Thursday, 11 August 2016

PREVIEW: New-FM 1st Division Semi Finals-1st Leg

Under 17's:
Wallsend F.C (3rd) v West Wallsend (2nd)
Kickoff: 9:15am
2016 Meetings: WWB 2-0 WAL & WAL 3-5 WWB

The 2016 New-FM 1st Division Finals Series kicks off with what some would call the best match-up of the bunch as Wallsend and West Wallsend resume derby rivalry in the Under 17's after producing arguably the Match of the Season in any grade when they last met. This is the Semi Final tie both sides would have been thinking about for a long time now.

Wallsend F.C are the home side after finishing 3rd and it's a side that have the potential to go all the way. From a slow start to the year and a tricky pre-season, they've gelled together to become one of the best side's in the competition and the football they're capable of producing is second to none.

Their road to the finals hasn't been easy and a lot of results have been down to luck on some days and mental toughness on others. Captain Darcy Hall has led the side well but it's defensive partner Jackson Manning who's been a rock at the back and so often the key to their defensive blockade. Manning won't be involved in the Semi Finals which leaves a gap to be filled.

Wallsend have been impressive and it's shown by the fact they've finished in the top four. However, it'd be an oversight to not mention how close they came to exiting the top four last week. Jacob Rae scored late to down Belswans in a must-win fixture. It could have been a different story and no doubt, the young Red Devils will need to step up to another level for finals.

It's their form against fellow top-four opposition that is a worry. One win (against Kahibah in Round 10) from eight games against Semi Final sides; including two losses against Semi Final opponent West Wallsend. They can ill-afford to let that get in their heads but it's something they need to overcome.

West Wallsend were denied the minor premiership by Lake Macquarie City's win last week but a 2nd-placed finish has all involved at the club excited about where this team can go. They could very well break a Grand Final drought and be the first Westy side to make the GF since 2011.

After a mid-table finish last season and now finishing 2nd; it's safe to say West Wallsend have ticked all the boxes in the 17's and the club have a bright future with younger players excelling at the moment. The likes of goalkeeper Josh Snedden and attackers Josh Knight and Jaryd Hayter have stood out but it's a solid line-up across the park. You can't find a weak spot.

Take out a mid-week loss to Lakes that eventually cost them the minor premiership, the Westy 17's have won 14 of their last 15 games. It's amazing form and with two wins from two games against the arch rivals, they'll be quietly confident of winning this Semi Final match-up.

As mentioned earlier, these sides produced one of the great games of the 2016 New-FM Season when Westy downed Wallsend 5-3 at The Gardens. That was derby football at its brilliant best. If you're coming for one or more of the later games at Kahibah, then why not make the early trip out for this as it's going to be a thriller.

Prediction: As I pointed out above, West Wallsend have won the two meetings this season and they've won 14 of their last 15 games. With Wallsend winning just one from eight against top four opposition, it's safe to say the Bluebells go in as favourites. They've got the away goals advantage and they'll want to use that to build a lead.

My Tip: Wallsend F.C 1-3 West Wallsend

Wallsend's Jacob Rae fired them into the finals and will be vital for their hopes on Saturday.
West Wallsend won an epic Wallsend Derby last time they played their arch rivals.

Under 19's:
Kahibah F.C (3rd) v Belmont-Swansea United (2nd)
Kickoff: 11:00am
2016 Meetings: BEL 2-3 KAH & KAH 2-3 BEL

Every game at Kahibah Oval on Saturday is a good-looking match-up on paper and the 19's is no different as the host club takes on a Belmont-Swansea side that came so very close to taking the minor premiership from Lake Macquarie City. Dale Robertson's side have overcome opposition in some fashion this year and will look to down Kahibah, a side they're yet to defeat this season.

Mat Moncrieff's Kahibah side is a similar line-up to the one that went to within a whisker of a Grand Final appearance in the Under 17's and whilst they won't want to admit it, the hurt of that will be in the back of their minds but the success that a fair few of them gained in the Interdistrict 16's comp the year before will also drive them on.

There's some new players that have only been involved at Kahibah this season who wouldn't have experienced the defeat in Semi Finals last season. The likes of Harry Wills, Callen Brzozowski and Bailey Chaplain are newcomers to Kahibah and looking for success in their first season.

Kahibah's strong point is a unified connection across the entire club. Mat Moncrieff's expert coaching has been added to by the likes of club coach Andre Gumprecht and there's a real drive for success at the club. The Kahibah 19's have proven doubters wrong and look set for a good effort of trying to make the Grand Final.

