PHOTO: SPROULE SPORTS FOCUS
By Quentin Conners
2017 Season Finish: 3rd (lost 4-0 in the Grand Final vs. Cooks Hill United)
Coach: Josh Rufo
After an amazing semi-final comeback over Kahibah in the second leg, Belswans’ season ended in unfortunate circumstances against Cooks Hill, losing their second consecutive Grand Final. This year, the boys from Blacksmiths will be aiming towards making it ‘third time lucky’ by adding new talent to an already strong team.
Former Kahibah star David Hodgson and Valentine centre-back Reece Newton, will be welcomed additions to the squad, however the loss of last seasons’ Northern League One golden boot winner, Tega Marcus (Weston), who scored 20 goals, will mean they’ll need to find a new source of consistent goals.
Despite the loss of Marcus, coach Josh Rufo was still confident that the team would find goals this year.
“It is a big loss, but that’s football, so we’ll just have to change things up.
“We’ve got some other people who can play in that role. It might be a little bit different, but we’re still confident that they can do a good job.”
In 2017, Belswans got off to a sub-par star to the year. They sat in 8th place halfway through the year before going on an 11-game undefeated streak to end the regular season. Rufo said the team is focusing on not entertaining another poor start.
“The biggest thing for us is consistency.
“We’ll be looking to getting off to a better start this season. We were very slow to get going last year.
Although the team has fallen agonisingly short of that allusive championship trophy two years in a row, Rufo suggests that there’s no burden on the players.
“From our end, we haven’t placed any pressure or expectations on the players.
“For us the most important thing is that we’re competitive in every game and look to win every game.
“We’ve had a good pre-season and we’ve got a core group of players on board, hopefully we’ll be able to hit the ground running.
“In regards to winning the competition, I’ll leave that up to other people to make that judgement.”
Despite adding the experience and quality of David Hodgson, Rufo believes defender Corey Wilson is still the one to watch for this year.
“He’s strong, he’s really competitive, he’s super committed. You’ve only got to see some of his challenges he pulls off to see he’s not there to muck around.
“There wouldn’t be too many in the competition who’re better than him in my opinion.”
2018 Predicted Finish: Although the loss of Marcus will be difficult for the Swans to cope with, look for them to still be a top four side.
Cessnock City Hornets
2017 Season Finish: 11th (Last)
Coach: Brendan Slade
Last season the Hornets had one of the worst seasons in their club’s history. Cessnock were unable to achieve a single win (their last victory was on the 26th of June, 2016) with four draws resulting in the only points the side were able to muster. This season though, newly appointed head coach, Brendan Slade (Lambton U/20s), is shaping together a team that may finally bring some success to Turner Park.
In an attempt to turn the club around, Slade has brought in new life in the form of a huge number of signings, including new assistant coach Tony Jovecevski.
After leaking in a massive 65 goals last year, the Hornets have looked to bolster their ranks by adding NPL experienced players in Matt Rae (Hamilton Olympic) and several former Weston Bears, Greg Anderson, Jed Horder and Blake Roy.
Despite admitting that the team was “basically a brand new side”, Slade was confident that the team would still be able to combine and fuse together quickly.
“They’re gelling together really well.
“That’s why I wanted a lot of Weston players. They all know each other and they’re pretty tight knit.
“It’s a really young side. We have a lot of 18 and 19 year olds which is really good for us. We’re hoping to build them up and keep them for the next three of four years.”
Following a year full of misery and frustration, the Hornets are widely being tipped as a side that will shock this year. However, Slade suggests that the team’s focus will be purely fixed on a week-to-week basis.
“Game-by-game. That’s what we’ve been saying in the sheds, we’ll just take it game-by-game.
“We want to have an enjoyable year, give it a good crack and see how far we can go.”
When asked about the club’s goals and aspirations for the season, Slade joked that the “first goal would be to win a game. Once we get over that little hurdle, we can go on a bit of a confidence run and knock a few more sides over.”
One of their most impactful signings looks to be attacking player and forward Isaac Peek (Beresfield) who has been brought in to aid their poor goal-scoring figures from last year after the club only managed 17 goals across the 20 matches.
