a single league of twenty or so teams, with the regional group structures being shifted to the fourth level of the country’s football pyramid. The result will be a more competitive third division, and Clube Condeixa wants to be there.
While Forge fans know Novak as a goalscoring striker up top, Clube Condeixa actually has him playing in more of a number ten role, though he still moves up fairly high when the team is pressing forward. It’s a new experience for him, though he credits his training sessions with Bobby Smyrniotis and Peter Reynders as having helped him prepare well for it:
It’s something that I think my time with Forge has definitely allowed for me to be good at. When I first joined Forge, one of my weaknesses was checking my shoulders, turning into small pockets and finding space. That was something that I worked a lot on with Coach Peter and Coach Bobby, knowing how to turn in those spaces and link well with teammates. It’s made the transition here a little bit easier. I don’t know if it’s a permanent picture or whether it’s how they think of me here, but it’s something that they’ve asked me to do. The coach asks you to play in a position, you just nod and say yes. You’re playing soccer – there’s nothing else you can complain about, you know what I mean?Anthony Novak
As many Forge FC fans know, Novak’s playing career came astoundingly close to ending prior to his time in the CPL. Novak had played League1 Ontario since his college days, but by 2019 his hopes of getting a trial with any CPL side ahead of the inaugural season. Before the season even began, he started the process of joining the army and moving on from his footballing ambitions.
For me, it was the next closet thing to being a professional athlete. You wake up in the morning, you have your teammates, you do your PT, your technical exercises, you eat lunch, and you go home for the day – that kind of thing. Also, the fact that you’re getting to do something for Canada is something I would take a lot of pride in. Canada has given me such a good life in general, so getting to represent your country at any point is something valuable. Those were two reasons for why I was heading in that direction.Anthony Novak
On Saint Patrick’s Day 2019, Novak was in the midst of some early morning celebrations when he got an unexpected call from Bobby Smyrniotis. Until that point, he didn’t know he was even in consideration for any CPL opportunities. Bobby asked him if he could be in Hamilton tomorrow morning, and Novak hopped to it: Saint Patty’s celebrations abandoned, he ate a hearty breakfast, packed his bags, booked an AirBNB, and left Pickering for Hamilton later that day.
After two weeks of trialing for the hammers, he received a contract offer and hasn’t looked back since. He had told the army – for whom he applied to be an infantry officer – that his football aspirations were a possibility, even if it felt like a snowball’s chance at the time. If the CPL had started a few months later, Novak’s career would have taken a far different path.
Obviously, he’s not the only one who’s happy that he grasped the opportunity given by Forge with both hands.
My Mom is pretty pleased that I ended up playing soccer instead. I had my university degree that allows me to go in in a potential officer’s position, and I took advantage of that. I wanted to go over and be a soldier. So, my Mom is pretty pleased that I ended up playing soccer instead.Anthony Novak
The new chapter in the Canadian Premier League also marked the end of Novak juggling a variety of different jobs to keep his footballing dreams alive: in his League1 Ontario days, he went through numerous jobs that didn’t have any career-style commitments because they clashed with his ability to train and play. While he holds a BA in psychology with a minor in marketing, Novak worked as a tech recruiter, an aerator, a landscaper, an interpreter, a warehouse worker, and a banker to make ends meet. With Forge, his focus was finally 100% on football.
From day one with the hammers, Novak knew he had catching up to do to match the quality of the athletes he trained with at Tim Hortons Field, though he states that his time with the Blue Devils left him with a good platform to build on. In his opinion, there are a lot of League1 Ontario athletes who can play at the professional level, though he says the transition is quite challenging.
