THREE OF THE BEST: Richmond Rovers celebrate their 3-1 win over Goonellabah in the FNC premier league grand final at Crozier Field in Lismore.
THREE OF THE BEST: Richmond Rovers celebrate their 3-1 win over Goonellabah in the FNC premier league grand final at Crozier Field in Lismore. Jay Cronan

Rovers: simply the best in 2009

WHILE the enduring memories of the 2009 Far North Coast premier league soccer season will centre on Richmond Rovers completing their third consecutive premiership double, there were plenty of other highlights.

Rovers' grand final opponents Goonellabah made a successful return to semi-final football, while there was also a return to the top five for a rejuvenated Lismore Workers, a steep fall from grace for Lennox Head, a game against new A-League club Gold Coast United and the bizarre final-round forfeit of Lennox Head to Workers that may have cost Ballina a place in the play-offs.

But it was Rovers who stole the spotlight by taking out all three titles for the second year in a row, winning the Anzac Cup as well as the premiership double, allowing them to lay claim to being the region's best ever club team.

Here then is an overview of how each club performed and how they will remember the season past.

Richmond Rovers

IT was a stellar season for Rovers, winning all three titles for the second year in a row and stringing together their third consecutive premiership double to set a record that may never be surpassed.

After two years at the helm young coach Scott Coster has a perfect record of winning six titles out of six, but will stand down to return to the playing field next season.

“The boys were really focused on achieving the third straight double and in the end the mood was a mixture of elation at the accomplishment and relief that it was all over,” Coster said.

“But already the boys are talking about next season and not wanting to give any of the titles back.”

Rovers' all-round quality and intense team ethos were the keys to their undefeated premiership season and with most players backing up next year, an unprecedented fourth consecutive double will be their focus.

Best performers included flanker Jonathan See, the latest example of Rovers' ability to help a talented junior make a successful transition to the senior level.

Central midfielder Russell Dent took on much of the responsibility from the loss of Ian MacGregor with a high work rate, Adam Gray was close to faultless in defence and Andrew Marshall in goals gave Rovers a sense of security at the back.

Rovers' defence conceded only nine goals during the season, far and away the best in the league thanks to the back three of captain Joel Saye, Mitchell Flower and Gray.

The pace of Ben Casagrande was a potent weapon in attack and, along with brother Tim and striker Troy Matthews, made Rovers almost impossible to contain.

With the club's 50th anniversary adding to the motivation next year, prising any of Rovers' three titles out of their trophy cabinet will remain a huge challenge for any club.

Goonellabah

AFTER finishing seventh in 2008, the Hornets became one of the big improvers this season, finishing second and then reaching their first grand final since 2005.

While they lost the decider to Rovers, it was still a highly successful season under coach Brendan Logan.

“At the start of the season the aim was to put smiles back on faces and be competitive every game,” Logan said.

“Once we achieved that we re-calibrated our goals and came close to the premiership in the end.

“Highlights included making the grand final and beating our arch rival Byron Bay in all three games, but we still never managed to have our best possible side available for a game, which was frustrating.”

Playing a well-structured and disciplined style, the Hornets remained unbeaten at home and with a young squad, they look well placed to remain a force.

Central defenders Paul Pomroy and Daniel Morrow laid the platform for their success with their tactical awareness, while midfielders Kale Hopper and Ben Andrews gave them creativity in attack and hard-working striker Dave Annetts troubled every defence in the league.

Next season there will be some changes with several players completing university and likely to be moving on.

Logan is also on the move, heading back to Newcastle, where he has already found a coaching position with State League club Valentine Phoenix at Lake Macquarie.

His place next season will be filled by Mark Ambler, who successfully guided newly promoted Alstonville through their return to the top flight.

Byron Bay

IT was a frustrating year for the Rams, who looked possible prem-iers mid-way through the season but eventually finished third before bowing out of the semi-finals with two straight losses.

Goals weren't a problem for the Rams, who played an open, attacking style and finished as the top scoring side with striker Jordy Campbell gaining a share of the Golden Boot award.

But defending was a problem, with a rebuilt backline conceding far too many goals.

However, after missing out on the semis last year it was still an improvement.

“It was a rebuilding year and we got back into the top five, but to improve further we need to look at the whole club culture,” coach Peter Ware said.

“Rovers are setting the standard in club culture on and off the paddock and we need to look at the big picture as a club and put things in order.”

A major highlight was hosting new A-League club Gold Coast United, with the Rams' select side that included several guest players acquitting itself well in front of a large crowd.

Hopes are high that it will become an annual fixture.

Best performers were Bruce Morhaus, who had to move back into a central defensive role to shore up the leaky defence, Jordy Campbell up front, emerging defender Yantra Whittling and attacking midfielders John Bradbury and Jed Wright, who were dangerous when fit but both had injuries.

With a high turnover of players likely next year and Ware still undecided about his future at the club, the Rams could be a different looking side next season.

Italo Stars

AT their best, Stars put together some of the best football of the season, but eventually fell one game short of a grand final appearance with a 2-0 loss to Goonellabah in the preliminary final.

Stars had an experienced defence led by Rick Austen and Craig Wiblen, a robust midfield where Clint Willoughby and Golden Boot winner Max Latimer stood out, and a dangerous attack, with 19-year-old striker Zac Innes their most improved player.

It was the final year at the helm for retiring coach and Stars stalwart John Essex, who was left with mixed emotions.

