The 2023 Northern Inland Premier League campaign has officially reached its halfway mark, and what a season it has been so far.
The competition has a new but comfortably familiar look this year following the reunification of the game across the Northern Inland region as Armidale clubs returned to the fold.
The last time the Northern Inland Premier League included a mix of Tamworth and Armidale teams was back in 2019, but the Armidale clubs disaffiliated in 2020 and joined an independent competition run by the University of New England (SportUNE).
The reunification has been a resounding success as clubs, coaches and players alike have thrived in a larger and more competitive environment in 2023. The Armidale teams are well and truly holding their own after three years away, with three of the top five teams in first grade hailing from the New England High Country.
There is an overwhelming sense of intrigue surrounding the top grade as well this year as just two wins (six points) separates the teams ranked first and fifth.
The 11th of 22 rounds was contested last Saturday as the sides returned to the field following the June long weekend bye, and they are now ready for the second half of the season, which will get underway when round 12 is contested today.
Three of the five fixtures will be played in Armidale as Armidale City Westside FC host Moore Creek FC at Harris Park, South Armidale United FC welcome North Companions FC to New England Mutual Armidale Sportsground, and Hillvue Rovers FC travel to Rologas Sporting Fields to challenge Demon Knights FC. The other two fixtures will be played at the Riverside fields in Tamworth where Oxley Vale Attunga FC are at home against East Armidale United FC, and Souths United FC host Norths United FC. Tamworth FC have the bye in both grades.
Northern Inland Premier League powerhouses Oxley Vale Attunga FC currently lead the leagues in both divisions. They are at the top of the first grade ladder on 25 points following eight wins, a draw and a loss so far this season, while their second grade side are on 21 points following six wins, three draws and a loss.
The club’s only defeat in the first grade division this year came back in their second game of the campaign in round three when they were playing to extend their impressive four-season undefeated streak to 50 games. They were beaten 1-0 at home against South Armidale United FC as an 84th-minute Jake McCann strike brought to an end a run that dated back to the opening round of the 2020 campaign.
For coach Tim Coates that result offered a sense of relief.
“We lost the 50th and it was like the pressure was off,” he said.
“The goal we conceded was in the 80-somethingth minute. We were so close to 50 it wasn’t funny.
“At the end of the day, it’s a great record for a regional sporting team. And now we move on.
“For us, it’s one game at a time.”
OVA bounced back with a seven-game winning streak following that defeat and were then held to a 1-all draw away from home against Demon Knights in Round 11 last weekend.
Coates has enjoyed plenty of success with OVA over the years. He coached the club from 2014 to 2018, during which they reached four first grade grand finals and won three of them. He had a year off in 2019 but returned the following season as a second era of dominance began, which has included three minor premierships and two grand final victories (in 2021 there was no finals series due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
He has liked what he has seen from his club so far this season and has asked for a lot more of the same in the back-end of the campaign.
“I think the season has been pretty good. First and reserve grade are sitting top of their competitions as we stand,” he said.
“It’s half a job done I suppose. We’ve gotten halfway and we are in front, and now we’ve got to stay there. We’ve only lost one game in first grade and one game in reserve grade, and that’s a pleasing thing. We’ve got a squad of players who just keep stepping up and doing the job.”
Coates spoke highly of the reunification of the game across the Northern Inland region in 2023, declaring that the introduction of the Armidale teams into the mix has “reinvigorated the competition”.
OVA enter the second half of the first grade campaign having drawn with Demon Knights FC 1-1 last weekend, and they meet another Armidale side today when they host East Armidale United FC. OVA downed East Armidale United 4-2 when they met in Armidale earlier in the year.
South Armidale United FC are one of the clubs that have re-entered the fold this season and it has been a sensational return for them so far. They entered the 2023 campaign having lost their first grade grand final last year in a penalty shootout and they have made an instant impact in the Northern Inland Premier League, demolishing Tamworth FC 8-0 in the top grade in their first game back in round two and then ending the OVA undefeated streak a week later.
They won all of their first five matches a combined 29-1, but they are now hoping to rediscover that form after losing twice and drawing once in their next five.
All up, they have seven wins, a draw and two losses to sit just three points behind OVA in second place on 22 points. Their reserve grade team is also in great form as they sit third on 18 points following six wins and four losses.
