It’s a tough ask to con­fi­dently pre­dict which of our NSW teams will flour­ish and who looks set to floun­der this sea­son, writes

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - FOOTBALL - Tom Smithies

A YEAR, it turns out, is a very, very long time in foot­ball.

Twelve months ago, things looked very dif­fer­ent for sup­port­ers of Syd­ney FC, Western Syd­ney, New­cas­tle and even the Cen­tral Coast Mariners.

A week be­fore the start of the pre­vi­ous cam­paign, Syd­ney FC un­der Gra­ham Arnold were cham­pi­ons and, with an al­most un­changed squad, were ready to con­tinue their suc­cess. Western Syd­ney had com­pleted Tony Popovic’s best pre­sea­son and re­cruited pow­er­fully, we thought, un­til Popovic blew it all up by walk­ing out with days to go.

At New­cas­tle, the op­po­site was true with ex­pec­ta­tions min­i­mal un­der a new coach and a stack of new faces. How lit­tle we knew. Sud­denly, NSW is, in a foot­ball sense, a state of un­cer­tainty.

A year on, so many ques­tions hang over our lo­cal clubs. In a league with only 10 teams, the lack of cer­tainty is hugely wel­come for the neu­tral.

No doubt Steve Cor­ica is ready for the ques­tion­ing of his readi­ness to build on Arnold’s suc­cess at Syd­ney, eight years af­ter he hung up his boots as a player in sky blue.

In some ways, the un­ex­pec-

ted de­par­tures of star men Bobo and Adrian Mierze­jew­ski has given Cor­ica the chance to re­fash­ion the team in his own right, though both Adam Le Fon­dre and Siem de Jong have sub­stan­tial shoes to fill in re­plac­ing Golden Boot win­ner and Johnny War­ren medal­list re­spec­tively.

Guid­ing his team to the FFA Cup fi­nal, beat­ing Western Syd­ney along the way, has been a boon for Cor­ica but he needs a solid start in the A-League to con­firm there re­mains a steady hand at the tiller.

Like­wise Markus Babbel at Western Syd­ney, though for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. The Ger­man in­her­ited a mess in suc­ceed­ing Josep Gom­bau: a dress­ing room se­verely dis­il­lu­sioned with life un­der the Spa­niard, in­com­ing play­ers signed by the out­go­ing coach, and a club still home­less for an­other year.

But he has made a hand­ful of sign­ings, in­clud­ing com­pa­tri­ots Alexan­der Baumjo­hann and Patrick Ziegler, though the sus­pi­cion re­mains the Ger­man isn’t overly im­pressed with some of his charges.

He will be with­out Ziegler for the first three rounds due to a menis­cus in­jury that is al­ready test­ing the depth of Babbel’s squad and much de­pends on how quickly Baumjo­hann gels with mar­quee striker Oriol Rieira, scorer of 15 goals last sea­son.

That fig­ure was more than half Cen­tral Coast Mariners man­aged last year, in a sea­son that be­gan with op­ti­mism but quickly faded to dust.

Paul Okon’s de­ci­sion to walk away opened the door for an ALeague re­turn for Mike Mul­vey, four years af­ter he won the league with Bris­bane but this rep­re­sents a very dif­fer­ent chal­lenge.

Not the least of it has been the cir­cus of Usain Bolt’s trial but, be­yond that, Mul­vey has — on the sur­face at least — re­cruited nim­bly. Adding Tommy Oar and Ross McCor­mack should bol­ster the Mariners’ scor­ing po­ten­tial but Mul­vey is well aware plug­ging the con­ces­sion of cheap goals is the pri­or­ity for a side that hasn’t fin­ished above eighth for four years.

Up the F3, there lies NSW’s bea­con of sta­bil­ity, a pre­pos­ter­ous con­cept a year ago. So adroitly did Ernie Mer­rick guide a squad that fin­ished bot­tom the year be­fore, they could over­come se­ri­ous in­juries to their main striker and mar­quee im­port and still be run­ner up for both the Premiers’ Plate and the cham­pi­onship.

Ex­pec­ta­tions are very dif­fer­ent now, of course, putting a dif­fer­ent kind of pres­sure on the Jets. Roy O’Dono­van’s self-in­flicted ab­sence for the first third of the sea­son won’t help, nor will the in­jury to Joe Champ­ness.

But sign­ing Dimi Pe­tratos to an ex­tended con­tract is a huge bonus and there is con­fi­dence bub­bling away in the Hunter that New­cas­tle can back up their un­ex­pected suc­cess last year. In the space of 12 months, the Jets have be­come the one team in NSW with runs on the board; even the fa­mously tac­i­turn Mer­rick will see the funny side of that.

Syd­ney FC’s Siem de Jong has big shoes to fill this sea­son. Pic­ture: AAP

Wan­der­ers play­ers Bren­dan Hamill and Ve­dran JJan­je­tovicjti with­ith fans f Callum Gar­bers, 9, and brother, Har­ri­son, 11.

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