Peek was praised by Slade as being a name to watch for 2018.
“He holds the ball up really well. He’s really strong with the ball at his feet.”
2018 Predicted Finish: Expect a much, much superior Cessnock outfit than the one we saw in 2017. If their large number of new faces can gel quickly, look for them to be knocking on the door of the finals.
Cooks Hill United
2017 Season Finish: 1st (won the Grand Final 4-0 vs. Belmont-Swansea)
Coach: Graham Law
After accomplishing the premiership-championship double last season with a dominant performance, the Cookers year finished off with the comforting news that head coach Graham Law would be staying on for the 2018 season.
Despite losing youngster Asher Beasley (Kahibah) and star Cal Lewis (TBC), Law decided to “promote from within” rather than looking externally with the only major signings being that of Brad Millar (Singleton) and Sam Parker (Hamilton).
“We’ve promoted four players from the 19s, and one from the 23s, so we’ve topped-up from within.
“We’ve got a very settled team from last year, which I’m really pleased about.
“I expect the continuity from last year to be a positive for us.”
Law also stated that although the tight finish to the 2017 regular-season was extremely exciting for the league as a whole, he wasn’t happy with the amount of points the side dropped.
“I’ll be looking for far more consistency this year, especially at home. We dropped far too many points at home last year.
“That’s a challenge that I’ve definitely put to the players. We need to show more consistency than we did last year.
“Our consistency level will have to go up because I believe the others [teams’ levels] will too.”
Last year’s Grand Final heroes Nick Russell and Lee Ashton will be two of the key men that will need to perform once again if Cooks Hill want any chance of going back-to-back. However, Law believed there was not one individual player to watch out for this year suggesting that if there were any players to watch out for, it’d be the young players.
“I’m expecting an overall team performance to be honest.
“I’ll be very interested to see how the youth players settle into senior football.”
With new re-developments of the facilities and turf at Newcastle Athletic Field after securing a $85,000 grant from the Asian Cup Legacy Fund, the Cookers will be looking to try and make their fresh home ground a fortress in their chase for another trophy. Although Law’s target is to win the league again, he has no expectations of it being simple.
“I have my expectations set on the home ground being very difficult for anyone to get anything from.
“Our ultimate goal is to win the league again, but I do believe it will be harder.”
Predicted 2018 Finish: They’ve kept the majority of the same squad. Although every team in the league will be preparing to play their best football when versing them, they’ll once again challenge for the title.
2017 Season Finish: 2nd (lost 3-2 on aggregate in the Semi Finals vs. Belmont-Swansea)
Coach: Andre Gumprecht
2017 was yet another season of ‘so close, yet so far’ for Kahibah as they bowed out in the semi-finals for the fourth straight season and the third against Belswans. However, despite failing to qualify for the Grand Final, coach Andre Gumprecht has opted to stick with the majority of his 2017 squad making only a couple of new signings for the coming season including German-recruit Tom Butzmann (SV Edelweib Arnstedt – German League Sixth Tier).
One of those signings also, is promising young player Asher Beasley (Cooks Hill), who scored 23 goals in the U/23’s last year, who will be looked to for the creation and scoring of goals to replace the contribution Dave Hodgson (Belswans) made, as will front-man Jamie Hadlow who impressed in his first season at the club last year.
Gumprecht was confident he had the players to replace Hodgson’s influence.
“We have very young players playing in those front positions who are very enthusiastic and will be very capable.
“We have a number of players now replacing him, rather than having one player. We’re putting a little bit of responsibility on lots of players’ shoulders and spreading the pressure.
“He played an essential position in our team. He not only helped our young players with their decision making and application on the game, he was also very important in steering our team from the front.
“We’ll be lacking in experience, but hopefully the enthusiasm and willingness to go the extra mile will trade that off.”
After only conceding 18 goals last year, the least in the league, their defensive record will again be of the up-most importance to their chances of success.