South Armidale United’s first grade coach is Eamon Hynes, a former player who ruptured his ACL in the pre-season last year but has stayed involved in the club. He coached the reserve grade team last year and stepped up to the first grade role for their return to the Northern Inland Premier League in 2023.
Hynes loved what he saw from his side earlier in the season and is now keen for them to get back on track when the second half of the campaign begins today.
“Our season has been troubled through a lot of difficulty with injury and players being away,” he said.
“We started very strong but we are fire-fighting all the time at the moment, which is frustrating, but I’m sure we’re not alone in that.”
“We were playing great in those first five games. Everything clicked. We were scoring goals for fun and we were keeping clean sheets. From a coaching perspective, the clean sheets were more satisfying.
“We were looking forward to the big test against OVA and we came through that with a 1-0 win. Everything was positive and we thought it was there to be lost. But then reality hit. We had eight players away for one game there and we never really got back to normal with so many injuries.”
Hynes is pleased with the impact of the reunification of the game across the Northern Inland region and said the 2023 season had been an enjoyable one so far.
“The move back to the (Northern Inland) comp is great. It’s great for local football, it’s great for us as a club, it’s great for the players and it’s great from a coaching perspective,” he said.
“It puts a much bigger challenge out there and there’s obviously more variety in opposition. There’s a better standard of football, full stop.
“It’s been very well received by our club. The competition is good and we are enjoying it so far.”
South Armidale United are at home to North Companions FC today, a side they beat 4-0 earlier this season, and Hynes is expecting his players to bounce back strongly and show commitment following what he labelled as a “shocker” last weekend when they lost 1-0 to East Armidale United FC.
Level on 22 points with South Armidale United are Moore Creek FC, who have also won seven games, drawn one and lost two in 2023. Founding member of the club Dean Hoy is enjoying his second year coaching their first grade team, which he is doing in a co-coaching role alongside former Gunnedah FC coach Andy Cygan this season.
The Mountain Goats finished sixth on the ladder in 2020 and 2021, and then placed second in 2022 before going down in the major semi-final and the preliminary final. Hoy said that some new faces inspired that rapid improvement and declared that they could go even further in the first grade competition this season if they find some consistency.
“We recruited pretty well. We’ve made a club that people want to come to, and that seemed to really click into gear in 2022, and again this year,” he said.
“So far this year, we’ve been a little bit too inconsistent. We play some brilliant football and then we play some rather average football at times. If we can keep a consistent level across the board, it’d be great, but it seems to be up and down week in and week out. We have to find consistency.”
Moore Creek are currently on a three-game winning streak and have outscored their opponents 16-1 in that run. Hoy wants to see his side put in another impressive effort today when they travel away to challenge Armidale City Westside FC, a side that they lost 3-2 to earlier in the season.
“They beat us at the start of the year and it would be great to bounce back and get a win away against them up there,” Hoy said.
“They are a strong team and they won the comp in Armidale last year. They are fast and direct and they move the ball quickly. They seem to be very well-drilled. They are young and full of running and they attack your goal a lot, so we need to counter all of that.”
Moore Creek are impressive in the reserve grade competition as well as they are currently ranked second on 19 points, just two behind OVA, following six wins, a draw and three losses.
“Both grades being right up there is a testament to the club and how we are going,” Hoy said.
“Our depth is good.”
Moore Creek’s first grade co-coach is another big fan of the reunification of the game across the Northern Inland region in 2023.
“It’s been a great decision, I feel,” Hoy said.
“It’s great having Armidale sides back in the comp. It’s a more balanced comp in that you play more teams and you have a bit more exposure to different styles of football. I think Armidale teams play a different style than what Tamworth teams always have and it’s great to be exposed to that kind of football.
“Plus, it’s good for the bonding on the bus trips there and back.”
Just two points behind South Armidale United and Moore Creek on the first grade ladder are East Armidale United FC. East Armidale United are another one of those sides that have strengthened the Northern Inland Premier League in 2023 as they sit in fourth place in with 20 points following six wins, two draws and two losses.
They have raised eyebrows with their impressive style of play this year, even earning praise from premiership-winning coach Tim Coates.
“They have a lot of overseas-born players, so football is in their blood. They love to play,” said Coates, whose OVA go head-to-head with East Armidale United FC today.
