The newly-renamed Fraternity Club Premier League is scheduled to kick off on Friday night with Cringila hosting local rivals Coniston.
There is plenty of anticipation around these two clubs, along with many others in the Illawarra top flight, after two seasons heavily affected by the Covid pandemic.
Albion Park White Eagles
Opening month: Bellambi Rosellas (H), Bulli FC (A), Corrimal Rangers (H), Wollongong Olympic (H)
Alvin Ceccoli has had a preseason to mould the Albion Park White Eagles in his image after taking over a couple of weeks into the 2021 season.
The perennial winner has an extremely talented squad which includes Premier League stalwarts Brendan Fordham, Sam Munro and Chris Nathaniel as well as goal-scoring supremo Cameron Morgan.
Their signings include striker Mitchell Cross and midfielders Ethan Kambisios and Adrian Viggiani while first-grade regulars in Kyle Senior and Cody Wehmeyer are on the list of departures.
The side suffered a late blow with goalkeeper Blake Horton ruled out with a long-term injury, however, they have managed to sign man-mountain Nikodin Matic to replace him.
The squad is good enough to win it all on paper, but it’s a very competitive league.
Opening month: Albion Park White Eagles (A), Woonona Sharks (H), Port Kembla (A), Wollongong United (H)
Steven Dimitrievski has tough shoes to fill at Elizabeth Park after Jeff Allport managed to scramble together an eclectic group of players to be relatively competitive through what was played of last season.
The Rosellas have signed the likes of Luke Boersma and Steve Hristovski, two players with Premier League experience, as well as Japanese pairing Reo Hirose and Shoma Hirao.
Bellambi will be better off for retaining the services of striker Brett Wilson and a lot of their success this season will hinge on how many times the powerful forward can find the back of the net.
Their lack of squad depth may be a concern.
Opening month: Woonona Sharks (A), Albion Park White Eagles (H), Coniston FC (A), Cringila Lions (H)
Bulli have lost a stack of top-quality talent over the summer leaving Julio Miranda with an unrecognisable side from recent years.
Former George Naylor Medalist Guy Knight headlines the list of outs, with the star midfielder returning to the Wollongong Wolves alongside imposing defender Nick Littler.
Bulli will also be with the likes of Mitchell Del Turco, Luke Van Zyl, Jack Harris, Luke Foster, Ben McGinnes, Jake Levy and Joel Beattie.
It’s a long list of outgoings, but conversely, Bulli have made some intriguing signings including Japanese goalkeeper Seiya Miyamoto from Bellambi and defender Tomohiro Ishii from local rivals Woonona. Miranda has also picked up a few players from the NSW NPL youth system.
There is an element of the unknown about this Bulli outfit even though players like Kyle Jackson, Ben McDonald and Sam Davies are still around. Time will tell if that surprise factor is a good thing.
Opening month: Cringila Lions (A), Wollongong United (H), Bulli FC (H), Tarrawanna Blueys (A)
Coniston stunned their Premier League rivals last season by being within touching distance of the title with only a couple of months remaining.
Rob Jonovski’s side won’t have that element of surprise this season, but the premiership-winning coach has built a platform that should see the side be extremely competitive in 2022.
Coniston have made a handful of quality signings headlined by 2019 player of the year Van Elia, who worked under Jonovski at Corrimal. Toby Norval, Daniel Loe, Matt Floro and Tyson Black are some of the other names that will call JJ Kelly Park home this season.
The signings add to an already strong attacker which already includes Matthew Tschentscher and Adam Voloder.
Coniston have a sturdy backline and one of the league’s best goalkeepers in Kaydin Harrison, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t challenge for silverware.
Opening month: Wollongong Olympic (A), Cringila Lions (H), Albion Park White Eagles (A), Woonona Sharks (A)
Corrimal are unrecognisable from the side that won the grand final in 2019 with Paul Guido forced to retire due to injury and Matt Galanti and Scott Chipperfield Medalist Dean Pender moving to pastures new.
The outgoings don’t stop there with Toby Norval, Rick Goodchild and Sandy Lowcock also leaving the club.
Coaches Goran Trajceski and Chris Peros have made a couple of interesting signings in former Woonona Sharks Jai Mellor and Dylan Caton, while the tireless Cody Wehmeyer has joined from the Albion Park White Eagles.
The Rangers have a very difficult start to the season and a lack of squad depth could see them struggle.
Opening month: Coniston FC (H), Corrimal Rangers (A), Wollongong Olympic (A), Bulli FC (A)
Cometh the hour, cometh the man is the calling with Cringila turning to a former stalwart in Icko Atanasoski to coach the side in 2022 after a tumultuous showing last year.
Atanasoski, affectionately known as Ice, has brought a measured approach to the Crehan Park dugout, with the benefits already seen in a few decent trial hitouts.
The Lions have been on a long recruitment drive which has bolstered the side across the park, especially in midfield with Ben Zucco, Jake Levy, Steve Ugrinovski, Keegan Matias and James Carli signing on.
Andre Dias is an astute pickup from rivals Wollongong United, as is Anthony Krsteski from Coniston. These signings join the key defender James Ralston and goalkeeper Nikola Ristevski already at the club.