Belmont-Swansea have dropped some valuable points against Kahibah this season and indeed the points dropped  could have seen them finish top of the table but it wasn't to be. They do however come into the finals on the back of eight wins in their last nine outings and it's with that confidence that they'll look to utilise in their quest to go one further than last year's Semi Final exit and make it to the Grand Final.

The season has been a positive one for the Belswans' 19's but none more so than two of their breakout attackers this season in Joel Nicholson and William Dundas. Nicholson has been a sensation for them and has bagged 32 goals across all competitions, including firing First Grade to a big win last weekend. His partner in crime, Dundas, has no less than 22 goals for the year.

Belswans' record against top four opposition is their weak point. Their undefeated against 4th-placed West Wallsend but against Kahibah and Lakes they don't have the best record. It's that history they need to turn around if they want to lift the trophy at Edgeworth in two weeks' time and they're certainly capable of doing just that.

This Semi Final tie is evenly poised with Belswans winning 3-2 in the away match that was played at Blacksmiths in Round 5 and then Kahibah got them back 3-2 in the return match. Away goals are vital and will go a long way towards deciding which one of these sides go to the Grand Final.

Prediction: Kahibah F.C are hosting the first leg and it's crucial they avoid any potential banana peel with Belswans looking for away goals. They know how important this fixture is and I give them a big chance. That being said, Belswans possess a very dangerous attacking threat.

My Tip: Kahibah F.C 1-2 Belmont-Swansea

Kahibah's Harry Wills scored a delightful free-kick in the last clash these sides played.
Belswans' Matt Ellis and Kahibah's Bailey Chaplain will resume their friendly competitive rivalry.

Under 23's:
South Cardiff (3rd) v Cooks Hill United (2nd)
Kickoff: 12:45pm
2016 Meetings: CHU 4-0 SOU & SOU 1-2 CHU

It's a fast-growing rivalry in the Under 23's and South Cardiff will meet Cooks Hill United in the Semi Final with revenge on their mind for a frustrating 2-1 loss at Ulinga Oval not that long ago. Southy have the likes of Sheldon Candian and Nick Tantos playing against their former club so there's sure to be feeling in this one for both sides.

The Gunners come into this game after upsetting Lake Macquarie City on their home turf last weekend. Taking the field without a key player in Ben McCabe, South Cardiff's 23's produced a stern effort led by a hat-trick to Trent Lamborn. Matt Parker grabbed his first of the season and that was all she wrote as they held on for a 4-3 victory.

South Cardiff were for a while the only team near-abouts Lake Macquarie City on the table but like every team that isn't Lakes, they've been plagued by inconsistent results in what has been an unpredictable competition in the Under 23's. Semi Final football brings a chance to right any wrongs and that'll no doubt be the plan for the Gunners.

Just like Southy, Cooks Hill United carry the flag into the finals as the club's only team in the Semi Finals after the 17's were dumped out in dramatic fashion. The Cookers' 23's haven't reached their true potential and there's still an extra gear or two the side can go to which will come in handy for finals football. Max Sovechles is a coach always wanting a bit more from his side.

Cooks Hill have the mind game advantage after winning both fixtures this season. A convincing 4-0 win at the AthField and then a hard-fought 2-1 win at Ulinga. Make no doubt, they would be delighted to have been matched up with South Cardiff and not Belmont-Swansea.

The Cookers won in testing conditions at Singleton last weekend and there was no better moment in that game than a wonder goal from quality break out youngster Ben Frohlich. It's the promotion of younger players that the Cookers have done so well at doing this season in the 23's and those players will be key for their chances.

With some huge games expected in the other grades, some would think this might not live up to the same expectations but it surely will. These sides both want a Grand Final spot, they've got a competitive edge against each other and it's sure to be a cracker of a match in the 23's.

Prediction: The finals match-up in the 23's most from Cooks Hill wanted. A chance to overcome a side they've already beaten twice in the regular season. That was then and this is now but it's Cooks Hill who come into this with confidence and belief. That'll play it's part. I'm tipping a Cooks Hill win but this will be nowhere near over after the 1st leg. A true two-legged match.

My Tip: Cooks Hill United 2-1 South Cardiff

Southy's 23's will be looking to steer the club the a trophy after quality season.
Cooks Hill's Giles Boyd and former teammate Sheldon Candian will resume their rivalry.

1st Grade:
Kahibah F.C (3rd) v Belmont-Swansea United (2nd)
Kickoff: 2:30pm
2016 Meetings: KAH 2-2 BEL & BEL 0-1 KAH

Two sides becoming accustomed to playing each other in tight, entertaining match-ups will meet in the 1st Grade fixture at Kahibah Oval. A constant battle for second place was won by Belmont-Swansea but it wasn't easy and these two sides are very much evenly-matched.

