HIT106.9 Northern League One Round One Preview: Season to kick off with blockbuster clash between Westy and the Strikers

Match of the Round
West Wallsend SFC v Singleton Strikers FC 
Johnston Park, Friday 8pm 

The wait for the 2024 HIT 106.9 Northern League One season is now over with the competition kicking off at Johnston Park, the venue of last year’s decider, as the defending champions West Wallsend host the Singleton Strikers.  

The Bluebells have a target on their back following their penalty shootout grand final victory against South Cardiff and no one is aiming up more than Singleton, a side that West Wallsend defeated in week one of the 2023 finals series on their way to the top. 

West Wallsend have farewelled several players from their championship-winning roster as Josh West, Wes Pryce, Josh Knight and Tom Sparre all left in the off-season.  

The key loss from the side is the 2023 Player of the Year and Golden Boot winner Kane Goodchild, who is still at the club in a coaching role but has hung up the boots. 

The Bluebells have added some handy players to spearhead their promotion push headlined by Kaleb Cox, the brother of coach Bailey Cox and captain Bryson Cox, who most recently played in the NPL with Lambton Jaffas.  

Joining him at the club are Sam Marr (Cooks Hill), Jake Milsteed and Callum Eardley.  

West Wallsend’s coach Bailey Cox said he was full of confidence heading into the new campaign with his side playing a more exciting brand of football in their quest for promotion into the top flight of football in the Hunter.  

“I have a feeling we’re going to be even stronger than last year,” Cox said. 

“Pre-season was really good. We’ve got a few new boys and we’ve been trying a couple of new things.

“We did pick up a couple of injuries during the pre-season, but once we get everyone back fully fit, our starting lineup will be a cracker. 

“I’m expecting it to be a tough start against Singleton. I don’t think we’ve had an easy game against them ever. They’ve got a new coach so I’m not sure if the way they play is going to be different.  

“But we’re not really too focused about them. We’ve changed a few things in our camp, so we’ll be focusing on playing the way we want to play and what we’ve been working on in the pre-season. 

“Balls into the box and goals is what I want to see from us. We’ll be playing a bit more exciting football this year.” 

Singleton enters the new season with almost the exact same roster as last season, with the most notable of their few losses being Jed Horder to Cessnock. 

The Strikers’ new coach Doug West is now looking forward to his first competition match in charge.  

The club’s long-time secretary Warren Gillespie said that West had been a great addition to the club and added that the players were looking forward to playing under him this year. 

“We have good numbers with a lot of young guys. A few guys have rolled into reserve grade from the 18s this year,” Gillespie said. 

“Doug has been fantastic. He’s added another layer to the boys and the boys are loving his training and his technical nous and what he’s trying to do. He’s been very well-received. 

“It’s a similar squad to previous years, a squad that’s been together for five years now, and I think Doug will give a few younger guys a go in first grade when they are ready. 

“We’re looking to be competitive again and at the end of the year be there or thereabouts. 

“It’s a big game against Westy in Round One. The first game of the year is always exciting times. 

“Westy are the reigning champions and they beat us in the semis last year. They’re a tough outfit. Our boys are keen and will be up for the challenge. It’s the first game of the year, Friday night under lights at Westy, where would you rather be?” 

South Cardiff FC v Wallsend FC 
Ulinga Oval, Friday 8pm 

South Cardiff is looking to build on the momentum of last year’s grand final appearance to kick off the season in style when they host Wallsend at Ulinga Oval tomorrow night. 

The Gunners fell agonisingly short of a fairy tale finish when they lost against West Wallsend in a grand final penalty shootout last year after making an unlikely charge into the big dance from fifth place. 

A pre-season built on continuity has the club feeling confident heading into the new season, with Perry Mellon to coach the first grade side for the second year in a row and the majority of last year’s squad staying on to help push their club back to where they feel it belongs in the top flight of football in the area.  

South Cardiff was the last side to be relegated from the NPL NNSW competition back in 2015 and with promotion and relegation returning this season, the Gunners are ready to battle their way back to the top. 

Mellon said that pushing for a top-four spot is the goal at South Cardiff this year and he is confident he has the playing roster to achieve that. 

“Our pre-season has been good and we’ve retained a fair chunk of the group from last year,” Mellon said. 

