ILLAWARRA PREMIER LEAGUE | SEASON PREVIEW

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2021 ILLAWARRA MERCURY PREMIER LEAGUE SEASON PREVIEW

A return to a 22-round Illawarra Mercury Premier League season is upon us, with the competition set to kick off at JJ Kelly Park on Friday night. 

The 2020 season finished in the most dramatic of circumstances, with Woonona winning their maiden league title by the finest of margins over Wollongong United, who went on to take the spoils in the grand final. 

There has been plenty of player movement around the league, as well as coaching changes, with five clubs going into the season with a different coach to the one that finished the last campaign.

Albion Park White Eagles

Last season: 5th, 4 wins, 5 draws, 2 losses, 17 points

Opening month: Cringila Lions (H), Bellambi Rosellas (H), Port Kembla (A), Coniston (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Quarter-finals

FFA Cup: In round three (v San Souci)

The Albion Park White Eagles came within a goal of the grand final after a rough start to 2020 and the side looks set to kick on with seasoned Premier League coach Rob Birkin now at the helm.

Albion Park have had a few noteworthy departures including attacking trio Joel Beattie, Jordan Nikolovski and Valentino Merxhushi, but there can be little qualms with the club’s recruitment.

US Virgin Islands captain James ‘JC’ Mack joins from New Zealand top-flight side Hawke’s Bay United, with the forward set to be an ideal partner to goal-scoring ace Cameron Morgan.

Former A-League All Stars’ defender Pedj Bojic is also on the list of ins, along with former Kemblawarra Fury midfielder Sam Munro, league-winning forward Julian Minutillo, 2020 golden glove winner Blake Horton and intelligent centre back Boden Allport.

A shock defeat to Helensburgh in the Fraternity Club Cup indicates there are still creases to be ironed out at Terry Reserve, but with the White Eagles not due to play a side from last year’s top five until round five, a fast start could be just the antidote.

Prediction: 1st

Bellambi Rosellas

Last season: 7th, 4 wins, 2 draws, 5 losses, 14 points

Opening month: Woonona Sharks (H), Albion Park White Eagles (A), Wollongong Olympic (H), Tarrawanna Blueys (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Semi-final

FFA Cup: Did not enter

Bellambi have experienced a complete overhaul after the departure of coach Andrew Paine at the end of 2020, with only a couple of players remaining at Elizabeth Park.

The club pulled off a coup in bringing in grand final-winning coach Jeff Allport, who has managed to put together an eclectic squad that appear ready to prove a point if a semi-final run in the Fraternity Club Cup is anything to go by.

Bellambi have signed Japanese goalkeeper Seiya Miyamoto from Wollongong Olympic and he has already shown his worth during preseason, with his distribution not too dissimilar from another Japanese who tended goal for the Rosellas; one Yuya Kuwada.

Angelo Hajittofi will be an important figure at the back, while Chris Gomez and Brett Wilson will be relied upon to make things happen in the final third. 

Allport is also likely to lean on a collection of youngsters, with the likes of Sean Molloy from Fernhill and Adrian Avello from the Wollongong Wolves under-20s featuring prominently in the preseason.

There were encouraging signs in the Fraternity Club Cup, but squad depth and getting goals could hold the Rosellas back from anything more than a relegation scrap. 

Prediction: 11th

Bulli

Last season: 3rd, 5 wins, 5 draws, 1 loss, 20 points

Opening month: Wollongong Olympic (A), Tarrawanna Blueys (H), Wollongong United (H), Corrimal Rangers (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Winners

FFA Cup: In round three (v Holroyd Rangers)

Julio Miranda goes into his second season in charge with a trophy in the cabinet after lifting the Fraternity Club Cup on Sunday night.

Bulli have made some exceptional acquisitions over the summer; headlined by the return of favourite son Guy Knight after two successful seasons with the Wollongong Wolves.

The Balls Paddock club has also picked up defensive stalwart Nick Littler from the Wolves and youngster Jake Levy, who has impressed in midfield during the preseason.

The attack is bolstered by the signing of Joel Beattie from the Albion Park White Eagles and the return of playmaker Mitch Del Turco after a year off – both will lineup alongside Ben McDonald and Luke Van Zyl.

Bulli are a genuine league title contender if they can manage a congested start to the season.

Prediction: 2nd

Coniston

Last season: 10th, 2 wins, 5 draws, 4 losses, 11 points

Opening month: Corrimal Rangers (H), South Coast United (A), Woonona Sharks (H), Albion Park White Eagles (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: In round three (v Brookvale FC or West Pennant Hills Cherrybrook)

Coniston have had a busy offseason, with Corrimal’s grand final-winning coach Rob Jonovski replacing Jeff Allport.