Gumprecht will be spoilt for choice with former NPL goalkeeper, Nick Hartnett, who managed 8 clean sheets in 2017 for Kahibah, and the new addition of youngster Joseph Delbridge (Charlestown).
“We have again improved this season on our depth [defensively].
“If you concede less goals, you’re likely to win more. This is what I’m focusing on and from there we’re implementing everything else.”
Gumprecht stated that Kahibah’s focus for the year will once again be qualifying for finals football.
“For us to get into the finals, is probably the goal again.
“I really have a good feeling about this season that we not only enjoy our football but that we’re also successful.”
Predicted 2018 Finish: They look poised to finish in the top four once again. However, whether they can finally qualify for the Grand Final is anyone’s guess.
New Lambton F.C.
2017 Season Finish: 8th
Coach: Andrew Packer
Arguably considered one of the fastest growing clubs in the Hunter, the Eagles will be hoping their premier side can begin to reach triumphant heights following their first initial season in the Northern League One in 2017. Although not much was expected of New Lambton last year, the club would have felt disappointed by their 8th place finish despite averaging more than 2 goals a game.
Head coach, and former Brisbane Roar assistant, Andrew Packer, announced he would be staying in a big boost for the club, as did prolific scorer Riley Taylor who will once again be the danger-man for opposition sides and someone who Packer has tipped to have another big season suggesting he expects him to be “better than last year.”
Despite losing a handful of their U/19’s championship-winning team, the club still have many talented youngsters that will play an integral part in the club’s potential success. Packer stated if his side of young guns, including new signing Kieran Quadrelli (Adamstown), can become consistent performers and leaders for the squad, then he believes the team will be successful.
“We’re probably going to be one of the youngest teams in the comp…but I don’t see that as a hindrance at all.
“There’s a lot of young guys looking to consolidate themselves as first-team players.
“The best thing I can hope for is for some of these young players to make another leap.
“Last year was their first time playing regular first-team [senior] football in Newcastle, and at times it showed, but we want them to show a bit more experience this year and keep improving.”
In particular, youthful stars Nick Pepper and Alex Ihlow, have each been signalled out by Packer as important players to watch for their 2018 campaign.
“If he [Nick Pepper] has a big year, I know we’ll have a big year as well.
“For Alex Ihlow, I expect him to score more. I think he scored 10 last year, but I think he can score double that if he really wants too.”
Although Packer believes his young team is capable of winning and being successful, he’s also weary of his side’s sometimes lack of ability to play for the full 90 minutes.
“I think just the consistency [is something to work on from last year].”
“Sometimes we’d have 30 minutes of dominating possession and field position, and then a 15 minute spell where we completely switch-off.
“I’m hoping that the guys learn from that and we’ll put some things in place to fix that.”
With 2018 being the club’s second participation in the Northern League One, the Eagles have made it clear that their intentions and hopes are to feature in finals football. Packer contributed their added depth as a reason why that may be the case this year.
“Last year we probably didn’t have the depth in the squad, as far as if someone had an average game, they would still be playing next week because we didn’t have the players underneath playing well.
“I think we’re going to need everyone to chime in.
“We want to make the top 4, that would be my goal.”
Predicted 2018 Finish: New Lambton will be a stronger side than last year. If their youngsters can shine they may surprise people, but a mid-table finish looks more likely for the Eagles.
2017 Season Finish: 9th
Coach: David Willoughby
2017 for the Strikers resulted in another discouraging campaign and 2018 looks like it may be another challenging year following the loss of club captain and goalkeeper Stuart Plant (Charlestown) and young player Brad Millar (Cooks Hill).
After finishing the season with the second-worst goal-scoring numbers, new coach David Willoughby is hoping to improve in that area by adding in new players Jake Ball (NPL QLD) and former players Jordan Phelan and Jackson Cox who have returned back to the club after a few years away. Willoughby stated that Cox in particular “will be exceptionally influential” for his team this season.
Although the team will be aiming to do well in their top-grade, Willoughby stated that if they can develop their youth throughout all young grades, then 2018 will be considered a successful season.
“Our season is going to be measured on how successful we are fast-tracking the skill set of the players coming through the younger grades. That’s where we’re going to measure ourselves.
