Northern Premier League coaches agree that the 2012 soccer season is going to even closer than last year - and that season finished with a champion decided by goal difference. The Examiner's MARK BAKER talks ins, outs and injuries with all nine clubs.
The 2011 premiers have been slow out of the blocks this year with several players unavailable for pre-season matches due to cricket and other commitments.
Interim coach Anton Balym admitted performances had been below expectations.
``It's been a different start to the season than in previous years,'' he said. ``We're fighting a premiership hangover.''
Knights was beaten 6-1 by Launceston United, 5-1 by Northern Rangers and 4-2 by New Town Eagles in the Hudson Cup.
Defender Greg Duffy has gone to South Hobart but his brother Mitch has signed and will prove a valuable player in midfield. Ben Crosswell showed great touch in the pre-season games and 2011 leading goal scorer Matty Sesay attended training this week and looks like returning from the mainland.
Balym said while the focus was not on individual players, the club was excited to see the development of teenage players on the verge last year such as Matty Heald, Anton La Palombara and Abraham Kargbo.
He believed the competition would be very tight. ``I don't think there will be a clear top four like last year, six teams could be in the running.''
Ulverstone was shaping as a challenger after solid off season recruitment, he said. ``They were a good side last year but probably lacked three or so quality players and it looks like they have picked up.''
Last year's runners-up has the starting 11 to win its third premiership in four years but might lack depth after losing several senior players, coach Marshall Pooley said.
Des Schipper is unlikely to play although he has trained, Sam Luck and Stefan Jago have gone to football, Andrew Nicholson is having a year's break and Pooley himself is off to the UK to play cricket in April.
``But there's some good young fellas stepping up,'' he said. ``We're looking at bringing up a lot of young guys early such as Josh and Tom Burk, Yitay Towns and Tenzing Anderson.
Pooley said his side will maintain the style fostered under previous coach Adam Whitemore.
``We're trying to continue the same things as last year; play a possession game, pressing opponents early and winning the ball back as soon as possible.''
Chris Hunt, Agele Luate and Mark Ambrose will be partnered in attack in a 4-3-3 formation that will cause problems for opposition defences.
``The addition of Agele Luate from Launceston (United) is big for us, he's got really good goal sense and is a good finisher, I'd back him to score from a couple of chances even if he's not playing well,'' Pooley said.
``Mark Ambrose is also looking fit after a couple of seasons struggling with injuries so if we can keep them on the park for the majority of the year, we will go well.''
Pooley rated Devonport City as its main challenger for the premiership.
``Devonport are obviously always strong, because of its catchment area there seems to be an limitless amount of juniors rolling through.''
Northern Rangers is still working on a succession plan when Pooley leaves for three months but it will be a mix of senior players Todd Hingston, Gabriel Tams and Brendan Lichtendonk.
First time coach Chris McKenna believes Devonport's policy of promoting its own youth will be its biggest strength.
``That's the way we like to do it,'' he said. ``We don't send people away if they turn up but we don't go knocking down people's doors telling them how good they are either.''
McKenna said the club had several really impressive teenagers but singled out centre midfielder Jesse Curran, 15, as one of the best young players he'd seen in Tasmanian soccer.
``His vision and distribution is absolutely top drawer and hopefully he won't last long in Tassie,'' McKenna said. Curran won the club's 2011 reserve best and fairest and finished second in the league's B&F.''
McKenna, who has been one of the best players in Tasmanian soccer for a decade, said he would not play as many minutes this year as several seasons of playing with niggling injuries had caught up with him.
``I want to play, I love it as much as ever but I've played the last four to five years with small hamstring tears so I'll just have to see how it goes. If someone's up front banging in plenty of goals, I'm happy to sit out.''
McKenna said Ulverstone would cause a lot of teams trouble while Rangers have been consistent for a few years and Knights still had core group of experience players.
NPL coaches are naming Ulverstone as title contenders but coach Nick Owen said it was important to remain focused and set goals for the season.
``Last year Burnie were talked up as title contenders but things didn't go their way and they ended up near the bottom. This could well happen to us.''
Ulverstone has recruited well with Brayden Mann, twins Adam and Shaun Conkie, David Horne, Mic Wolfert, Jason Singleton and Nathan Turale signing.
``I am most excited about Joel Stone and Brayden Mann working side by side in attack. These two, at their best, could manage two to three goals per game between them.
``With those two classy players taking a lot of the attention, our other forwards and midfielders such as the two Conkies and Ben and Adrian Foote should be able to add their name to the scorer's sheet fairly regularly. With this strike force we should be challenging for the title.''
Ulverstone had a good pre-season with a 4-1 win against New Town Eagles, 3-1 win against Riverside Olympic, 4-3 win against Glenorchy Knights and a 2-1 loss to Northern Rangers.
South Hobart beat them in the final but as an interesting aside, the Northern Premier League winner has been the Hudson Cup runner-up for the last two years.
However, Owen said Devonport City should be favourites and their squad had a lot of quality and depth.
``Rangers will be towards the top again but they have lost some experienced players, which might mean they are less consistent but still capable of beating any team.
``Most of the other sides have shown improvement on last year so we will probably see more upsets than last year where three teams dominated.''
Somerset coach John Wheeler described his side's pre-season campaign as average.
``We just haven't had the numbers at the moment,'' he said. ``Lots of people are tied up with cricket and other summer sports and we're waiting to get them back.''
In the North-West Summer Cup, Somerset had a 1-0 win against Burnie United, 3-1 loss to Ulverstone, 4-2 loss to Devonport City, 2-1 win against Burnie United and 8-2 loss to Ulverstone.
Wheeler believed his side could push for a top four finish if it played to its ability.