The JJ Kelly Park side has lost key players in Brett Wilson, Blake Horton and Boden Allport, while club captain Franc Pierro is taking the year off to coach the club’s all age side.

Jonovski has pulled across some key figures from Corrimal, including Lukas Stergiou, Sam Matthews, Jake Morlando, Jason Zufic and Kaydin Harrison.

Former Wollongong United all age forward Anthony Krsteski looks an astute signing after banging in a handful of preseason goals and he will form an attacking trio with Matt Tschentcher and Tomohito Fujieda.

Injuries and suspensions dogged Coniston last season and they were probably better than their 10th-placed finish suggests. 

If they can field a consistent 11, Coniston have as good of a chance as any midranking side of pushing into the top five.

Prediction: 5th

Corrimal Rangers

Last season: 8th, 3 wins, 4 draws, 4 losses, 13 points

Opening month: Coniston (A), Wollongong United (H), South Coast United (A), Bulli (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Did not enter

It’s been a rollercoaster of an offseason for Corrimal, with new co-coaches Nathan Minutillo and Fabian Cappetta departing after their first Fraternity Club Cup match; the Rangers replacing them with former Albion Park White Eagles coaches Goran Trajceski and Chris Peros.

Corrimal have signed some quality recruits, including 2020 George Naylor Medal runner-up Toby Norval from Cringila and his brother Ryan, a goalkeeper with time at Sutherland, Rockdale and Sydney FC.

Sandy Lowcock, Nathan Belsito and Fabian Iacovelli have joined to add experience to a squad that still features talisman Rick Goodchild and grand final winners Dean Pender, Paul Guido and Matthew Galanti.

Corrimal’s squad is better than their preseason suggests and if the creative duo of Goodchild and Norval click, a finals finish isn’t beyond them.

Prediction: 6th

Cringila Lions

Last season: 9th, 2 wins, 6 draws, 4 losses, 12 points

Opening month: Albion Park White Eagles (A), Wollongong Olympic (A), Tarrawanna (H), Wollongong United (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: In round four (v TBC)

Paul Michlmayr oversaw his first preseason as a Premier League head coach with Cringila, stepping up after Stuart Beedie’s departure midway through last season. 

The Lions have brought in a few interesting prospects, including Japanese fullback Shin Takahashi and Lake Heights junior Jordan Prentoski, who scored 16 goals in 13 all age matches for Wollongong United last year.

Wideman Valentino Merxhushi also joins from Albion Park, while the dependable Nick Morgan has signed from Bellambi.

James Ralston remains a key figure at the heart of defence and his presence in the side will be even more significant with stalwart Todd Sparks stepping away from the game. 

Cringila could bloody a few noses, but their inexperienced squad probably won’t be able to sustain a top-five tilt. 

Their tough start to the season could make or break them.

Prediction: 10th

Port Kembla

Last season: 11th, 2 wins, 1 draw, 8 losses, 7 points

Opening month: South Coast United (H), Woonona Sharks (A), Albion Park White Eagles (H), Wollongong Olympic (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Did not enter

It’s out with the old and in with the old, as Port Kembla look to overcome their worst-ever Premier League season by reuniting with two time premiership-winning coach Stuart Beedie.

The Scot has brought in a group of players who were previously with him at Wetherall Park, including holding midfielder David Polidoro, striker Nuno Pires, goalkeeper David Poeira, and fullbacks Peter Richardson and Will Mobbs.

Port have also signed shot-stopper Bryce Daenell and 2020 golden boot winner Vaughan Patterson from Bellambi, while midfielder Alex Pappas and winger Jordan Nikolovski could also prove handy acquisitions.

This shift back towards the tried and tested could prove successful, but relying on aging bodies could have an effect on any push for the finals in the second half of the season.

Prediction: 9th

Tarrawanna Blueys

Last season: 4th, 5 wins, 3 draws, 3 losses, 18 points

Opening month: Wollongong United (A), Bulli (H), Cringila Lions (A), Bellambi Rosellas (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Quarter-finals

FFA Cup: In round three (v Belrose Terrey Hills)

Peter Willis is set for his sixth season at Tarrawanna Oval, with the experienced coach guiding the club to a third, and unexpected, finals series in 2020.

Tarrawanna were able to make a handful of youngsters full-fledged first graders last year and you can expect the likes of Tyson Black, Brody Page, and Nic Tomasiello to be key figures for the side in 2021.

Veterans Matt Naylor and Darren Stone remain the bedrock of the side, along with the likes of Dan Chapman and Chris Gibson. 

In terms of signings, the Blueys haven’t been overly active, but they have picked up Mitch Young from Bellambi, Jacob Gjorsevski from NPL 2 side St George City FA, and Josh Crapis from Port Kembla.