Kahibah's form has been patchy at times in the 2016 Season. They've had to win ugly some days and other days they've fallen to disappointing results. Some wins like the epic last-minute win over Singleton where Andre Gumprecht scored from distance proved the steel the side have and the never say die attitude that's needed for finals football.

But in the eyes of many onlookers; it was their brilliant 1-0 win under enormous pressure at Blacksmiths Oval that stands out as the result of the season. Jarrod Penfold grabbed a goal in the 50th minute and they held on against a very attack-driven Belswans side. They'll need that all hands on deck mentality this weekend as they look to keep Belswans out from any potential away goals.

The history of this fixture plays into Kahibah's favour. In four meetings, they've never lost to Belmont-Swansea. It's an evenly-matched fixture though. Three straight draws before Kahibah's breakthrough win shows that these sides will need absolutely everything to overcome the opponent.

Belmont-Swansea make their first trip to Kahibah Oval this season after the original meeting in 2016 was transferred to Blacksmiths. They'll likely be delighted with the 2nd-placed finish and the chance to host the 2nd Semi Final next weekend. Away goals will be vital and Brad Paul's side could definitely do a lot of damage should they find the net in the 1st Leg.

There's a quiet confidence at Belmont-Swansea about finishing this year with the biggest prize of them all. Should they get past Kahibah, they're the only side to beat Lake Macquarie City twice this season. Ending a 30-year championship drought would be a delightful way to cap off what has been a year of overcoming all the odds at Blacksmiths. 

There's some talent in the Belswans squad. Joel Shearer the captain leads from the front and Jamie Hadlow, Josh Hall & Josh Sutton all possess attacking brilliance. Goalkeeper Nick Popel is one of the best in the league and so often their hero whilst boom youngster Joel Nicholson will perhaps cap off a 32-goal season with a spot on the First Grade squad for finals at the age of 16.

Kahibah know the importance of the home leg and avoiding falling behind on away goals. That's the key for them. Player/coach Andre Gumprecht will have a game plan and with Ash Illfield and Sean Clerke back in the squad, Kahibah will like their chances. Get ready for 180 minutes of brilliant football.

Prediction: Kahibah's best chance of progressing to the Grand Final is by keeping Belswans scoreless here. Gumprecht and the boys will be fired up like no other game but so often this year, Belmont-Swansea have stood firm to the test and refused to lose. Expect a tight game nonetheless with the 2nd Leg deciding just who makes the big dance.

My Tip: Kahibah F.C 2-2 Belmont-Swansea

Josh Hall has been one of Belswans' stand-outs this season.
Kahibah's key man Ash Illfield is back in the squad and prepped for a massive finals series.


Under 17's:
Kahibah F.C (4th) v Lake Macquarie City (1st)
Kickoff: 9:15am
2016 Meetings: LMC 4-1 KAH & KAH 2-3 LMC

If the Under 17's match on Saturday between Wallsend and Westy isn't enough, then there's this huge clash on Sunday at The Gardens. Kahibah F.C have snuck into the top four in the final fortnight of the regular season and through hard work, desire and a bit of luck, Tony Birleson's side have seen off the challenge of a talented Cooks Hill side to take fourth spot.

There's some feeling in this one for Kahibah. If Semi Final football wasn't enough; a fair few of the Kahibah 17's came from Lake Macquarie City. Captain Joseph Hadden as well as Ryan Stuchbury, Kye Condon, Noah George & Casey Jackson all wore the yellow and blue just last year. It adds a lot to what is already a big match-up.

Kahibah F.C have come in leaps and bounds under Tony Birleson this season. They met very early in pre-season and learnt each other's games very quickly. That helped as they won the first three games to start the season and then a Round 5 meeting with Lakes saw them downed 4-1 and lose their unbeaten run. A harsh reality check, losing 6-1 to Cooks Hill gave them a wake-up call and here they the Semi Finals at the expense of the Cookers.

The positive for Kahibah is that they've been playing finals-like football for the better part of five weeks. Every result counted and matches like the one against Thornton where Ryan Stuchbury was the hero in the final minute of the game; the gutsy 1-0 win away to Wallsend and indeed that dramatic win over Toronto-Awaba proves this side have a will to win and they never say never.

Their opponents Lake Macquarie City are the heavy favourites; not just for this match-up but indeed the competition crown. They won nine-straight to start the year and recovered from a frustrating couple of weeks that saw them drop points to South Cardiff, Belswans and Toronto. That lose to arch rivals Toronto was their last blemish and they've since won eight-straight.