“What we’re striving for is to be competitive both on and off the park when the NPL licenses become available (2020). Every stride that we make is to achieve that goal.
“We’re a long way off our city cousins [Newcastle & Macquarie clubs], but our season will be defined on how many players graduate up age groups and how many players come out of 19s and possibly play first grade.”
Willoughby believes both “sensational” left-back Jackson Skinner and midfielder Tomas Hume, will both be two names to watch out for this year.
“I don’t understand how he [Skinner] hasn’t been picked up by the two Hunter Valley clubs in the NPL, but I’m happy he’s here.
“Tomas Hume we’ll also play a big role in the midfield alongside Jackson [Cox] and Ryan [Hartwell].”
Even though the club may not be considered a title-contender this year by the rest of the league, Willoughby and his side are not too worried what the rest of the competition is thinking with the head coach suggesting that they’ll cause a few shocks in 2018.
“The vibe in the first-grade group is exceptionally high at the moment and the boys are looking forward to the season.
“We’ll go toe-to-toe with everybody, even the big guns.
“We’re going to be really competitive if we stay half as healthy as we can and should.
“We’re shooting to get ourselves to the post-season. Without a doubt.”
Predicted 2018 Finish: Those expecting the Strikers to be ‘easy-beats’ this season will be certainly mistaken. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t seem Singleton have made enough upgrades to signal too much improvement from last season.
South Cardiff Gunners F.C.
2017 Season Finish: 5th
Coach: Denis Fajkovic
The former NPL and FFA Cup Round of 32 participants would have starred in the top four last year had it not been for a winless run towards the back end of the season.
The Gunners held one of the better defensive records of the league, conceding just 25 goals, but in front of goals is where they failed to excel in comparison to sides above them. As a result, head coach Denis Fajkovic successfully retained all of his defensive unit, as well as adding ex-Lambton goalkeeper Ben Corling, and signed other numerous top talents across the whole field.
One of those signings made by the club, and perhaps one of the biggest in the competition, is former Thornton star forward Nathan McCallister, who scored 19 goals over the course of last year and will be crucial in attaining the high success the club desires.
Fajkovic was extremely pleased to have McCallister at the club and was confident he could make a big difference for the team.
“Obviously bringing in Nathan McCallister was a massive signing for us.
“I’m expecting him to have a massive year.”
“He banged in a few and that’s sort of what we were lacking. Hopefully with bringing him into the side, and our strong defence from last year, we can build on that and do well.”
In addition to McCallister’s arrival, Fajkovic made it a priority to improve the depth of the squad and create an environment where he can get the best of his side.
“The focus was to retain our good players and build and bring in some more quality to create a better and stronger squad. I think we’ve done that.
“Last year our downfall was we lost five first-graders near the end of the year who left on holidays and work commitments and that hurt us because we just didn’t have the depth to cover the absences. I think the main focus for the year was to make sure we do have that depth.
“I’ve always talked about having a senior squad, instead of having a separate 1st grade and U/23’s, where people are competing every week for a first-team spot and this year I can actually say we’ve do have that.”
Newly promoted co-captain and South Cardiff local, Cameron Herring, has also been tipped by Fajkovic to have a huge season, labelling him as “the future of the club” and a name to watch out for in 2018.
With potential NPL selection in 2020 on their mind, South Cardiff will be aiming towards making a big step towards that by challenging the top of the league which Fajkovic believes it’s well within their abilities.
“This year our aims are definitely to win the competition.
“Cooks Hill have set a pretty good benchmark, and this year is our response to that. We’re going to give it a pretty good crack.”
Predicted 2018 Finish: This South Cardiff squad will be a much tougher, well-rounded and deeper squad than the one that narrowly missed out on finals last year. Expect them to challenge for the championship in 2018.
Thornton Redbacks F.C.
2017 Season Finish: 4th (lost 10-1 on aggregate in the Semi Finals vs. Cooks Hill)
Coach: Gary Wand
Despite finishing their 2017 in disappointing fashion in the semi-finals, the Redbacks would have felt pleased overall with their season, boasting the 2nd best attack and defence records across the league.