Don’t expect to see captain Mitch Ferraro or Zac Mazevski out on the park, with both still recovering from knee injuries sustained in the final round of 2020.

There are question marks over who will score the goals and whether they will be able to step up once more in what appears to be a tougher top-five race.

Prediction: 8th

South Coast United

Last season: 12th, 1 win, 1 draw, 10 losses, 4 points

Opening month: Port Kembla (A), Coniston (H), Corrimal Rangers (H), Woonona Sharks (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Did not enter

The 2020 season was one to forget for South Coast United, with the club managing just four points through 11 rounds.

Unfortunately for Greg Valic’s side, there aren’t too many signs of significant improvement after poor trial and Fraternity Club Cup form and little player movement. 

Tricky forward Anthony Pedavoli is a significant departure, while the only notable senior signing is young midfielder Toni Musumeci from Port Kembla.

Byung-kuk Cho will remain a key figure at the heart of defence alongside Valic, however, the former South Korean international hasn’t played any first-grade football in the preseason due to a back injury.

Striker Jamie Wakeling will need to step up if South Coast are to rise up the table and a key part to his success will be the fitness of canny attacker Ricky Bertakis.

It is hard to see how United avoid finishing last.

Prediction: 12th

Wollongong Olympic

Last season: 6th, 4 wins, 4 draws, 3 losses, 16 points

Opening month: Bulli (H), Cringila Lions (H), Bellambi Rosellas (A), Port Kembla (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: In round four (v TBC)

Wollongong Olympic will be extremely disappointed with last season after missing the finals with perhaps the strongest squad in the competition.

George Antoniou remains at the helm and his squad has been further bolstered with the signings of Wollongong Wolves veteran Chris Price, Sydney United winger Josh Macdonald, Wollongong United forward Hikaru Kawasakiya and midfielder Ben Zucco, who spent 2020 with Community League side Port Pumas.

There have been some notable outs, however, with Japanese striker Yu Hasegawa joining NPL 1 outfit Sydney Olympic and James Baldacchino and Corey Haines-Grose also departing.

Olympic missed the cut in the Fraternity Club Cup, but an impressive half against Bulli and decent trial form indicates the PCYC club will be one of the teams to beat this season.

After their season opener against Bulli, Olympic will likely be clear favourites in their following six matches. Seven wins leading into a round eight clash with the Albion Park White Eagles would have the league’s attention.

The squad is fantastic and silverware will be on the agenda.

Prediction: 3rd

Wollongong United

Last season: 2nd, 7 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses, 23 points

Opening month: Tarrawanna Blueys (H), Corrimal Rangers (A), Bulli (A), Cringila Lions (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: In round three (v Fraser Park)

Wollongong United added a second Premier League grand final to their honours list, but the Macedonia Park side are still on the hunt for their maiden league championship. 

Oli Vrtkovski has kept a majority of his squad, with the main change being in goal; Sam Nastic returning after a year off to fill the gloves of Jordan Nikolovski. 

United will look to the likes of George Naylor Medalist Billy Tsovolos, captain Danny Lazarevski, and Japanese Seiji Kawakami to maintain any silverware assault ,while Mason Versi, Jeremy Flanagan, and Mitsuo Yamada remain the three-pronged threat upfront.

The side has had a long preseason despite their uncharacteristic early departure from the Fraternity Club Cup, which should have them purring for round one.

United should at least be as strong as last season, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough to see them contend for titles.

Prediction: 4th

Woonona Sharks

Last season: 1st, 7 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses, 23 points

Opening month: Bellambi Rosellas (A), Port Kembla (H), Coniston (A), South Coast United (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Did not enter

How are Woonona supposed to push on from the most unforeseen success in the history of the competition?

The Sharks have done well to maintain the entirety of their league-winning squad apart from star goalkeeper Jair Fernandez, who has signed with NPL 3 club Bankstown City, leaving an unproven David Booth, who understudied at NPL 4 side University of NSW, with massive gloves to fill.

Woonona have re-signed their 2019 top goalscorer Corey Haines-Grose after an unsuccessful stint at Wollongong Olympic as well as rookie Bulli quartet Jordyn Della Vedova, Max Ashton, Sammy Lendrum, and Jordon Lozenkovski, who will be looking to push for first grade opportunities. 

Dan McGoldrick’s side had a rock-solid defence in 2020 with 10 goals conceded in 13 matches, but it remains to be seen whether they will be as solid sans Fernandez, as well as whether Haines-Grose will add enough to their attack which struggled at times against top-five rivals.

It’s very hard to see Woonona going close to a repeat of last year’s miracle, but a finals finish is still in the picture.

Prediction: 7th

Preview by Dylan Arvela, on Twitter @dylanarvela

Photo by Pedro Garcia

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