PHOTO: Sproule Sports Focus
By Declan Payne
Match of the Round
New Lambton FC v West Wallsend SFC
Saturday 2:30 pm, Johnston Park
New Lambton and West Wallsend will be out to start their seasons on a high when they clash in Saturday’s season opener at Johnston Park – a home game for the Eagles despite the away venue.
New Lambton were the only club from the Zone Premier League to gain promotion to the NEWFM Northern League One after sweeping changes to the region’s premier competitions and will be determined to show they’re not going to be easy beats this season.
Eagles coach Andrew Packer is confident his side is prepared for the occasion.
“They’re pretty keen to do well, the standard at training was good last night,” Packer said.
“You can see a bit of a switch has been flipped to say ‘hey, it’s the first game of the year’ and that’s what we want to see.
“I want us to go out there and be at our best across the 11 and if we do that we’ve got every chance.
“But we know it’s going to be tough.”
West Wallsend played in last weekend’s Northern NSW Football’s Heritage Cup with mixed success, a close loss to PS4 NPL side Lake Macquarie and a narrow win over fourth-tier club Maryland Fletcher, closing out a mixed bag of results for the Bluebells.
West Wallsend coach Gary Rowe said he believes the Cup was perfect preparation for his side heading into round one.
“A couple of good results similar to what we’re going to come up against each week,” Rowe said.
“Our boys have taken a fair bit of confidence out of the weekend.
“It’s helped solidify in the boy’s minds that we’re on the right track.”
The focus for West Wallsend is internal, and Rowe believes making sure they’re focused on hitting their targets will bring the good times back to Johnston Park.
“If we can go out and deliver what we can deliver and what we can control, we’ll get the result that we want.”
Belmont Swansea United FC v Singleton Strikers FC
Saturday 2:30 pm, Macquarie Field
Belmont Swansea will have the home advantage as they look to do one better in the NEWFM Northern League One this season when they take on Singleton in their opening match of the 2017 season.
Belswans came so close to taking out the Grand Final last year and will be looking to begin their season with a bang in their race for the minor premiership.
Josh Rufo links up with Belswans this season, and after departing Grand Finals winners Wallsend FC midway through 2016, he will be hopeful of helping Belmont Swansea go one better in 2017.
“It’s important for every club to get off to a good start, and we’re no different,” Rufo said.
“David Willoughby’s set up his side very well, I think it’s going to be a really tight game and a good challenge for us against a strong Singleton team.”
Belswans have struggled throughout the preseason, but Rufo has taken these results with a pinch of salt.
“Everyone will approach pre-season differently, for us it was about conditioning and match fitness, introducing a new system.
“I don’t take too much out of the results, and we should be right to hit the ground running in round one.”
Singleton finished sixth last season, and the upper Hunter side packed with youngsters will need to get off to a good start to keep the positivity high and get the confidence flowing.
The Strikers start their season on the road due to the end of the local cricket season, but coach David Willoughby doesn’t see playing his side’s first four matches away from home as an issue.
“That’s my preference, as we have a rather large chunk of home games in the middle of the season (to make up for it),” Willoughby said.
The cricket season has also hindered Singleton elsewhere – a host of first graders missing and the focus has been altered accordingly.
“We’ve got six regular first graders that would’ve usually been considered for selection,” Willoughby said.
“We’re just trying to implement what we’ve worked on and try and get a positive outcome… try to be more dominant in possession.
Toronto Awaba FC v Cooks Hill United FC
Sunday 2:30 pm, Lyall Peacock Field
Toronto languished toward the bottom of the ladder last season, and Cooks Hill didn’t fare much better – both sides will go into their season opener looking to banish the bad memories of days gone by.
Talk about a tough time of it – Toronto Awaba leaked over 70 goals last season and scored only 25 – the Stags have also failed to win in their last three season openers.
Equipped with a new coach and a swag of new local faces, the Stags are at home for their first match of 2017 and will be determined to cause an upset and topple the widely regarded Cooks Hill in their opening match.
Toronto are without new recruits Blake Glennie and Blake Redman for this one and haven’t enjoyed the most successful of pre-seasons in terms of results.
Youngster Connor Morgan will be keen to show coach Adam Routledge that he has what it takes to slog it out consistently in the NEWFM Northern League One competition in 2017, while striker Grant Morrow will be important for the Stags.
Cooks Hill has been buoyed by the signing of former Adamstown and Maitland coach Graham Law, who cited the club’s ambition as a key reason in why he joined.
