The new season kicks off this weekend with an enlarged league of fourteen teams, with the addition of the youth teams of Hyundai A-League sides Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers.
It is sure to add to the competitiveness of this division, which is difficult enough to win at the best of times, and with the relegation of Marconi, and the promotion of the ambitious North Shore Mariners, there will be little respite for those clubs looking to challenge for the title.
Add in the revamped Central Coast outfit, again now run under the Mariners banner, and it looks a very tough year ahead.
One change to previous years is that, with the expanded numbers, it will be a top six this season, with no double chance for any club, as is the case with the Hyundai A-League.
A shortened three-week finals series will result.
All matches for the opening round will kick off on Sunday evening, due to Futsal finals being played over the weekend.
Our feature game to kick off the season will see the reigning champions, Northern Tigers, take on the new boys of North Shore Mariners.
North Shore Mariners v Northern Tigers, Sunday 7pm, Valentine Sports Park No 2, Glenwood
North Shore Mariners gained promotion with some space to spare last season but will find this league a much tougher proposition. They won’t be surprised by that of course, and with Joe Haywood again at the helm, after a summer stint at the head of the Central Coast Mariners NYL side, they will be more than competitive. As Hakoah Sydney City East showed last season, and Blacktown Spartans before them, it is not impossible to work your way through the division in one year, but for North Shore Mariners, to be competitive appears to be the main aim this season.
Northern Tigers were consistent as ever last year, winning yet another Grand Final, after a third place finish to the premiership. They can always be relied upon to be challenging for the title, and the same can be expected this year, although the ambition remains to clinch the club championship and ultimately gain promotion. Traditionally strong younger grades suggest that target won’t be out of the question. Steve Hurd continues as coach, for his second season, but one change at Tigers is a move away from their Mills Park ground. A new home, for this season at least at Valentine Sports Park, on an artificial pitch, is likely to be a boon to the Tigers, whose form last season on their bumpy Asquith turf was at times questionable. They may have lost much of last season’s attack with Shervin Adeli, Matthew West and Tai Smith all departing, but Liam McConaghy remains while Max Glanville makes a return after a year or so away.
Western Sydney Wanderers v Spirit FC, Sunday 7pm, Blacktown Football Park, Doonside
Western Sydney Wanderers finished third in Conference B of the National Youth League, behind table topping Sydney FC, and how they measure up in this competition will be keenly watched by many. They had some impressive pre-season results, against other NPL rivals, which gives some indication that they will be more than a match for many. Trevor Morgan continues as coach, and the opportunity to bring along potential players for the WSW A-League team will be a prime consideration. Daniel Alessi, who has already featured in the A-League, will be one of many looking to stake a strong claim for next summer.
Reigning premiers Spirit FC have seen some changes of personnel. After charging to the title with eight points to spare last season, John McLafferty has moved into the role of technical director with Mark McCormack, last season’s Under 20s coach at Northern Tigers, assuming the first team duties. Despite the retirement of Tim Simpson and Ross Kethel, and the move away from Christie Park of quite a number of title winners, there is still a solid nucleus of players from last season. Murray Nelson and David Lowery will fight for the keeper’s jersey once more, while Daniel Cunningham, Henry Wells, Grant Cornwell, Andrew Robertson, Brad Gibson and Tom Lovell all front up again. In comes Louis Bozanic from Central Coast, Tadhg Purcell and Mark McAlpine from North Shore Mariners, Jayden McLeod from Sutherland Sharks and Nathan Jagelman from Wollongong United.
Central Coast Mariners v Bankstown City, Saturday 6:30pm, Pluim Park, Lisarow
This match effectively kicks off the new season, thirty minutes before most of the round commences. Central Coast are back under the banner of the Mariners, after a year run by the local association, and will be expected to challenge once more. They came close to claiming the Club Championship last season, finishing second although their finals participation only lasted the one week, being eliminated by Bankstown City, their opponents this weekend. They relied much on youth last season, to excellent effect, and with the side now formally being the Central Coast Mariners youth team, it goes without saying that it will be a similar approach this year. Current A-Leaguers Jake McGing, Josh Bingham and Trent Buhagiar all spent last year with Central Coast in Play Station 4 NPL2, so the opportunities for progression are certainly there.
Expect Bankstown City to continue where they left off last year. The Lions just fell at the final hurdle, going down to Northern Tigers in the Grand Final, after coming from fifth spot in the league. Ultimately, it was no surprise that the Lions did as well as they did, a strong squad, with Leo Carle in charge, were always likely to be there at the finish. They have seen few changes for this season with minimal departures, one of the more unusual being Brima Kamara’s move to Burma. Carle remains, and so with a season under their belts, the Lions are sure to be a definite challenger again this year. To bolster an already impressive squad, Tayfun Buyukkopru (from Sydney University) and Kojiro Hori (Mount Druitt Town Rangers) have made the move to Jensen Park, linking up with returnees such as Michael Beauchamp, Dion Shaw, Domenic Hudap, Todd Halloran, Grant Lynch, Gerard Ouffoue, Chris Gomez, Huseyn Jasli, Alvaro Malmierca and Ko Kimura.
Marconi Stallions v Mt Druitt Town Rangers, Sunday 7pm, Marconi Stadium, Bossley Park
It has been a long time since Marconi last played at this level. Not since 1969, getting close to fifty years, has the club played in the second tier of state league and it is surely a shock that they find themselves here once more. A very poor year in 2015 which saw the club collect just two wins, and suffer an astonishing nineteen losses, sealed their fate. But the Stallions have recruited well, signing Sean Rooney, Marko Jesic and Mirjan Pavlovic, all ex A-Leaguers, while captain Christopher Nunes has stayed loyal to the club, as they seek an immediate return to the top flight. Jeff Suzor also remains as coach and a quick return will also be on his agenda. It won’t be easy though, in such a competitive league, as other relegated clubs have previously found out.