“At the start of the year I felt we had a side that could reach the grand final and while we played very well at times, we lost a bit of intensity in the final game and just missed out,” he said.

“Having goalkeeper Trent Battistuzzi injured early in the season hurt and while I'm happy with the guys individually, collectively we didn't live up to our potential.”

With most if not all of the squad expected back next year and Jeremy Pollard also returning, Stars should remain a major force, but who fills the coaching role will be a source of much interest.

Workers

AFTER two seasons battling to stave off relegation, there was a welcome return to the semis for the Redmen under new coach Paul Ianna.

In a memorable debut to coaching at the top level, Ianna was voted Coach of the Year by his peers for moulding Workers' youthful, inexperienced squad into a spirited outfit that matured enormously over the season.

“It was harder than I expected, but I was lucky to have a lot of support and the players were great, they listened and did all that I could ask,” Ianna said.

Highlights included a memorable 3-all draw with Rovers despite having five players out and a third Player of the Year award for their inspirational captain Anthony Alvos.

Others to shine included defender Luke Pirlo in his debut season in the top ranks, hard-working midfielder Zac Crowley and brilliant goalkeeper Thomas Chang.

Ianna is still undecided about a return to playing or coaching again next season, but after such a successful season he summed up the chance of coaching as 'likely'.

Ballina

AFTER finishing third in 2008, Ballina had high hopes for this year, but it was to be a season of unfulfilled potential for the seasiders, who finished sixth.

While they had the best defence in the league apart from Rovers, it was again the lack of a noted goal scorer that cost Ballina dearly as they drew eight consecutive home games.

They finally broke the drought in the final round with a 6-0 mauling of Byron Bay, but it came too late to save their season.

Coach Troy Percival had his first taste of coaching at the top level, but was left searching for answers to their under-performance.

“It was a weird sort of year, we had no games under lights at home and I think the boys missed the intensity of having a big crowd behind them,” he said.

“They would train well but then lack a bit of enthusiasm and motivation when it counted in games,” he said.

The seasiders' most consistent were defender Liam Seymour and three emerging prospects in top scorer Matt Jeffery and midfielders Jake O'Grady and Dylan Monnox.

Bangalow

IN their third season in the top ranks, Bangalow had a patchy year and were embroiled in the relegation battle right up to the final round, before eventually finishing eighth.

The Bluedogs got away to a slow start and were hampered by a lack of depth, but the opening of their new field mid-season provided some inspiration and they finished strongly to avoid the cut.

The highlight of the year was a 4-0 win over Italo Stars, their biggest win since joining the top flight.

Best performers were midfield playmaker Joel Rudgley, skilful striker Cale Johnson, captain Glenn Hannigan and defender Robert Cooper.

Coach Damon Bell has steered Bangalow through a difficult three years to establish the club in the league, but after 13 years of coaching he will be taking a break next year.

With some of the squad doubtful starters for 2010, it looms as another tough season, according to Bell.

“The club is slowly on the improve, but to make semis for the first time some new players are needed, or it will remain a battle against relegation,” Bell said.

Alstonville

AFTER being promoted at the start of the season, Villa quickly gained a reputation as a difficult side to play under new coach Mark Ambler and survived their first year back in the top ranks since 2004.

While they finished the year just a point off the foot of the ladder, that doesn't tell the full story of a side that will be all the more experienced and confident next season.

The highlight of the year was a 3-2 upset win over Rovers in the final round of the Anzac Cup, making them the only side to beat the champions all season.

“The squad was very inexperienced but put in a lot of hard work to develop and they matured enormously over the season,” Ambler said.

“A lot of self-belief has been created for next year and with almost all the players expected back, the club should keep improving.”

Central defenders Kurt Stephens and Gary Kunz were solid at the back, while the versatile Richard Russell and top scorer Troy Cook also had good years.

Captain Nathan Collins led by example in midfield and veteran goalkeeper Andy Brown proved age is no barrier, making his debut in the top ranks at 43.

Thistles

BY comparison to their highly successful return to the premier league last year, this season was disappointing for the young Blues outfit, which finished just a point off the foot of the ladder.

They conceded more goals than any other side and lacked depth, especially after losing several key players from last year.

A lack of discipline also hurt the Blues with several suspensions towards the end of the season, leaving coach Ken MacPherson with mixed memories.

“We started off okay by making the Anzac Cup final, then we lost a few players and the wet weather hit - we didn't get a home game until half-way through the season,” he said.

“That left us chasing our tail, but we hung in there and in the end we survived.”

A highlight was a record fourth Player of the Year award for club stalwart Darren Beardow.

Others to perform well included Adam Buckley, Jonty Miller and the versatile Mitchell Pickford.

Lennox Head

THE Sharks created a slice of unwanted history by becoming the first club to go from grand finalists one year to relegation the next, finishing on the bottom of the ladder.

Player losses hit the club hard and without the depth to fill the gaps they won just two games and were the lowest scoring side, averaging less than a goal a game.

“We lost 15 players from last year's squad and it was almost impossible to rebuild from that position in one season,” coach Paul Kirkland said.

But there were positives for the Sharks, with teenage midfielders Luke Gorman and Murray Oke growing in stature and confidence, along with good seasons from Matt Bennett, Adrian Zakaras and Jonathan Green.

After four years in the top flight, the Sharks will hope to continue rebuilding in first division next year for a successful return in 2011.



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