Slice of Cheese

NPL TAS: Pre-Season Check In

Victoria Morton

And we’re back!

The dog days of local football’s off-season are nearly over. Soon, the mercury will drop, the leaves will start to change color and the battle for footballing supremacy in Tasmania will begin in earnest with the commencement of the 2018 NPL Tasmania season.

But before then, the NPL Southern and Northern Summer Series competitions are upon us, giving each of the sides 4-5 more competitive games to gain fitness and fine tune their tactics.

Of course some clubs are already well ahead of the pack in terms of their preparation and undoubtedly those who have put in the hard yards over the summer months will soon be reaping those benefits. As the old adage goes, you can’t win any silverware in the pre-season but you can certainly lose it.

So just what has taken place over the off-season? And where are each of the sides sitting heading into the 2018 season? Let’s dive in and take a look.

There is only one place to begin with really and that is the side everyone is chasing. The 2017 Champions South Hobart have just completed a three week series of fixtures against Victorian opposition, culminating in a mighty impressive 2-1 victory on the weekend against Pascoe Vale FC. They fell in the weeks prior to Bentleigh Greens (4-1) and Hume City (3-1) but the performances in those games had been encouraging. They were unlucky to not earn a draw against Hume, with match fitness playing a role in a late fade out and for the first 20 minutes against Bentleigh they played with an intensity and style that caused one of the best sides outside of the A-League all manner of headaches. Against Pascoe Vale they strung a full 90 minutes together and came away with a well deserved win. Lets be clear, this was no smash and grab, South were good value for their win despite losing some key players from their 2017 side.

“Next man up” is the refrain of any nearly any coach of a side who loses players. It gets trotted out ad nauseam, to the point where it has become little more than a platitude in most cases. Certainly the Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pedersen was roundly mocked when he dared to suggest it following his star quarterback Carson Wentz’s injury in week 15 of the NFL season. Yet two months later the Eagles are now Super Bowl Champions and that next man up, Nick Foles just got named the Super Bowl MVP. For champion sides it’s not just a platitude, it’s an organisational philosophy that they live and breathe, and in Tasmanian football nobody embodies it better than South Hobart. As young Pajari Sculthorpe rolled his centre back and blasted home a superb centre forward’s goal on Saturday before later cooly chipping home an 87th minute winner, you get the sense that despite the departures of Quaile, Turner and Hamlett, South will be just fine in 2018. As their performance throughout these games have demonstrated, they remain the side to beat and no matter who departs, they have a talented kid waiting in the wings ready to take their place.

Sculthorpe with a delightful chip to secure the win- Image- Victoria Morton

The other side taking on the Victorian visitors were the Hobart Zebras who also took on Bentleigh Greens and Hume City but they fared less successfully than their local counterparts. A 4-0 loss to Hume City in what was for many of the players a first meaningful hit out was far from embarrassing, but the lack of chances they created in the game would have to be of some concern given the attacking talent in the side. The 8-0 thumping at the hands of Bentleigh was a far more disappointing showing and had the Greens not taken the foot off the pedal it really could have been even uglier. Fortunately for their sake (though unfortunately for local footballing connoisseurs) the Zebras aren’t going to run into sides like Bentleigh every week in the local competition and how they fare throughout the Summer Series will probably be a better indicator of where they are at. With a number of quality players who took no part in the January action set to supplement the current playing crop,  it’ not panic stations for the Zebras yet, but at this stage they are a long way behind South. There is no doubt that their ambitious young coach Gabriel Markaj has the requisite knowledge, but translating that to his players performance on the pitch remains the challenge. In more positive news, the Zebras will be playing 2 games at North Hobart oval this season, including the season opener against South Hobart.

If anyone is capable of stopping a South Hobart repeat, it might just be the Devonport Strikers. The 2016 Champions have recruited strongly over the off season and Chris Gallo looks as though he will have a strong squad at his disposal in 2018. Last season the Strikers defied expectations by remaining in the title race longer than any other challenger and after 13 weeks they were on top of the table. They were unable to sustain it and after going 11-1-1 to start the year they would falter to post a 1-1-6 record over the final two months of the season. That is easily explained away by the fact that for most the season it was Mann, Reynolds, Zaikos, Fischer and then seven youngsters taking the field. When Fischer, then Zaikos departed and injuries/suspension conspired to keep Mann and Reynolds off the field, they were suddenly rolling out a side that could have played in Under 18 competitions. A number of key signings, headlined by import Gediminas Kruša, mean that the Strikers should have stronger depth this season with the returning Joel Stone, Beau Blizzard, Nathan Pitchford and Miles Barnard set to join Mann, Reynolds plus a third import player to add that crucial experience they lacked in 2017.