I think part of the reason for how I’ve been somewhat successful so far in my short professional career is that I don’t take being a professional for granted, and I always try to have respect for the players that I’m playing with in terms of what they can do. I always like to see what they’re good at, how much better they are at it than I am, and see how I can catch up. I think that’s a good indicator of what it was like coming from League1 to the CPL, because when I first went to Forge I felt that technically I had to catch up, that I had a lot of work to do.Anthony Novak
In his first CPL games, Novak recalls looking at athletes he thought were surely to be ahead of him in the pecking order due to their technical skills, but saw that they performed differently in matches versus training. Novak knew his strengths lied in hold up play and physical prowess, and so he stuck to his positives while doing what he could to catch up on the rest. To this day, he continues to look at other players in the squad that are stronger in certain areas in order to build off of what he sees.
I’ll continue to do that anywhere I go. The idea is to continue to climb in levels. Whether it’s this season or next season, if I’m in a position where I’ve gotten one rung further, I’ll do the exact same thing: look to the players that are going past, see what I don’t do as well, and try to catch up.Anthony Novak
Novak’s time with Forge FC ended two seasons later with 39 appearances, nine goals, and six assists to his name, with the Pickering-born athlete seeing his final Forge campaign feature highlights like an acrobatic goal against Cavalry and a fine last-gasp finish against CD Limeno in the Concacaf League.
While he wishes he could’ve seen a bit more gametime and tucked away a few more goals last year, he credits Forge for giving him a good platform to showcase himself and growing his game beyond being a hold-up striker.
A lot of players know what they’re good at, and sometimes don’t necessarily use it to their advantage to be impactful. As an example for me, when I first started I was more-or-less just a target man. I can hold the ball up, I’m a strong guy, I can be a nuisance. When I get the opportunity to play I’ll do those things well and make sure what I’m doing I’ll do better than the guy next to me. If he can do it better, he’ll play, and that’s just fair. If I can get the other stuff of my game to catch up, it’ll only make you more of a complete player. Everybody needs to figure out for themselves what kind of a player they need to be to find themselves in a position where they’re playing.Anthony Novak
It’s fair to say that Novak cemented himself into a core player for the hammers, helping the side win back-to-back Canadian Premier League titles and impress on a continental scale with two strong Concacaf League runs. All-told, it was the latter competition that provided him with the most exciting times of his professional career:
It is without a doubt my favourite professional experience that I’ve had thus far. Hands down. Winning those CPLs are my favourite moments, but playing in the Concacaf competitions, those are the most exciting. One, before corona it was absolutely insane. We went to Guatemala and that was just a first taste of it, though we didn’t get a second because in Honduras they were banned from fans in the stands, because I believe they threw rocks at an opposing team bus or something. But that’s an indicator of how important the football is, you know? It’s something that I think Canada is getting more hungry for and getting better at.Anthony Novak
Novak uses the recent CPL expansion announcement of Saskatchewan as an example this hunger: he was surprised by the announcement, stating that it shows there’s a growing hunger for domestic game that can be found in all pockets of the country.
I wouldn’t have thought Saskatchewan, so that’s a positive thing, you know? The hunger, the taste, and how much football means to people down there is incredible. Going into those competitions, you have to think that this is the next-closest thing to the Champions League that we have in North America.Anthony Novak
Novak was disappointed not to have qualified for the Champions League through both of the club’s opportunities to do so in the Concacaf League, saying the club’s defeat to Arcahaie was a particular low note after having beaten a team like Tauro FC, and having travelled to CD Limeno before that to win with ten men on the pitch. While CD Marathon proved to be the ‘tougher of the draws’ after Arcahaie, he still believes they had an edge in that match, too. With that done and dusted, the club finished a long hotel-filled season just a few weeks before Christmas.
While the CPL’s Island Games saw every CPL athlete live in a hotel for the duration of the summertime bubble tournament, Novak and his teammates ultimately had a much longer season with their subsequent qualification for the Concacaf League, which saw them play abroad and stay in varying quarantine hotels every step of the way. Novak says he handled it well, joking that when the Forge media team asked him what he was bringing to the hotel he straight-facedly told them ‘a readiness to win’.
He can’t keep a straight face about it now, laughing as he tells the story.
