The 2023 Fraternity Club Premier League season kicks off on Friday night with a blockbuster local derby between Cringila and Coniston.
The Illawarra’s top flight also welcomes back Helensburgh for the first time since 1990 with the Thistle facing a tough first-up challenge away to last year’s league winner Wollongong United.
The reigning grand final champions Wollongong Olympic start their campaign against South Coast United at Ian McLennan Park.
A recent league winner will be absent this season with the Woonona Sharks opting to drop to the Community League.
Albion Park White Eagles
Opening month: Tarrawanna Blueys (H), South Coast United (H), Corrimal Rangers (A), Port Kembla FC (H)
The White Eagles narrowly missed out on finals football in 2022 and now it’s up to former Wollongong Olympic coach George Antoniou to turn them into a true championship force.
Albion Park have retained a core of players including Brendan Fordham, Chris Nathanial and Cameron Morgan.
The club experienced goalkeeping woes last season which they have addressed in signing ex-Wollongong Wolves no.1 Hayden Durose who will play behind another key signing in centreback Jack Keating.
The dogmatic Sam Munro is a loss for the White Eagles, however, Antoniou has signed the likes of former Woonona skipper Tyler Fuller and Premier League veteran Joey Lavalle in an effort to fill the void in midfield.
If Albion Park have a strong start to the season they could be tough to catch.
Opening month: Corrimal Rangers (A), Helensburgh Thistle (H), Port Kembla FC (A), Coniston FC (H)
Bellambi were thrown a lifeline after the demise of Woonona, however, the Rosellas face an uphill battle to improve on an underwhelming 2022 where they recorded eight points in 16 games.
Steve Dimitrievski has managed to secure a massive coup in the shape of former Premier League golden glove Blake Horton, who could play a key role in plugging Bellambi’s leaky defence.
Former Woonona and Cringila midfielder Jake Webster is also a solid signing who will offer a tireless work ethic and support for Reo Hirose who has recommitted to the Rosellas.
The opening fortnight could be telling as to how Bellambi will fare this season.
Opening month: Port Kembla FC (A), Wollongong United (H), Coniston FC (A), Wollongong Olympic (A)
Coach Julio Miranda is at the helm for his fourth season at Balls Paddock after securing a third-placed finish in 2022 before a straight sets exit in the finals.
The core of Bulli looks very familiar with striker Ben McDonald leading the line in front of the likes of Sam Davies, Kyle Jackson and Aaron Baker.
Bulli have signed two new visa players in Japanese Hashimoto Yuki and Filipino Miguel Clarino – the latter being the brother of Ian Clarino who has signed on for a third season at the club.
Japanese goalkeeper Seiya Miyamoto has left the club for South Coast Flame with long-time youth shot-stopper Braeden Kludass likely to get an opportunity to step up to the mark.
Bulli’s finals aspirations will be boosted if resourceful forward Dylan Lewis is able to make a successful return from injury.
Opening month: Cringila Lions (A), Corrimal Rangers (H), Bulli FC (H), Bellambi Rosellas (A)
After being the surprise package in 2021, Coniston showed their quality by pushing again for the league title last season with silverware definitely on the agenda in 2023.
Coach Rob Jonovski has held on to a majority of his key players with attacker Adam Voloder and defender Ekoue D’Almeida the two biggest outs.
New Zealand forward Van Elia will be a vital cog in Coniston’s attack alongside Matt Floro and Toby Norval with captain Lukas Stergiou, defender Takayuki Kayano and Jason Zufic also key re-signings.
Coniston may not have pushed the boat out when it comes to new signings, however, they have picked up tricky midfielder Nic Tomasiello and 19-year-old Cassidy Tanddo who was playing with Canberra Croatia last year and has played for Australia at schoolboy level.
Coniston should be in the mix.
Opening month: Bellambi Rosellas (H), Coniston FC (A), Albion Park White Eagles (H), Wollongong United (A)
Corrimal managed to keep off the bottom of the table last despite being the only side Bellambi managed to beat – a 1-0 result in the final round of the season.
Coaches Phil Matias and Manny Mavridis have inherited an inexperienced side with the likes of Cody Wehmeyer, 24, and Zane Wilson, 25, set to be integral to any potential success.
Young guns James and Harrison Anagnostopoulos are exciting signings from Port Kembla, while Japanese duo Shuhei Nagasawa and Shunjiro Shibuya are unknown quantities that could prove pivotal.
A win in the opening round would be a huge boost leading into a tough run of fixtures.
Opening month: Coniston FC (H), Wollongong Olympic (A), South Coast United (A), Tarrawanna Blueys (A)
Cringila reached the finals for the first time in 14 years in 2022 and now former assistant coach Jorge de Matos has been handed the reins to try and go one better than their preliminary final exit.
The Lions boast one of the best front lines in the Premier League including captain Peter Simonoski who, for many keen observers, is the competition’s premier marksman.
De Matos has recruited versatile Ekoue D’Almeida from rivals Coniston who joins the likes of Ben Zucco, Andre Dias and Steven Ugrinovski who have re-signed.