Joel Stone was one of the League’s best in 2016- Solstice Photography

Speaking of squads that are shaping up nicely, it has been a surprisingly silent off season for the Olympia Warriors but they have quietly assembled a list that should thrust them right into title contention once again. They are still to officially name their head coach, but Dale Itchens has been leading training since well before Christmas and led them as they toured Victoria over the weekend. They lost all 3 games in the incredibly compact schedule, falling to Vikings 2-1, Cairnlea 1-0 and Ballarat City 4-0 but they thumped Glenorchy Knights 7-0 in their most recent game locally. They made an early splash in the transfer department as they lured Jack Turner across from South in what was a major coup. Turner was the most damaging player in the league last season, he scored 11 goals in 12 games from midfield, made the team of the season and came close to a Mitsubishi medal despite missing half a season! If Nick Mearns can manage to stay fit this year, they could combine to become the strongest central midfield pairing in the competition; throw in Lucas Hill and it’s a hell of a midfield trio. To replace the departing Jakub Sklenar, they beat out Zebras and South to the signing of Englishmen and Real Tennis star; Zak Eadle. If you haven’t seen it, check out Brent Costelloe’s profile on him. Throw in a pair of American imports, a returning Alex Holmes and suddenly despite considerable less fanfare than usual, the Warriors are looking damn dangerous.

The Warriors spent the weekend in Victoria

Meanwhile there have been similar crickets echoing from Wentworth Park but the news that has seeped out is concerning. Anecdotally, the Reds have potentially lost or are in danger of losing Nick Naden, Matt Lewis, Jeremy Price, George Hallard, Grant Malcolm, Darby Randall and Odaine Demar from last seasons squad. These are quality players and the coaching triumvirate of Jablonski, Docherty and Bolton now have some major work to do in player recruitment/retention if they are to build on the 16 points they achieved last season. After a season that saw them trying to juggle too many central players, they now find themselves needing to add players in that area. With departures come opportunities though and Clarence need to be targeting fringe players elsewhere with the lure of a regular 90 minutes at the top level the carrot they can dangle.

Moving on to Kingborough, and after being the talk of the town 12 months ago, there is somewhat less hype around the Lions this time around. The side will look to continue to develop under Mark Broadbent throughout 2018 as they try bounce back from last year’s wooden spoon. He quickly assembled a quality coaching team to guide the club through what is essentially the second year of a rebuild process. The Lions blooded a large number of their youth players throughout the second half of 2017 and Broadbent said at the time it was a case of building up a core of players good enough to stay away from relegation when it is introduced in the 2019 season. As such this looms as another season of youth development at the club, but the players are not all that is being developed down there. The biggest news out of the Den so far is definitely the construction of a second pitch along with light towers that will allow for Night games to be played there this season. The new facilities will be of tremendous benefit to both the club and the region and punters can look forward to plenty of evenings at the Den in 2018.

 

The redevlopments are well underway at the Den

Heading North and the indicators are that Launceston City could be major improvers in 2018. There have certainly been some, giant sized transfer rumors about Launceston City’s that smell rather fishy to me, but City are thus far keeping their powder dry in terms of announcing any new signings. They have announced their new coach however with former Zebras Assistant and University coach Jez Kenth taking the top job. Kenth had a very successful run in charge of University where he proved himself a shrewd tactician and he had been keen on an NPL coaching gig since; he now gets that chance. There is certainly a feeling of fresh beginnings at the club with new president Andrew Heap looking to make an immediate impact in his tenure. He hired Kenth as part of a structural overhaul of coaching at the club  and gave a good overview of things when he caught up with Football Nation Radio on Monday, discussing his vision and challenges for the club.

Across town to Rangers and despite their rivals dominating the rumour mill, it was a confirmed signing of Rangers who led the charge when the pair met in a recent hit out. Argentinian striker Federico Colaianni Cano slotted a debut hat-trick in a massive 5-1 win for Rangers that offered the perfect start to 2018 for Lino Sciulli’s young brigade. Cano could be just what Rangers need if he can provide a reliable source of goals. They have some talented creative players in the squad, but their top scorer last year was Nick Lanau-Atkinson on 8 with half of those coming in one superb game. If Rangers are to close the gap to the top four, their new Argentinian holds the key. Sciulli will once again lead the side in 2018 having crossed over from City and made an immediate impact, taking his side from 8th to 5th. He will oversee a slightly tweaked coaching set up for the season that will be looking to keep developing what was one of the younger sides in the state in 2017.

Rangers new signing made an immediate impact

 Upcoming Summer Series Fixtures

South

Hobart Zebras v Olympia Warriors, Saturday 10 February, 3:45pm, Darcy Street

South Hobart v Kingborough, Saturday 10 February, 6:00pm, Darcy Street

Hobart Zebras v Glenorchy Knights, Wednesday 14 February, 6:30pm, North Chigwell

Clarence v South Hobart, Thursday 15 February, 6:00pm, Darcy Street

North

Northern Rangers v Launceston City, Saturday 10 February, 2:00pm, Valley Road

Riverside Olympic v ,Launceston United, Saturday 10 February, 4:00pm, Valley Road

Devonport Strikers v Ulverstone, Saturday 10 February, 6:00pm, Valley Road

 

FFT Media and Communications Coordinator, Everton tragic, long form journalism devotee, Andrea Pirlo enthusiast and admirer of the parked bus.