“We had 32 last year and we retained 28 of them, and we’ve also added four or five into the mix, so it’s really been a continuation of what we did last year. It’s the first year we’ve had the same coach for two years in a row for about five years too. 

“I think all of that puts us at an advantage over other teams who have had a lot of changes. We haven’t spent weeks integrating new players, we’re just lifting off last year. 

“Our start last year was really good. We had some really good results early on and we were up the top there for the first five or six rounds, but then we dropped off a bit. At the end of the year, we obviously had a very strong finish. This year, being a similar group, we should be able to be more consistent across the whole season. That’s the aim. 

“Last year we finished fifth and the gap to fourth was 12 points. Top four would get us into a promotion playoff, so if we can bridge that gap and get into that top four, that’s a reasonable outcome for me.” 

For Wallsend, continuity is the complete opposite of what they have experienced since the end of last season. The club looked to withdraw from the competition late last year but a push from new coach Chris Gallagher, alongside other club members and supporters saw them rally to get the Red Devils back on board. 

Gallagher has coached the team previously, most recently in 2017 and is excited to be back at the helm of the first grade team of a club that he loves.  

“Things are going pretty good,” Gallagher said.  

“We don’t have an 18s side anymore or a youth program, but we’ve kept a few of the young boys from last year’s 18s around in our reserve grade. They’ll be handy for years to come. 

“We’ve got the full complement of players. There are about 36 players there currently. We’re doing alright. 

“We haven’t played as many games as I would have liked in the pre-season, but the boys have worked really hard and we’ve got some standards and key principles there that we want to stick to. 

“We’re going to give it a red-hot crack this year and see how we go. We’re not looking too far ahead.  

“We’ll focus on who we are playing each week and the players we’ve got available, and we’ll go out there and do the best we possibly can.” 

Friday night’s match is an extra special one for Gallagher as the Red Devils and the Gunners meet in the first of the 2024 Gallagher Shield matchdays.  

The shield was formed in memory of Chris’ late younger brother Peter Gallagher, who passed away from brain cancer in 2012. Peter played for both Wallsend and South Cardiff.

“I’m hoping that we can win it back this year because Southy won it off us last year,” Gallagher said. 

“It’s up there for me with one of the bigger trophies for us to win. It’s a special one for my family.” 

Toronto Awaba FC v Thornton Redbacks FC 
Lyall Peacock Field, Saturday 2:30pm 

Toronto Awaba is determined to start the season strongly when they host Thornton Redbacks at Lyall Peacock Field on Saturday afternoon. 

The Stags were flying high last year after wrapping up the premiership in July but they lost four of their final five games including a home preliminary final showdown against South Cardiff to miss out on the grand final. 

The lingering feeling of unfinished business around the club has motivated an almost unchanged Toronto Awaba playing group during the pre-season and they are keen to make their mark early this year. 

Jarrad Hiles is returning for his third full season as the side’s coach in 2024 and has enjoyed what he has seen from his men in the build-up to their round one match against the Redbacks. 

“We’ve been training well for a while and we’ve had some good pre-season hit-outs,” Hiles said. 

“Things are shaping up pretty much the same as last year. We have a pretty settled squad, which is great. Clancy Muddle has gone away with work and he’s the only one who’s missing, and Pete McPherson’s brother Scott has joined us, and once he gets himself in shape, he’ll be a handy addition to the squad. 

“I’m sure all the clubs have strengthened up and no doubt the competition will be similar to last year where every game is a tough game and if you’re not at your best you’ll get done by any team, regardless of their position on the table. 

“The disappointment of us crashing out in the finals series the way we did last year is the big motivation for our boys. The way we ended the year was disappointing, but that’s taking nothing away from what we did over the 27 rounds.

“The boys have come back pretty keen. This year will be different for us, I think. The last few years, we’ve sort of flown under the radar and not many people have given us a chance, but this year, they know what we’re capable of and there’ll be no flying under the radar anymore.” 

A major boost for Toronto Awaba sees the club field a full complement of junior teams in 2024 from under-9s up to under-18s. 

Thornton Redbacks enter the 2024 campaign with new coaches leading the way as Gary Wand returns to the club to co-coach alongside Gerard Carey.  

The Redbacks finished seventh last season, just one point outside the top five, but they have lost a handful of key players including Sam Rossi, Liam Hardy, Lachlan Yates, Jack Charnock and Adam Duggan. 