If 2015 (a Grand Final-winning year) wasn't enough for the Lakes' 17's, they've produced even better with a new-look side in 2016. Kurtis McRitchie left Toronto-Awaba and has become a Golden Boot winner; his brother, goalkeeper Brady McRitchie has conceded the equal-fewest goals in the league.

Across the park they've got talent. A strong defensive line, quality wide-men and a midfield that can pass the ball around like no other team in the competition. They have no fewer than 12 different goalscorers and can score from any situation. It's a very, very dangerous football side.

Prediction: The Kahibah fairytale is so easy to admire and has a lot believing it may continue. Lakes though cannot be underestimated; they simply can't be tipped against and the side will likely consider the year a failure if they can't make the Grand Final. A chance to hammer home some away goals will be vital. Kahibah need to look at Cooks Hill last year and try to hold on.

My Tip: Kahibah F.C 1-2 Lake Macquarie City

Impossible isn't a word for the Kahibah 17's. Pat Waller's goal sent them to finals in dramatic fashion.

Kurtis McRitchie and the Lakes' 17's will be first of four Lakes sides to take the field at The Gardens.


Under 19's:
West Wallsend (4th) v Lake Macquarie City (1st)
Kickoff: 11:00am
2016 Meetings: WWB 3-1 LMC & LMC 4-0 WWB

An interesting match-up awaits in the Under 19's 4th v 1st Semi Final. A match between a side that lead the competition at one stage and fell away to a fourth-placed finish and of course their opponents, the minor premiers Lakes, pose as a very serious threat.

West Wallsend for the first half of the season were leading the way in the competition but some inconsistent form cost them and eventually they'd have to fight their way into fourth spot and see off the challenge of South Cardiff. Seven points looks comfortable but there were testing times nonetheless.

The Bluebells won five of their first six games (including an impressive win over Lakes) and at one stage, they bagged a whopping 22 goals in just three weeks. A lot of teams have ups and downs and this side had a fair few downs. From mid-June through to mid-July, they went winless for a whole month.

They put that form behind them and have won three from their last four and remain undefeated in that time. Their only dropped points came in a catch-up fixture against top two side Belmont-Swansea so the confidence is there and the belief that they can knock off higher ranked opposition.

Now onto the minor premiers Lake Macquarie City. A side featuring plenty of talent that were involved in the Grand Final-winning campaign of the Under 17's last season. A side that have amazingly lost only three games all year; two of those strangely against their 'bogey team' Thornton and the other to West Wallsend.

This side need no introduction. Anyone who's followed lower grade New-FM football will know the names. Josh Richardson, James Ward, Jack Russo & Darko Nikic. That's just the attacking threats. There's also a strong defensive line and quality goalkeeper in Chris Teasdale who've conceded fewer goals than any other side in the Under 19's competition.

Lakes took advantage of Belswans' frustrating 2-2 draw with West Wallsend and can thank the Bluebells for that effort as it allowed them to go on to win the minor premiership. Lakes will look for a second-straight win against Westy after downing them 4-0 in convincing fashion last time they met. Westy the underdogs and Lakes the top dog. It's going to be interesting.

Prediction: I'm not going to lie. This is probably the easiest of the games to pick. West Wallsend have quality in the 19's but not enough for my liking against the premiers Lake Macquarie City. 4-0 in the last meeting. It certainly won't be that but Lakes will look for an away goal lead.

My Tip: West Wallsend 1-3 Lake Macquarie City

Westy 19's are looking to upset the premiers Lakes in the Semi Finals.
Josh Richardson was part of the Grand Final winning Lakes 17's squad in 2015.

Under 23's:
Belmont-Swansea United (4th) v Lake Macquarie City (1st)
Kickoff: 12:45pm
2016 Meetings: LMC 0-0 BEL & BEL 1-3 LMC

A Lake Macquarie-derby awaits in the Under 23's 1st v 4th Semi Final. Fourth-placed Belmont-Swansea host runaway minor premiers Lake Macquarie City and are looking to upset the top team in the comp and make it to the Grand Final.

Belmont-Swansea have seen their form slip away at times this year and now is the time to really hammer home their potential and produce their very best when it counts the most. A loss to Wallsend last week cost them the chance of avoiding a tricky match against Lakes but they'll be up for the challenge nonetheless.

Inconsistency is the word to describe the season for Belswans in the 23's. Plenty of draws; some convincing defeats to both Wallsend (away) and Singleton (away) weren't pretty and even when it all looked perfect two and half weeks ago when they downed West Wallsend 8-2 in a mid-week game; they've since gone on to lose two straight and not score a goal in that time.

