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After much anticipation, 2021 Peoplecare Illawarra District League season is ready to kick off.

Following one of the most bizarre seasons to date, the competition is back to its traditional 22-round season where teams will play both a home and away fixture against each opponent stretching from March to August, followed by a four-week finals series in September.

The first game of the season kicks off on Friday night with Balgownie playing Kiama at Ian McLennan Park.

Balgownie Rangers

Last season: 10th, 2 wins, 3 draws, 6 losses, 9 points

Opening month: Kiama (H), Helensburgh (A), Unanderra (H), Thirroul (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Did not enter

With the league’s worst attack with just seven goals, Balgownie must improve in front of goal should they wish to climb the District League ladder.

However, the Rangers may have found an answer to their goal-scoring woes: Christopher Hollingshead.

The youngster has stepped up to first grade nicely after playing in Balgownie youth grade for two seasons, scoring all three of the clubs goals during the Fraternity Club Cup.

The Rangers grinded to several impressive results last year, including a draw against Oak Flats and a win over Picton, but ultimately fell short on numerous occasions which saw them slip down to 10th position.

Hollingshead will lead from the front looking to guide his team to a more successful season.

Prediction: 11th

Berkeley Sports FC

Last season: 9th, 3 wins, 2 draws, 6 losses, 11 points

Opening month: Thirroul (H), Shell Cove (A), University (H), Picton (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Did not enter

After almost two years without a win, Berkeley picked up three in 2020, and may just be on the rise from there.

Berkeley have added some power throughout the pitch, signing all age Illawarra Premier League players James Walker and Aaron Trevisi from Corrimal and Trent Thompson from Tarrawanna.

The Goats were their own worst enemy during the Fraternity Club Cup, picking up four red cards in three games.

They played out a 2-2 draw with Fernhill before losing 2-0 to both Kiama and Community League side Gerringong.

However, there were some positives to take out of the 2020 season for the Goats. They finished the season on a high with seven points from their last four games – the most throughout their season.

Several new inclusions and some passion on the pitch might see the Goats in a similar spot to 2020.

Prediction: 9th

Fernhill FC

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

Opening month: University (H), Picton (A), Kiama (H), Helensburgh (A) 

Fraternity Club Cup: Quarter-finals

FFA Cup: Did not enter

Fernhill’s miracle end-of-season run wasn’t enough to take them all the way but they’ll be hoping to begin that run from round one this time around.

The Foxes were down and out in the penultimate round last year, before a swing of results saw them sneak into the finals on goal difference.

The opening round sees them host University – the same fixture which they picked up their biggest win last season.

Big wins over Gerringong and Kiama during the Fraternity Club Cup will boost their confidence heading into this campaign.

Mitchell Turner and Sean Poulton return to the club after making the switch from Premier League outfit Bellambi and they will be looking to show their worth once again at this level.

It could go either way for Dale White and his men, and the start is crucial as to how things will shape come season’s end.

Prediction: 6th

Helensburgh Thistle

Last season: 4th, 6 wins, 1 draw, 4 losses, 19 points

Opening month: Unanderra (A), Balgownie (H), Warilla (A), Fernhill (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Semi-final

FFA Cup: Did not enter

This strong District League side somehow just got stronger.

Kade Kinsella leads from the front in season 2021, already showing his best goal-scoring form with 10 goals in just five games during the Fraternity Club Cup.

Helensburgh scored a whopping 20 goals during their five games, including an impressive 4-1 victory over top-tier contenders the Albion Park White Eagles.

Bellambi coach Andrew Paine takes charge of the Thistle after his promotion to the top-division with the Rosellas and has brought with him Brad Watts, Cody Cuthbertson and Liam Unicomb to play alongside Kinsella up top.

Former Bulli midfielder Blake Hewson has also signed with the black and gold ahead of the season.

Helensburgh are a side to be reckoned with in 2021.