It’s been more than 12 years since Cringila last played in the finals, but that could soon change.
Opening month: Wollongong United (A), Tarrawanna Blueys (A), Bellambi Rosellas (H), South Coast United (A)
Port Kembla were on the cusp of the top five when the season was stopped last season, a dramatic improvement after a dire 2020.
The upturn came about with coach Stuart Beedie returning to the club with his sucker-punch approach working wonders.
Jordan Nikolovski, who nabbed 13 goals in 12 games last year, will be the side’s main attacking outlet. Beedie will rely on Nikolovski up front while looking to Will Mobbs, Peter Prandalos and Mitch Di Pietro to keep the side organised at the back.
Towering midfielder Vaughan Patterson has left the club, but the side has made an interesting singing from the Wolves youth system in Rocky Lavalle, brother of former Port player Joey Lavalle.
Finals football shouldn’t be too far off for the Zebras.
Opening month: South Coast United (A), Port Kembla (H), Wollongong United (A), Coniston FC (H)
Tarrawanna will go into a season without Peter Willis in the dugout for the first time since 2015 with Socceroos legend Scott Chipperfield taking over as head coach.
The Blueys will still have old-timers Matt Naylor and Darren Stone playing pivotal roles on either side of the backline, while the stage is set for younger heads like Nic Tomasiello, Kyle Kirkland, Brody Page and Jacob Gjorsevski to step up to another level.
Chris Gibson and Tyson Black will be tough to replace, but it should be good to watch Tarrawanna’s next crop of young guns, like Ben Learmonth and Toby Drain, feature more prominently in the side.
Mitchell Ferraro will also be missing with the former Blueys captain pausing his career after sustaining a serious knee injury in the 2020 finals series which sidelined him last season.
Willis will be a tough act to follow. Tarrawanna will do well to make the top five.
South Coast United
Opening month: Tarrawanna Blueys (H), Wollongong Olympic (H), Woonona Sharks (A), Port Kembla (H)
South Coast United have had a wretched two years on the park, finishing last in 2020’s 11-round season and sitting at the bottom when the season was scrapped in 2021.
The side hasn’t changed much in the time since with only a couple of ins and outs – most notably the retirement of former South Korean international Byung-kuk Cho.
The side is over-reliant on veterans like player-coach Greg Valic, Kolan Hmda and Ricky Bertakis so they will need more from the likes of Jamie Wakeling and Toni Musumeci if they’re to push off the bottom this season.
There is only so many times that one can go back to the well.
Opening month: Corrimal Rangers (H), South Coast United (A), Cringila (H), Albion Park White Eagles (A)
Premiership-winning coach Matt Bailey was parachuted into the PCYC three weeks out from round one, adding further intrigue to an Olympic side that already features some of the most well-known names in Illawarra football.
Bailey has inherited a squad with Premier League guns such as Jack Keating, Chris Price, Hikaru Kawasakiya and Justin Pasfield with the likes of former APIA Leichhardt star Tynan Diaz and Corrimal playmaker Rick Goodchild signing on for 2022.
Olympic will be heavy favourites in their opening two matches before facing Cringila and Albion Park – two matches which will give people the first real chance to see what impact the former Bulli boss has had on the side.
Olympic have lost some good, great players even, like Josh Macdonald, Matt Floro, Ben Zucco and Van Elia, but the quality is still there to have them as one of the league title favourites.
Opening month: Port Kembla (H), Coniston FC (A), Tarrawanna Blueys (H), Bellambi Rosellas (A)
Billy Tosovolos has been one of Wollongong United’s star players in recent years, but now he’s hung up the boots he will be leading the side from the dugout.
Tsovolos has inherited one of the most settled squads in the competition with the side still boasting plenty of top-quality players including skillful Japanese duo Seiji Kawakami and Mitsuo Yamada.
There are a few key outs, including Zac McLaren, Andre Dias and goalkeeper Sam Nastic, however, the United have been able to replace the gloveman with Jordan Nikolovski who was in between the sticks for their grand final successes in 2015 and 2020.
United have had some impressive trial matches, including a 2-0 win against the Wollongong Wolves, so they’re certainly amongst the title contenders.
Opening month: Bulli FC (H), Bellambi Rosellas (A), South Coast United (H), Corrimal Rangers (H)
Lest we forget Woonona are still the reigning Premier League champions, however, their title defence prior to the season being annulled was going nowhere fast in 2021.
Assistant coach Ian Connelly is now the head coach with Dan McGoldrick stepping into an advisory position at the club.
However, Connelly will have a weaker squad to manage with captain Tyler Bromham-Fuller, Tomohiro Ishii, Cameron Besgrove and Jeremy Lopez all departing Ocean Park over the summer.
Aiden Breslin, Hussan Dareb, Shin Takahashi and Junya Tanaka are on the list of ins with the likes of Brendan Pattman, Taro Regan Williams and Corey Haines-Grose expected to be mainstays in the Sharks’ starting 11.
The young core who came through in 2020 will need to step up to another level if the Sharks are to have any chance of featuring in the five.
Season preview by Dylan Arvela, on Twitter @dylanarvela
Photos by Kiah Hufton, Richie Wagner and Dana Walker