However, this season seems to be somewhat of a transition year for the club following a host of changes to the squad including the departure of head coach Darel McCallister and the promotion of Gary Wand.
Wand has attempted to combat the long-list of leaving players by recruiting wisely adding in NPL experienced players Trent Partridge (Lake Macquarie), Jye McKellar and Sam Rossi (Maitland) as well as goalkeepers Mick Hugo and James Wand and potentially Jake Millsteed (Edgeworth) who’s been trialling throughout pre-season. Wand has also signed some young talents from his former club Weston in Joel Reddon and Luke Lambert.
The key loss for Thornton this season will be prolific goal-scorer Nathan McCallister (South Cardiff) although Wand believes that, although his experience will be missed, that there are players within his squad that can help to replace his goal-scoring capabilities – new recruits Rossi and McKellar, and in particular, promising young player Josh Colman.
“We’ve lost experience and that’s the hardest thing to replace.
“Josh [Colman] spent the year in 23s but probably shouldn’t have been playing there. He is quality when he wants to be.
Admittedly, Wand indicated that there was no real set goals or targets for the side this year, stating that this season would be more of a “building year than anything else.
“There’s a lot of new players and it’ll take a little time to gel.
“It’ll be consistency that I’ll be looking for more than anything.
“Because it’s a young and talented side, it’s a matter of getting them used to playing in the Northern League One competition.”
With so many new faces in the squad, Wand and Thornton will be hoping that the team can begin to come together sooner rather than later.
Predicted 2018 Finish: It all depends on how the new list of players shape together for Thornton. However, it looks as though it’ll take at least a season for everyone to become familiar with one another. They may take a few scalps but will probably not feature in the finals.
Toronto Awaba Stags F.C.
2017 Season Finish: 10th
Coach: Adam Routledge
Since being relegated from the NPL back in 2011, the Stags have struggled to find any trace of success and 2017 was another year along those lines after finishing second-last and outside the top four for the fifth consecutive season.
Before pre-season began, it seemed Toronto-Awaba would receive a huge boost in the form of Daniel Minors (Charlestown), but despite missing out on the NPL midfielder, the Stags will still have a spirited squad.
Talented youngsters Cody Armstrong and Jessi Cowie, will be looked upon to build on their inaugural season in first-grade, while also watch out for Alex Matthews, Tim Stone and Jack Cooper to try and solidify a spot alongside their young team-mates as the season wears on.
Coach Adam Routledge was able to retain most their 2017 team, including star forward Nick Roberts who will once again be relied upon to consistently score, but who will be eager to potentially receive more support in that area following the recruitment of Jarrod Penfold (Kahibah) and Todd Cawley, forming a promising attacking prospective.
After conceding 57 goals in 20 games, the second-most in the competition last season, the Stags will be hoping that 2018 won’t follow the same script.
Goalkeeper Blake Redman and his defence will be needing to be better than they were last year after only managing one clean sheet all season, a statistic that if possessed, ultimately makes it extremely tough for any side wishing to finish high on the competition table.
Predicted 2018 Finish: The Stags have made some interesting signings and are blooding quite a lot of youth through which is great to see. However, they just don’t seem to have made the necessary improvements that other clubs have since last year. Anticipate a season much like 2017.
2017 Season Finish: 7th
Coach: Ben Edwards
Last season proved to be a ‘back-to-reality’ kind of season for Wallsend after experiencing two dream finals runs to win back-to-back championships in 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately for the Red Devils, they lacked accomplishment in both offence and defence, ending the year with a -19 goal differential which included a -20 goal differential against the top four sides, highlighting their poor showings in the big games.
This season the club has a massive list of alterations including new head coach Ben Edwards, who won the U/23’s Grand Final with Wallsend, as well as multiple newly acquired and departing players.
One of the more interesting and exciting additions will be that of Ty Goldsmith (Argenton) who made a name for himself whilst playing in the Zone League competitions, scoring almost 80 goals in just the two seasons he played. Wallsend’s hopes of returning to finals football may rely on Goldsmith’s ability to quickly adapt to the level that the Northern League One brings, and his connection with fellow goal-scorer Matt Williams.