Prediction: 1st

Kiama Quarriers

Last season: 8th, 4 wins, 1 draw, 6 losses, 13 points

Opening month: Balgownie (A), Warilla (H), Fernhill (A), Oak Flats (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Knocked out in round two

The Quarriers finished mid-table in 2020 and were in finals contention up until three straight losses from round eight to 10.

However, it’s been a poor start to the new season after being the first team to bow out of the Bert Bampton Cup following a 3-0 loss to University.

Their Fraternity Club Cup campaign saw them pick up a win over Berkeley, but also slump to a 5-1 defeat to Fernhill.

It’s been a quiet transfer window for Kiama, Simon Bussoletti and Chris Hill return to the club to make up the defensive line, with former Albion Park White Eagles goalkeeper Volkan Guden impressing fans in the sides loss to University.

Chris Christodoulou leads the side up front, looking to build on his goal-scoring prowess in recent years.

It may be a tough season for Kiama, but a few opportunities for points in the opening rounds could build some confidence at the Quarry.

Prediction: 12th

Oak Flats Falcons

Last season: 1st, 9 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss, 28 points

Opening month: Shell Cove (A), University (A), Picton (H), Kiama (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Did not enter

Things couldn’t have got any better for the Falcons last season, ending their 42-year championship drought.

However, winning co-coaches Nathan Minutillo and Fabian Cappetta departed the club after the grand final win and were replaced by club legend Mark Vinton.

Vinton’s first competitive game back in charge was one to forget, as they fell to an onslaught of goals in a 6-1 loss to Helensburgh in the Fraternity Club Cup.

The Falcons then turned it around with comfortable wins over Dandaloo and Picton.

Despite the slow start, Oak Flats show quality across the park.

They have re-signed the centre of their success including goal-getter Bojan Caric, key midfielder Jarryd Vinton and have even brought back midfield maestro Hayato Sadamori after a year away.

Oak Flats are undoubtedly one of the favourites heading into the season.

Prediction: 2nd

Picton Rangers

Last season: 3rd, 6 wins, 2 draws, 3 losses, 20 points

Opening month: Warilla (A), Fernhill (H), Oak Flats (A), Berkeley (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Knocked out in round two

Picton fell just one game short of an impressive underdog season in 2020.

Picton started the season flying with five wins from five and were sitting nicely at the top of the table before a slide in form, which saw them win just one of their remaining games.

Despite this, a determined effort saw them progress to the preliminary final where they succumbed to a big defeat at the hands of Unanderra.

It was a tough pre-season campaign for the Bushpigs, failing to find the back of the net in their three outings in the Fraternity Club Cup.

Scott Miranda leads the side from the back as Tyler Snelgrove and Lachlan Newman both re-sign with the club after a successful 2020 season.

They have also picked up youngster Tristan Michelmann who joins the club with NPL 2 experience at the Macarthur Rams.

It could take time for Picton to be back at their best, but they will need to make the most of their chances heading into the longer season.

Prediction: 7th

Shell Cove FC

Last season: 7th, 4 wins, 4 draws, 3 losses, 16 points

Opening month: Oak Flats (H), Berkeley (H), Thirroul (H), University (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Runners-up

FFA Cup: Knocked out in round two

Shell Cove are another team that has shot out of the gates during pre-season.

After picking up just five points from the last five games in 2020, Shell Cove ultimately missed out on their first finals appearance since winning the second-tier competition in 2014.

The Cove stormed to a FCC final appearance after winning all their games in the lead up, including a penalty shoot-out win over IDL favourites Helensburgh in the semi final.

Despite their determined effort, they went down to Premier League opposition Bulli 7-1 on Sunday night.

Hayden Soper showed his class with a couple of stand-out performances last campaign and will be back again to lead his side from the front.

He is joined up-top with former NPL 3 Blacktown City forward Tommy Markovski who also got on the scoresheet on three occasions during their run.

Some handy pick-ups could guide the Cove to finals football should the team stay consistent throughout the 22-rounds.

