Queensland’s National Premier Leagues clubs are finalising preparations for the competition’s biggest season yet, with the opening round featuring three blockbuster derbies.
Queensland-s National Premier Leagues clubs are finalising preparations for the competition-s biggest season yet, with the opening round featuring three blockbuster derbies - including the highly anticipated Grand Final rematch.
This year NPL Queensland expands to 14 teams and extends its reach not only within the state with the inclusion of South-West Queensland Thunder and Brisbane Roar NYL, but also internationally with the addition of Harimau Muda ‘A-, Malaysia-s Under 23 representative team.
The first of the opening derby fixtures is the North Queensland derby between Townsville-s Northern Fury, guided by former A-League coach Ian Ferguson, and Cairns-based rivals FNQ FC Heat, who have recruited former Wellington Phoenix player Alex Smith to their squad.
In a nod to the tropical north-s favourite son, the two club-s will compete for the inaugural Frank Farina Shield, which will be awarded based on the compiled results across all the NPL age divisions on the day.
Sunday sees the derby matches continue when state league powerhouse Sunshine Coast Fire host Gold Coast-s Palm Beach Sharks in a ‘Clash of the Coasts-, as both teams look to improve on last year-s returns of third and ninth place respectively.
Palm Beach impressed in preseason tournaments with a series of sharp performances and big wins, while Fire have played only a sprinkling of low key friendlies against local community clubs as they keep their new look side closely guarded.
The opening round closes with the cross-town ‘Battle of Brisbane-, as last year-s champions Olympic FC renew rivalries with runners up Brisbane City in a fixture that saw record crowds on the three occasions they met in 2013.
Both Olympic and City have retained the core of the squads that proved a cut above last year. They will once again be skippered by English midfield maestros Danny Byrne and Matt Biggins, respectively.
Elsewhere in the Sunshine State, the clubs remain quietly confident of their chances. Brisbane Roar-s National Youth League team replaces the Queensland Academy of Sport and, in their first NPL campaign, the Roar-s youngsters will provide a stern test for all NPL sides with their well-drilled brand of free-flowing, passing football.
Roar NYL and Harimau Muda ‘A- will compete for league points in 2014, however, while in contention for the league title, both remain ineligible for the National Premier Leagues Final Series, the separate NPL Queensland Finals Series and the Football Queensland Cup, which serves as the state-s qualifying path to the FFA Cup.
Roar NYL will play their fixtures out of the ‘spiritual home of Queensland football-, Perry Park, while Harimau Muda will play all their fixtures away from their Gold Coast training base.
A new club with everything to play for is Toowoomba-based South-West Queensland Thunder. The ‘mountain men- will be eager to display their wares at the higher level after impressing the state with last year-s run to the Under 20-s Grand Final.
Returning for another tilt at the title are former National Soccer League champions Brisbane Strikers, who will once again be strong as they look to build on last year-s semi-final exit under new head coach, and last season-s captain, Chay Hews.
Their opening round hosts, Redlands United, will be hoping to get away to a winning start after just missing out on finals football last season.
Head coach Matt Chandler-s squad is littered with talented youngsters who will benefit from the experienced hand of fan favourite Graham Fyfe in the role of midfield general.
Immediately west of the capital, Western Pride will fly the flag for Ipswich. Renowned former A-League hard-man Kasey Wehrman will once more draw upon the city-s gritty self-belief to inspire his side of locally produced players following a promising, if inconsistent, first season.
Moreton Bay United also boast former top level talent as Royce Brownlie leads the attack in the crucial striking role and last year-s grand final winning goalkeeper Mario Aparicio recruited between the sticks.
Head coach Terry Kirkham will have to draw on all his experience to manage a lopsided schedule that sees the Jets play nine of their first thirteen matches at home, before a difficult run of away fixtures in the back end of the season.
However, the surprise packet of the season could well prove to be Rockhampton-s CQFC Energy led by outspoken English coach Ray Wood.
Following a lacklustre start to NPL football for the club (including a calamitous 11-2 away loss to Redlands United), Wood was brought in halfway through the 2013 campaign and produced an instant turnaround. His clearly stated ambition is to win the league and has recruited strongly from the Central Queensland area and Europe to bolster his squad.
However, for Energy and all NPL Queensland clubs, the tyranny of distance remains a constant factor in the race to the title.
The league spans a distance of 1785km between its southernmost and northernmost clubs, making it the only National Premier Leagues division that sees players, coaches and support staff regularly negotiate the demands of air travel and a host of climatic conditions.
From the year-round heat and humidity of the tropics, to the blustering winds of the south-east coastline, to the frosty winter temperatures atop the Toowoomba range - it remains to be seen which club can consistently claim the points in the National Premier League-s most disparate division.