``I believe Devonport and Ulverstone will be two high contenders, Ulverstone has picked up a number of players, but I can't comment on the Launceston teams because I haven't seen them.
``I'm not saying we're going to go out and win the title, we're still going to build on what we've got, which is a lot of young boys, in the under-14, under-15 and under-16 age groups.''
Wheeler said teenager Ryan Liston, who plays on the left wing, would be a positive inclusion when he returns from knee surgery.
However, Somerset is lacking an experienced goalkeeper, which is where it has been falling down, Wheeler said.
Riverside Olympic coach Troy Scott believes his team is capable of winning the title but injury concerns are hampering its preparations for round one.
``On our day we can match and beat anyone in the league,'' Scott said. ``But our pre-season has been average. I'm not entirely happy, I'm not entirely disappointed but I don't feel we're ready to start the season.''
In the Hudson Cup, Olympic had a 1-1 draw against Glenorchy Knights, 3-1 loss to Ulverstone, 3-0 win against Launceston City and 3-2 loss to New Town Eagles.
Robbie and Sam Hughes are both on the long-term injury list and will not play this year. Sam could be out for up to two years as the knee injury he sustained has lead to nerve damage that has affected feeling in his foot.
Playmaker Ethan Olner is having scans on an injured heel and his return is unclear while injuries to Matthew Hart (ankle) and Trent Mitchell (knee) don't sound major.
Goalkeeper Joey Simmons is playing football, Will Guy has moved to Melbourne and John Varnham has returned to England.
Scott believed the loss of big backman Varnham would not weaken the defence with Hart and Matthew Chapman stepping up from under-18s and reserves respectively.
On a positive front, Todd Mitchell has returned to the club from intestate, Mark Littlechild is back in goals and several promising under-18s have been promoted.
Scott, who is sticking with a 4-3-3 formation, is expecting a big year from 18-year-olds Oliver Edmundson and Mark Cristy.
He named Devonport City, Ulverstone and Northern Rangers as other title contenders.
``Devonport's results have looked good on paper and I've been impressed with watching and playing Ulverstone but Northern Rangers are also going to be hard to beat.''
Launceston City dropped its heavy pre-season running campaign of 2011 in favour of more ball walk and has found the injury toll for round one is much lower than last year.
``I'm pretty sure the players have enjoyed it and I've been really pleased with how they've stuck to the plan on the pitch even when things aren't going right,'' coach Lino Sciulli said.
``The game plan is to keep the ball on the ground, have lots of movement off the ball and, when we don't have it, to fight like dogs to get it back.''
In the Hudson Cup, City had a 1-1 draw against Glenorchy Knights, a 3-0 loss to Riverside Olympic and a 4-1 loss to winners South Hobart.
City, which finished seventh last year, is focused on developing a side that plays good soccer and believed coastal sides Devonport City and Ulverstone were the teams to beat
``Ulverstone are a very strong, physical team and Devonport always play soccer really well.''
City has lost Steve Throup who returned to the UK and Michael Beechey who has work commitments that will keep him out for several weeks but youngsters George Nicholas and Nick Goodwin look like breaking through to the higher level.
A former referee coaching Burnie United sounds like a recipe for disaster but Tony Cocker said his welcome had been fantastic.
``The perception among other clubs is that you go out there and niggle Burnie and they self-destruct but the discipline on the field is much different this year,'' he said.
Cocker said he has had a desire to coach senior soccer and after injuring himself last June decided to apply for the Burnie job.
``I was a bit dubious going into Burnie but the reception from everyone from players to supporters has been fantastic. I haven't looked back.''
Cocker said he has been playing a young side in the summer cup and, although not winning a game, had been impressed with the matches.
``We've been very competitive, we've pushed Devonport in both games, which is good to see.''
He named Stuart Batt, Tyler Johnstone, Connor Parke, Josh Garland and Brodie Best as under-18s that had stepped up and surprised the club with how well they had fitted in and their efforts on the park.
Older players including captain Andy Gibson, vice captain Elliot Stewart and Ash Smith have taken on a mentoring role with the juniors.
``They really gel well with the juniors, they communicate really well and lift their performance,'' he said.
Cocker said his squad was realistically a few years off challenging for a title.
``We'd all love to win the league, that's a passion of every coach, but I've set the goal to finish mid-table and a top four position is certainly not out of the question.''
He believed Devonport was going to be hard to beat as Chris McKenna has got them playing very well.
``Devonport is definitely the benchmark but it's hard to say between them and Ulverstone and Northern Rangers.''
Is this the year United wins its first NPL game since 2008? Coach Mark Egan is quietly confident.
``There's a couple of older guys that will have a bit more experience and the young kids have had two years of hard games,'' Egan said.
``Some of our practice games went well and we were extremely close to pulling of upsets in the Steve Hudson against South Hobart and Glenorchy Knights.''
However, United's first game against Riverside Olympic will be a test after leading pre-season goal scorer Thors Niemly, captain Nathan Bartlett and Alex Smith players were sent off in the qualifying round.
Egan said the players all picked up two yellow cards for dissent, and, while he couldn't excuse it, he could see where some of the frustrations came from.
Niemly and Bartlett are suspended for three matches for swearing at the referee while Smith was suspended for one.
``Thors and Nathan are two of our heavy hitters so it's not the start we were looking for but it gives someone else the opportunity and not just for one game but for three.''
United has picked up Jack Hudson, Jess McNeil and Alex Smith and only lost one player; Agele Luate to Northern Rangers.
Egan rated Devonport and Ulverstone as league favourites. ``Kenny (Chris McKenna) has Devonport well drilled and Ulverstone has a licence to score goals with Brayden Mann back.''
Mark Baker's soccer previews and match reports will now be available on The Examiner's website on Friday and Saturday nights. Check out the unabridged articles at www.examiner.com.au.