Belmont-Swansea will likely head into this game with a defensive mindset and an aim to avoid any potential away goals for Lake Macquarie City. They can't afford to lack in any department against the minor premiers or they'll see themselves bundled out of finals. It's their time to rise to a whole new level.

Lake Macquarie City sit nine points clear at the top after the conclusion of the regular season. They wrapped up the minor premiership with over a month of football left in the season and if anything they got a tad complacent as a result. Back-to-back home games to end the year and a 0-0 draw with Cessnock and a 4-3 loss to South Cardiff. Not the form you'd want coming into finals.

Nonetheless, Lakes head into this match as the favourites and deservedly so as they've been the only side to keep any sort of consistency going and they've been relative unchallenged in the race for the minor premiership. There's no stand-out player; it's a quality team from front to back and one that on it's day is very dangerous.

Lakes lost last year's U23's Grand Final 4-0 to Thornton so there'll be some drive to win the trophy this time round. One player who was involved last year was the side's top goalscorer Kane Rodgers who bagged two last time the Roosters played Belmont-Swansea.

Lakes come into this one as the minor premiers and arguably the favourites but as the 23's has more often than not thrown up an upset or two this season; truly anything can happen in this one.

Prediction: Belmont-Swansea are into the finals but it's not on the back of great form and whilst Lakes have two poor results in the last fortnight, they are the premiers for a reason. They've got intentions to win silverware and this side will be incredibly difficult to beat.

My Tip: Belmont-Swansea 1-3 Lake Macquarie City

Could it be Robbie Cordwell hoisting the trophy for the Belswans 23's in a few weeks' time?
Lakes 23's have been the stand-outs all season. Can they cap it off in perfect fashion?

1st Grade:
Wallsend F.C (4th) v Lake Macquarie City (1st)
Kickoff: 2:30pm
2016 Meetings: LMC 2-1 WAL & WAL 0-1 LMC

Here we go again! Wallsend F.C versus Lake Macquarie City in the New-FM Semi Finals. Last year's thrilling Semi Final series cannot be forgotten; Lakes coming to The Gardens and winning but being absolutely ambushed by Wallsend in the return leg. The Red Devils won that one and the rest was history; a half-century of Grand Final misery ended.

Wallsend F.C have undergone some changes since that Semi Final match-up last season. A coaching change, some new players and a real drive to be the best team in the competition. The likes of David Hodgson, Chris Gazzard and Paul Wheeler leading from the front with experience the key word.

Wallsend games aren't often pretty but simply effective. A team that likes to grind out the hard-fought results and really force the opponent into thinking outside the box. Don't be fooled though; the likes of the ever-green Dave Hodgson, as well as Tega Marcus and Trent Milton provide a stern attacking threat.

Whilst it was Wallsend who had the last laugh in 2015, Lakes have had the wood over them in 2016. Neither game (2-1 at Macquarie Field and 1-0 at The Gardens) was easy for the Roosters and they've had to dig incredibly deep to win both. The 1-0 win at The Gardens was arguably their toughest test of the season. And if that match is anything to go by; this will be a brilliant battle between two hungry sides.

Lakes, just like every other grade, come into this as the minor premiers. That alone is cause for celebrations but they'll be serious about adding to that. No player that was involved last season will forget the day they lost to Wallsend in the Semi Final 2nd Leg and there'll be a feeling of redemption in the air.

With Lakes heavily rumoured to be a team heading for the NPL1 next season, they'll no doubt want to put themselves in the shop window as they'd say and really prove themselves as the top team in New-FM football. It won't come easy though as the Roosters know they've got a stern test awaiting them.

And as good as David Hodgson is for Wallsend; Lakes have two attacking threats who can do major damage. Blake Green has sixteen goals for the year and is unpredictable whilst attacking partner Sam Walker has a whopping 30 goals and is touted as the best player in the league. Someone you can ill-afford to allow any chance of a look at goal.

Two-legged Semi Final football is often a mental battle over anything; a test of resolve and the will to win. Wallsend proved last season that the 1st Leg means little when you show up in the right frame of mind for the 2nd Leg. This is as good as it gets in the New-FM 1st Division. Wallsend and Lakes going at it in Semi Final football at The Gardens.

Prediction: Experience and defensive skill will be key for Wallsend but Lakes come into this game with quality form. They'll be dead serious about righting the wrongs of 2015 and avoiding picking up the dreaded chokers tag. Lakes to win the 1st Leg and take an away goal advantage back to Macquarie Field.

My Tip: Wallsend F.C 1-2 Lake Macquarie City

Wallsend captain Chris Gazzard enters yet another Semi Finals series. His experience will be vital.

Can Lakes end a decade-long Grand Final winless drought? They have to get past Wallsend first.

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