Edwards hailed Goldsmith has someone who could make a significant impact in his first year playing in the competition.
“He’s been one of the pick-ups of the season. Every trial game we’ve had, he’s scored a hat-trick for us so he’s still scoring goals even at this level [Northern League One].
“I see him doing very well to be honest. He seems to be able to score from anywhere and out of nothing, even against quality opposition.”
Edwards has also brought in three, new youngsters in Sam Bradshaw (Garden Suburbs) Jarrod Sansom (Charlestown) and Zac Parkes (South Cardiff) to combat the losses of Ethan Coker and David Hecimovic.
Whilst bringing in some new, quality players was a high priority for Edwards, elevating and promoting the talented youngsters he already had at his disposal has been of major importance as well.
Jake Sullivan, Jackson Manning and Darcy Hall are all names that have been promoted from the U/23’s and are players that Edwards believes will shine this year.
“We’ve got plenty of youth coming through which is good. Hopefully they can step up and, maybe not this year, but next year, carry on and push Wallsend back to where they were.”
With the club missing out on finals football for the first time in two years, Edwards will be focusing on getting the Red Devils back to the top four.
“My goal is top four definitely.
“Most people around the club are hoping for a top-half of the table finish. For myself though, I’d prefer to sneak into that top four. I had a taste of semi-finals last year in the 23s, so to have that again would be a bonus.”
Predicted 2018 Finish: They will most likely develop into a fiercer outfit than the one we saw last year. A spot in the top four is definitely possible, however they’ll need to be better in the ‘big games’ if they want to play finals football.
West Wallsend Bluebells F.C.
2017 Season Finish: 6th
Coach: Gary Rowe
Overall, 2017 was a successful season for West Wallsend having three grades feature in Grand Finals. However, for the first-grade team, it was a year that often showed promise (including a 5-2 victory over Cooks Hill), but ultimately eventuated into nothing.
In addition to coach Gary Rowe re-signing, the club has retained most of last year’s team including the U/23’s side that lost in the Grand Final who will make the step up into the first-grade team.
Of those players, Rowe believes that Josh Knight is a name to watch out for up-front and someone who will play as an insistent back-up to star Tye Jones.
“He’s looked good at different times when filling in for Tye [Jones] this pre-season.
“He’s scored truckloads of goals in the past few years in the youth grades so we’re hoping that we can keep working with him and get him doing that in first grade when he gets the opportunity.”
After not signing many new recruits for 2018, Rowe is very pleased with his signing of Adam Cooper (Beresfield) who he has said is already displaying a strong sense of leadership within the side.
“Adam Cooper is doing a really good job for us at the back.
“Our boys lack a little bit of maturity and someone just to calm them down and guide them around the park and Coops [Cooper], even though he’s only 25 years old, is that guy that we’ve really missed.
“He’s come in and is doing really well for us and has given the boys that little bit of leadership we’ve probably lacked.”
In order for the Bluebells to compete this year and attempt to improve on last season’s result, it’ll be vital for them to be consistent each week, not just when they face the top sides, as Rowe highlighted.
“What cost us last season was we lost to all the teams below us on the table, and we went well against the teams above us which didn’t help us.
“We’ll have a different way we’ll go about things this year that hopefully will continue the good results against the better teams and hopefully pick up results against the teams that we should be beating.”
While the club will be aiming to try and qualify for their first finals series since 2013, Rowe stated that the key target for the season will be to improve on last year’s result and ultimately continue developing their young stars.
“We’re working with difficult financial constraints. The club is not the richest in town and we don’t have a player budget, so we work under difficult circumstances. Our job is to just keep doing better.
“If the boys’ commitment level matches their ability, we’ll be very happy at seasons’ end.”
Predicted 2018 Finish: The future of the club looks promising with so many gifted, young players coming through, but it will most likely take a season or two for that talent to shine bright. Another disappointing year without semi-final football appears likely.