Mount Druitt Town Rangers put in a strong performance last season before wavering as the year reached its climax. After finishing with the wooden spoon in 2014, there was no chance of that happening last year and in fact, were in with a chance of the five into the final stages of the season. It was a commendable year for Aidan Desmond, his first as first team coach at Rangers, and with him again taking charge, Rangers should again be a tough proposition. The have recruited well, with amazingly, five players in Nick Trimble, Ryan Johnstone, Kuag Reec, Lord Darkoh and Abraham Majok all making the journey down the M2/M7 from Christie Park to Popondetta while the experienced Matthew Clowes and Shayne Ardle, back again, move across from Parramatta FC. Scott Goodwin, most recently at Mounties, also provides added strength to a strong looking squad, while Chris Moore, in from APIA, will give Justin Biega a challenge for the keeper’s jersey.
Fraser Park v St George, Sunday 7pm, Fraser Park, Sydenham
Fraser Park, again with Mile Todoroski as coach, will look to have another bright season. They were the best of the rest in 2015, finishing sixth after being in the mix of a finals spot for much of the season. There has not been too many changes at Sydenham, but they will have to do without Golden Boot winner Hussein Akil who has moved on to Hakoah Sydney City East. Peter Crevani moves across from Sydney University, following their relegation, as does Nathan Sansom while Joseph D’Elia makes the short journey up the highway from St George, an early opportunity to meet his former club. Nikola Todoroski remains, and with eight goals last season, he may well lead the charge this year.
St George will want to avoid a repeat of last season, if nothing else. A reasonable start to the year, which saw the club sit sixth, just one point out of the five at the half way point, was obliterated in a dismal second half of the season, where the Saints picked up only five points from a possible thirty three. Only staving off relegation on the final day against Sydney University will not be an experience the club will want to repeat. They have appointed the coaching duo of Nass Martino and Ivo de Jesus, both previously at the club as coach and player respectively, before a joint brief stint at the helm of Bankstown Berries. With a large turnover once more, Stefan de Jesus arrives from Sydney University, Reuben Lagos, Peter Vassilis and Bruno Pivato all return to the Saints, Billy Darwich comes in from Bankstown City and George Bouropolous takes over in goals. Stevan Ilic and Wassim Hijazi will again lead the way up front.
Macarthur Rams v Bankstown Berries, Sunday 7pm, Lynwood Park, St Helens Park
After a couple of years out of the Play Station 4 NPL, Lee Sterrey returns to the coaching ranks, this time at Macarthur Rams. It may well be what the Rams need after a poor year in 2015, in which Macarthur relinquished their Champions crown. They will want to revert back to their normally winning ways, as rarely are they not involved in a finals challenge. Last season was the first in five years that they did not feature in the top five series so expect to see Sterrey aim for nothing less than that in his first year back.
There is a somewhat familiar look to Bankstown Berries who have retained Wally Savor as head coach while players such as Liam McKenna, Alex Becerra, Kyle Ewart, Jake Bradshaw, Joel Anscomb, Nicholas Paras and Joseph Savor have returned or resume at The Crest for another year. Former Golden Boot winner Dimitri Zakilas, who had an interrupted year in 2015, also comes back for another season. Marko Bozic, in from Sydney University, takes over between the posts after the retirement of Michael Frost while Gavin Forbes (from Macarthur Rams), Tai Smith (Northern Tigers) and Garang Awac (Mount Druitt Town Rangers) also change colours. The Berries just fell short of making the five last season, effectively out with just a round to go, but it was still a vastly improved year and the hopes are high once more for another finals challenge.
Sydney FC v Mounties Wanderers, Sunday 7:45pm, Lambert Park, Leichhardt
The final match of the opening weekend, with the later start of 745pm, sees the introduction of the Sydney FC youth side to the league. As winners of the summer’s National Youth League, it can safely be expected that Sydney FC should prove to be the strongest of the three Hyundai A-League clubs youth teams. With home games at the artificial turf of Lambert Park, and a squad chockful of Joeys and Young Socceroos, Sydney FC will prove to be a very tough opponent. Certainly with Robert Stanton at the helm, as experienced as most in the state leagues, they have a head coach who won’t be fazed by much. A win first up against a new-look Mounties would bring a welcome start for the Sky Blues.
David Perkovic takes over the coaching reins at Mounties Wanderers, a club which won’t want to revisit 2015. It was a poor year by Mounties’ standards, an otherwise regular finals contender since their ascent to this level in 2012. It took until their thirteenth game to secure their first win and it was a season long battle against relegation and the wooden spoon, the latter which they ultimately claimed. There have been changes aplenty at the club, which has seen signings including Matthew West (from Northern Tigers), Juan Chavez and Patrick Gatt (both Parramatta FC), Emanuel Elali (St George), Milorad Simonovic (Marconi) Glen Downey (Sydney University), Wade Oostendorp (Dandaloo) and Domenic Dileo (Blacktown Spartans) with Daniel Sadaka (Sydney Olympic) taking over in goals. A few remain from last year, notably, Neftali Gonzalez, Jake Ingle, Reid Taylor and Aleksandar Tomic so it may take a game or two to see this side gel. A move away from Cook Park to Valentine Sports Park for their home games is another change for this year, and one worth watching with interest.
2015 aside, Cook Park has been a valuable home for Mounties, points wise, so whether a switch to FNSW headquarters, effectively a neutral venue, brings the same reward remains to be seen.
–by Peter Rowney, PS4 National Premier Leagues 2 NSW Men’s Reporter