By STEVE SPINKS
GOONELLABAH soccer coach Renato Cheli smiled and sighed with relief.
Not only had the Hornets returned from a Far North Coast Tursa Premier League soccer exile of two years, but Cheli's young team proved more than competitive against perennial powerhouse Richmond Rovers yesterday, finishing with a 1-all draw.
Supporters from both sides flocked to Bill Harris Field, East Lismore, to see the return of the Hornets to the top grade and they weren't left disappointed.
So why the relief?
Cheli understands that there is a massive difference between first division and the premier league and all the good work of promotion could be brought undone just as quickly.
But on the evidence of their showing yesterday, he shouldn't worry too much.
The Hornets look like they're here to stay.
It signalled a massive turnaround in fortunes for the club.
In 2001 the Hornets were told they would be relegated to first division under new promotion and relegation rules.
Goonellabah threatened further action if Soccer FNC followed through with its new plan and the Hornets were allowed to stay in the competition.
But after finishing last in 2002 the proud yellow strip was relegated to first division.
It could have proved the death-knell of the Hornets.
Instead it spurred them on.
"It's (being promoted) obviously been the goal," Cheli said.
"When we were relegated it was a bit of a kick in the guts.
"But to come to Rovers and walk away with a point is a good start.
"I don't think there'll be too many teams who will come here and take home the three points very easily."
After a rebuilding year in 2003, Goon-ellabah ruled first division in 2004 and went through the season undefeated.
Such was the team's dominance that they won the grand final 8-1.
However, Goonellabah didn't rest on its laurels and the club recruited wisely during the off-season and continued to rebuild.
Club officials behind the scenes, Cheli and his dedicated players must be congratulated.
The Hornets have returned.