Defensive stalwart James Ralston has departed the club for NPL 2 side Canterbury Bankstown, leaving the side without an obvious leader at the back.
Opening month: Wollongong United (A), Bellambi Rosellas (A), Wollongong Olympic (A), South Coast United (H)
After knocking on the door for the last few seasons, Helensburgh have finally returned to the Premier League where they will be keen not to just make up the numbers.
Andrew Paine, who also guided Bellambi into the top flight in 2020, has managed to hold on to the core of the side that helped the Thistle secure promotion including skipper Vaughan Patterson.
Reigning Neville Arrowsmith Medalist Jarrod Benham has resigned, as has last year’s District League top scorer Kade Kinsella who will be assisted up front by speedsters Brad Watts and Luke Van Zyl.
Dean Petrucco could be one to watch with the new signing joining on the back of being named the Southern Districts Player of the Year.
Port Kembla FC
Opening month: Bulli FC (H), Tarrawanna Blueys (A), Bellambi Rosellas (H), Albion Park White Eagles (A)
Port Kembla were promising at stages through 2022, but after the competition was split in two they couldn’t keep up with the league’s frontrunners.
Talisman Jordan Nikolovski takes on extra responsibility this season with coach Stuart Beedie handing him the captain’s armband and he will look to bounce off striker Oli Carrasco who had his best year to date last time around.
Port haven’t had a load of players leaving, however, they have lost a couple of up-and-coming players in Rocky Lavalle and the Anagnostopoulos brothers, James and Harrison.
There are some question marks about the quality of Port Kembla’s defence which will probably cause them to fall short of the finals.
Opening month: Albion Park White Eagles (A), Port Kembla FC (H), Wollongong United (A), Cringila Lions (H)
Tarrawanna will be coached by Jason Wenig this season as the side looks to make a return to the finals for the first time since 2020.
Wenig will have a youthful lineup, however, he will still be able to call on veterans Matt Naylor, Darren Stone, Mitchell Young and Adam Rodrigues who would have more than 1000 games of experience in Illawarra football.
Former Woonona league winners Taro Reagan Williams and Luke Toohey are interesting signings, as is attacker Jamie Wakeling who has spent the last three seasons with South Coast United.
The Blueys biggest query is the lack of a standout goalscorer with last season’s top three scorers – Takumi Ofuka, Jacob Gjorsevski and Zac Mazevski – either no longer at the club or set to miss the season through injury.
South Coast United
Opening month: Wollongong Olympic (H), Albion Park White Eagles (A), Cringila Lions (H), Helensburgh Thistle (A)
South Coast enjoyed a solid end to the season last time around with one defeat in six after the league was forced to be split in two.
Greg Valic, the league’s longest-serving coach, could still play a role on the park, along with fellow veterans Ricky Bertakis and goalkeeper Jason Bleakley.
Attackers Jamie Wakeling and Marco Pennisi are significant departures for the club with the likes of Kieren Brodnik and youngster Lucas Loncar tasked with trying to fill the void.
Opening month: South Coast United (A), Cringila Lions (H), Helensburgh Thistle (H), Bulli FC (A)
Wollongong Olympic came agonizingly close to achieving a Premier League double in 2022 after losing to arch-rivals Wollongong United in the league before triumphing over them in the grand final.
Coach Matt Bailey has been able to strengthen his squad across the park except for one key position with Chilean goalkeeper Cris Fuentes facing the daunting task of replacing former A-League and NPL no.1 Justin Pasfield who hung up his gloves at the end of last season.
The list of ins includes former Wollongong Wolves and Bulli captain Guy Knight, his teammates at both of those clubs Nick Littler and Japanese attacker Yuto Sugiura who has found the back of the net a few times in preseason.
They join reigning George Naylor Medalist Chris Price, midfielder magicians Rick Goodchild and Harry Callahan, NPL veteran Tynan Diaz and hardnosed defender Mark Every at Herb Clunis Oval.
Opening month: Helensburgh Thisle (H), Bulli FC (A), Tarrawanna Blueys (H), Corrimal Rangers (H)
The 2022 season will go down in the history books as one of the greatest in the history of Wollongong United after the Macedonia Park club won their maiden Premier League title and became the first Football South Coast side to reach the national rounds of the Australia Cup.
United have lost two key contributors to those exploits with Klime Sekutkoski – who scored in last year’s grand final defeat – and Mason Versi taking up NPL opportunities.
Former Marconi goalkeeper Dion Shaw has joined the club, replacing the outgoing Jacob Madden, while the mercurial Johnny Martinoski rejoins the club where he began his Premier League career.
Perhaps the most important signings for Wollongong United were the re-signings of Japanese duo Seiji Kawakami and Mitsuo Yamada who committed to a fourth season at the club.
Season preview by Dylan Arvela, on Twitter @dylanarvela
Photos by Denis Ivaneza, Ritchie Wagner and Kiah Hufton