Law has assembled a squad of youngsters, many of whom have considerable PS4 NPL experience and have been widely tipped as a side to watch this season, but their preparation has been less than ideal.
“We’re really underdone, we’ve only played three pre-season friendlies which is ridiculous,” Law said.
“We probably want to start the game well, because we may be a couple of weeks until we’re up to pace and able to make it through the full game.”
After suffering a 3-0 defeat to Thornton in a trial through the week, Law warned his strikers are on notice.
“Got to put the ball in the net – went down three nil, but we must have had 15, 20 shots on goal and didn’t score,” Law said.
“Friendlies are what they are, but you see a different light in the eyes boys when it’s a competitive match.
“I expect an entirely different performance to what I got during the week.”
Cessnock City FC v Thornton Redbacks FC
Sunday 2:30 pm, Turner Park 1
Cessnock City FC welcome local rivals Thornton to a fresh-faced Turner Park on Sunday afternoon in their opening match of the season.
A fresh coach, infrastructure upgrades, and a new look squad – this season’s Cessnock Hornets look revitalised and determined to make a big impact in 2017.
Cessnock have endured two lean years, and after conceding 14 goals without scoring one in last weekend’s Heritage Cup may be in for another tough time this season – but coach Lino Gatti is confident of bouncing back in round one.
“It’s a bit of a local derby, and they’re got something to prove after not winning in the Heritage Cup,” Gatti said.
“I believe that being a virtually new team, with a bit of time they’ll gel and it all starts with this weekend’s effort.”
The Redbacks will field a more experienced side, with the likes of Jamie Subat not afraid to bring a bit of physicality to the game and Gatti isn’t so sure his youngsters are equipped to handle it.
“No, not really (equipped). We’ll defend as stoically as we can… we’re very young and don’t have many big boys there, so we have to learn how to play football more so than the physical side of it.”
Thornton narrowly missed out on the finals places last season, their coach Darrel McAllister citing defeat in a crucial six-pointer with Wallsend and a wash out at the back end of 2016 as reasons they missed out on fourth place.
Having retained key men across the park and keen to promote their younger players, a couple of good pre-season results for the Redbacks suggest they may just be a force to be reckoned with in 2017.
The Redbacks got up 3-0 over Cooks Hill in a trial match at the beginning of the week, and Thornton coach Darrel McAllister said the result gives his side confidence.
“It’s something we can probably use, we went there and wanted to get something out of it… for the coaching staff, we got a fair bit out of it,” McAllister said.
“Defensively we were really good, and that’s something we’ve been working on in the pre-season.
“We’re confident (this weekend) but at the end of the day, we know it won’t be easy.
“There’s a couple of boys there that will be getting first-grade debuts… they’ll be up for it and we have to make sure we can match their enthusiasm.”
Wallsend FC v South Cardiff FC
Sunday 2:30 pm, The Gardens
Last year’s Grand Final winners kick off their quest to go three in a row at home to South Cardiff in their season opener on Sunday.
Wallsend has lost quality across the park following last season’s Grand Final victory – Dave Hodgson and Chris Gazzard just two that have departed the Gardens.
Chris Gallagher steps into the breach for the Red Devils this year and has filled the departed experience with keen youth – with one youngster, in particular, stepping up in a big way in last weekend’s Heritage Cup.
“Young bloke named Nick Evans went really well in the Heritage Cup, he scored from halfway against Weston,” said Gallagher.
“Calum Caldwell wasn’t really in the frame, he hasn’t played in a decent level for a while.
“He’s come in and showed he’s got heaps of ability, it was good to see a few players step up a bit.”
South Cardiff are a bit of an unknown quantity heading into round one – led by former PS4 NPL man Denis Fajkovic, the Gunners know they’ll need to get firing early if they’re to do good things in 2017.
Fajkovic has set his side big goals for the upcoming season and knows how crucial it is to get early points on the board.
“It is important to start with a win and that’s what we’ll be going there to do,” Fajkovic said.
“People say it’s tough to go to the Gardens and get a result, but what a way to make a statement if we do.
“Our preparation has been good, we’ve had a lot of new players come in… and I’m pretty confident we’ve got a side there that will match any side in this league and will trouble Wallsend this weekend.”
This match carries extra significance as both sides contest the Peter Gallagher Shield which honours the late Peter Gallagher, brother of Wallsend coach Chris.
“It’s always a bit of an emotional game for us, and a few of the boys that were around the club while my brother was as well,” Gallagher said.
“It’s about catching up with players from Southy that played with my brother, and the older blokes that come down as well.”
Kahibah have the Bye