Wand said that he and Carey would ensure their players put up a fight in 2024 in what will be a rebuilding year at the club. 

“We’re looking forward to the challenge of putting a new squad together,” Wand said. 

“It will be tough at times, but we’ll be looking for improvement. 

“I can’t sugarcoat it. You can’t lose the players of the calibre that we have lost and replace them overnight.” 

The Redbacks have retained key players like goalkeeper Oliver Mather, central midfielder Pat Wand and dangerous attacker Diego Cerda, who alongside a new signing in central defender Jayden Ziernik from Wallsend, will form the spine of the team in 2024. 

It will be an uphill battle for Thornton from the get-go this Saturday as they enter their Round One clash against the defending premiers with several players missing due to injury and cricket season.  

But they will throw everything they have at the Stags as they attempt to start their season with a win for the first time since 2021. 

Belmont Swansea United FC v Cessnock City Hornets FC 
Blacksmiths Oval, Saturday 7:30pm 

The two teams that finished last season occupying the bottom two positions on the ladder will go head-to-head when Belmont Swansea United and Cessnock City Hornets meet at Blacksmiths Oval. 

Both teams were disappointed with the way they finished last season and they are looking to improve.  

BelSwans were in finals contention late in the campaign but lost their final five games to fall to eighth, while Cessnock also went winless in their final five games to finish last on the nine-team table.  

But the two sides have high hopes this year and are determined to fight their way into promotion contention. 

BelSwans have been the talk of the league across the pre-season, with many players and officials at other clubs tipping them to be the big improvers this year. 

A lot of that has to do with the class of their coach Mick Stafford and the club’s recent history of success.  

Former golden boot winner Kane Woolston is back at the club in addition to Maitland defender Adam Blunden and Ian Matthews from the Jets Youth program, as well as quality players from the Central Coast such as Ethan and Matt Hall, Adam Woodbine and Sam Kirk. 

BelSwans’ woes in front of goal were well-documented last season, but Stafford is predicting more goals and better results in 2024 as his club eyes off a push for promotion. 

“It’s good to be back on board with the lads,” Stafford said. 

“We’ve obviously added some new players to strengthen ourselves from last year. We came eighth so we needed to improve, and we’re looking to hit the ground running after a following pre-season. 

“Coming second last is a major disappointment to the football club. The committee has gotten behind the plans for us to succeed, and that is bringing some experienced players in.  

“I think we lacked experience last year at key moments, and this year we have that experience as well as some quality young guys to add a bit more excitement to our squad.

“It’s great to have Kane (Woolston) back at the club. He’s a great person and a solid striker. He’s looking as sharp as he was when he left, and I think the whole club is happy to have him back. 

“A lot of our new signings have done quite well in pre-season. You can see what they’ve added, and it’s pushed our club stalwarts like Corey (Wilson) and Reece (Newton) to another level as well.  

“Competition for spots wasn’t an issue last year, which led to our eighth-place finish, but I can already see now that more people are turning up to training because they know the competition for spots is there this year.” 

Cessnock City Hornets coach Brad Miles is also back on deck at his club and his men are determined to lift themselves off the bottom of the table following last year’s wooden spoon finish. 

The Hornets started training back in November and have been working hard across the pre-season.  

Miles was thrilled with what he saw from his squad during a trial match against Edgeworth late last month. 

The club has made a few key signings, including Lachlan Rogers, Tom Sowden, Jed Horder, Jack Lindsay, Blake McDonnell and Lochlan Gruber, who have joined a largely unchanged roster from the 2023 campaign and are ready to make their mark. 

Their biggest signing though is the experienced and talented Josh Maguire who arrived from NPL side Lake Macquarie and has taken on the role as the club’s technical director for the 2024 campaign as well as being a player. 

Miles is pumped for the new season and is looking forward to what he expects to be a tough opening-round fixture. 

“We’re playing a pretty good team in BelSwans,” Miles said. 

“They’re well-coached and well-disciplined. We’re expecting a hard game but I think that we’re up for it. We’ve been training for a while now and we’re looking forward to playing. 

“This is my third year as coach and I’m really looking forward to it. I live and breathe it and I can’t wait for the comp to start.

“With the players we’ve brought in and everyone we’ve kept, I think we can push to get up into the top five. But we’ve got to show up every week and be consistent.” 

Kahibah FC has the bye.