Prediction: 4th

Thirroul Thunder

Last season: 11th, 1 win, 5 draws, 5 losses, 8 points

Opening month: Berkeley (A), Unanderra (H), Shell Cove (A), Balgownie (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Quarter-finals

FFA Cup: Did not enter

Thirroul weren’t at their best in 2020, slumping down to 11th place with just one win and eight points to their name.

Finishing with five draws, the highest in the league, the Thunder scored only nine goals in their 11 games, showing why they struggled to pick up wins.

But it’s been a more promising start this season, with the Thunder out-scoring last season’s tally in just four games during the Fraternity Club Cup.

Advancing out of their group but falling in the quarter-finals, Thirroul would owe their fine-form to their youthful striker, Tyler Ball who netted twice during this time and also newest signing and former Bulli goalkeeper Jayden Lewis steadying things up at the back.

Should their goal-scoring form pick up again, the Thunder could be pushing up to a mid-table finish.

Prediction: 8th

Unanderra Hearts

Last season: 2nd, 8 wins, 0 draws, 3 losses, 24 points

Opening month: Helensburgh (H), Thirroul (A), Balgownie (A), Warilla (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: In round four (v TBC)

The Hearts narrowly missed out on the premiership and championship last season after falling to Oak Flats on both occasions.

The Hearts are another team in premiership contention again in this campaign and will come out firing looking to make amends for last year’s final day.

It’s a mixed bag to start the season for Unanderra, hosting fellow premiership contenders in Helensburgh before away games to Thirroul and Balgownie.

Head coach Rod Williams has brought in a couple of influential players into his squad to boost his chances of winning another District League title.

Helensburgh forward Bradley Strudwick will be an option up top to replace the suspended Mark Picciolini, Jonathan Liddle comes in from University and Blake Coad will line up in between the sticks since signing from the Albion Park White Eagles.

The Hearts are ones to watch out for.

Prediction: 3rd

University FC

Last season: 6th, 5 wins, 2 draws, 4 losses, 17 points

Opening month: Fernhill (A), Oak Flats (H), Berkeley (A), Shell Cove (H)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Knocked out in round two

It was a disappointing end to the 2020 season for the Students, letting their finals hopes slip in the final minutes of the final round against Kiama.

Head coach Scott Regent has brought in a couple of defensive players after his side conceded just over two goals per game last season.

Brooklan Frkovic returns to the club after a season at South Coast United and the addition of Balgownie defensive midfielder Jackson Dummett will steady things up at the back.

2020 Neville Arrowsmith Medalist Doug Woodiwiss leads the Students for the third consecutive season looking to be their main outlet in attack.

Despite a determined effort in the FFA Cup against Bulli- which saw them go down 1-0, University bounced back with a comprehensive 3-0 win over Kiama in the Bert Bampton Cup last Friday night.

The opening month is crucial for the Students if they wish to nab their first finals appearance since 2013.

Prediction: 5th

Warilla Wanderers

Last season: 12th: 1 win, 1 draw, 9 losses, 4 points

Opening month: Picton (H), Kiama (A), Helensburgh (H), Unanderra (A)

Fraternity Club Cup: Pool stage

FFA Cup: Did not enter

It was a season to forget for the Wanderers in 2020, picking up just four points in the revised 11-round season.

Their only win came in round 10 against Balgownie and losses to Thirroul and Albion Park City in the FCC isn’t the start the side would have wanted going forward.

There are positives for Warilla heading into this year, with a couple of handy inclusions to their 2021 squad.

Experienced and former Port Kembla shot-stopper Brad Jardine will line-up in goal and Unanderra forward Joel Perry will be an outlet upfront for the Wanderers.

Last year’s Premier League all age player of the year runner-up Ben Lucas has made the switch from Bulli to boost the midfield and he also brings first grade experience from South Coast Flame in 2019.

Centre-half and captain Martin Castelli again leads the side out ahead of the season looking to improve on a disappointing season.

Prediction: 10th

Preview by Nathan Turner, on Twitter @nathanturner23_

Photo by Pedro Garcia

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