I was just trying to be total cool, total savage. Me, Krutzen, Bekker, David Edgar, we’d been talking about how there would be teams and guys here who would complain about a lot of little things. Things would get to people. It’ll be tough, you know? We were going to be assassins in there. The hotel food sucks? No it doesn’t. It tastes great. Our favourite food, you know? We were trying to keep that mentality.Anthony Novak
Having lived with Krutzen prior to the bubble tournament and without any firm attachments prior to The Island Games, he says his own experience was good: it wasn’t much change beyond he and Krutzen no longer having a door between their bedrooms, though he can understand the difficulties the length of the stay brought on for athletes and coaches with children, wives, and longtime girlfriends.
When his eventual transfer to Clube Condeixa was confirmed, fans had originally lamented losing him ahead of what would have been a historic Canadian Championship Final with a third chance at Concacaf Champions League qualification on the line. With the cup final now facing what may be a two year delay and Toronto FC getting the Champions League berth, Novak feels for his former teammates – though he clarifies that his move to Clube Condeixa wasn’t made with doubts about the cup final taking place in mind.
I think the outcome they arrived at is pretty much only unfair to the players. It’s a reasonable conclusion for Forge. When you think about, I can only assume that they’re hoping that the game at Tim Hortons Field will get to be with fans. You saw what happened on opening day. If you were to bring TFC there, I can imagine it would be similar – and this time they wouldn’t give away any tickets. They would have a good pay day, it’d be very good for the club especially considering corona and everything that’s going on. It would bring a lot of eyes and will still be great exposure for the players, so they can still be happy about that – but the opportunity of not getting to qualify for the Champions League, that’s tough.Anthony Novak
As things stand, Forge FC is still awaiting permission to train, with health officials having not granted the team a professional sports exemption. With Pacific FC having been granted permission for a scrimmage with the Vancouver Whitecaps yesterday, however, one can hope that an exemption for the back-to-back CPL champions is nearing, despite Hamilton going into a lockdown this Monday.
Even if Forge FC had been allowed to train in the week or two preceding the speculative March domestic cup final date, Novak believes it wouldn’t have worked out, and it wouldn’t have been safe.
You don’t just go into five or six days of training and have regularly timed sessions. People are saying they only have a couple of weeks to prepare, but the reality is that they have a couple of weeks to get some kind of soccer fitness in even, let alone being match fit. I don’t even think it would have been safe.Anthony Novak
While it’s unclear if the 27-year-old will return to Canadian football, his reflections regarding his two years with the Canadian Premier League champions are fond, and he appreciates how the club handled athletes seeking out playing opportunities overseas, even as free agents.
I think there’s something to be said for that, for sure. I think if you ask most clubs in the CPL, they’d probably give that same blessing. I can’t imagine that not being the case, because if a player moves on to a higher league and does well, it reflects well on not just the league but the club. You touched on Krutzen as well and going to Sweden, me and Dan were both out-of-contract but the relationships that we keep here in Canada have always been positive. There’s always a discussion to be had, and I think that everyone is happy that this is the way the CPL is operating. It’s what’s best for the players, and I think the more players can make any kind of jump, I think that’s going to work out better in general. You also see it going in the opposite direction: players that the clubs are bringing in are also of really good quality. It’s all around good, man!Anthony Novak
Clube Condeixa currently finds itself both one spot and one point below a playoff position, but with a game in hand over the team above them. The team will play against Sertanense FC this Sunday, which is a match that had been pushed back due to COVID-19. A win there will go a long way for the club’s playoff hopes, with only two matches of the regular season after that: one against second-placed Sport Benfica Castelo Branco, and a final match against Sertanense yet again.
Whatever happens, Novak will continue to keep looking for the next rung up: he’s eager to continually climb up the proverbial ladder, with the late-blooming professional now adding a number ten position to his skillset. Should he ever return to Forge FC, he’ll do so with more positional versatility – an attribute that comes with high value in a salary cap competition like the Canadian Premier League.
For now, however, it’s all about Clube Condeixa and the third division side’s playoff push, and only after that will fans will find out what the next rung in Novak’s football journey will ultimately be.