“They are very supportive of each other. We had them down 4-0 when we played them earlier in the season and their clawed their way back to make the final score 4-2. I have a lot of respect for them. They just keep coming at you.
“To be honest, I expect them to be in the top four at the end of the year. I’d be very surprised if they’re not.”
Just behind East Armidale United on 19 points are Armidale City Westside FC. Last year’s undefeated Armidale competition champions have only lost one game this year in the Northern Inland Premier League first grade campaign. They have won five of their 10 matches so far but four draws currently hold them back from sitting in a top-four position.
They are coached by Anthony Gray, a former gun goalkeeper who wore the gloves when the club won the inaugural competition back in 1998 as Armidale Ex Services Westside, and was between the sticks in the Armidale competition grand final last year, during which he saved three penalties in the shootout.
The 2023 campaign is his sixth as the club’s first grade coach and he said that he and his side have expected more of themselves despite only having lost one match. One focus during the second half of the season will be finishing games off strongly and winning the games that they are controlling.
“It’s been a season of mixed results and we’re actually pretty disappointed so far,” Gray said.
“Our one loss was to OVA. We were winning 3-1 and we had a penalty to go 4-1 up which we missed, and then conceded three goals in the last 15 minutes of the game. Last weekend we were 2-0 up against the 10th-placed team and we conceded a goal from a deflection that wrong-footed the keeper, and those things happen, and gave a penalty with three minutes to go. We should have put those games away.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but no team has really put us under pressure this year. We are just our own worst enemies and we aren’t finishing games. We are playing 75 minutes of good football and for some reason we aren’t seeing out those last 15 minutes. It’s not a fitness issue, it’s just a mentality issue that we have to fix.”
Gray has enjoyed the club’s return to the Northern Inland Premier League following the reunification of the game across the region.
“I think it’s good for football. Definitely at senior level,” he said.
“The variety of the competition and the general comradery in the competition has been really good.
“The way the draw is worked out, we only go to Tamworth six times, so there’s not actually that much pressure to travel. It’s all worked out quite well.
“There are still some things to work on, like junior development, but we’ve spoken about that with Northern Inland and I think it’s moving in the right direction.”
The Armidale City Westside coach said that he had been inspired by the return of the Armidale clubs this year.
“I’ve been impressed with the Armidale teams. When you look at the top five, three are Armidale teams. There’s not that much difference in quality,” Gray said.
“Traditionally, there’s always been this thing between Tamworth and Armidale of who has the better footballers. Coming back after three years away, we’ve seen that our football level is still there, if not slightly better.”
Armidale City Westside FC will take on Moore Creek FC today, a side they beat 3-2 away from home in Tamworth earlier in the season. They are determined to make it a double over the Mountain Goats to start the second half of the season in style and start climbing the ladder.
Just two wins outside the top four are North Companions FC. They are on 14 points following four wins, as many losses and two draws this year.
Their coach is Gavin Thompson, a stalwart who has coached at the club for 10 years now. His side are definitely withing striking distance of the teams ahead of them, and if they can get all their players back on deck, he is confident they will trouble those five teams during the second half of the season.
“We’re a lot better side than where we are positioned on the table,” Thompson said.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries and a lot of player unavailability, which has really hurt us.
“We’ve still been performing quite well, but we’re missing chances in front of goal, which is a problem. We need to start taking our chances.
“We still believe we can make the semis and our aim is to make it hard for all the teams above us.”
Thompson was also a fan of the decision to reunify football across the Northern Inland region.
“It will slowly lift the standard of the competition,” he said.
“I still don’t think it is at the standard it was say five years ago. But over time, hopefully the clubs can maintain squads and it gets better.
“My personal opinion at the moment is that the Armidale clubs have the wood on the Tamworth ones. Even though OVA is on top, Armidale seem to have a bit more depth in their teams than Tamworth do.”
North Companions travel away to challenge South Armidale United today, a side they were beaten 4-0 by at home earlier in the year. Thompson’s team are coming off a 4-0 win of their own against Tamworth FC last weekend and the coach said that they are entering today’s game feeling confident.
Ranked seventh to 11th on the first grade ladder are Demon Knights FC (9 points), Hillvue Rovers FC (9), Souths United FC (5), Norths United FC (5) and Tamworth FC (3).
Ranked fourth to 11th in the reserve grade competition are Norths United FC (18), North Companions FC (16), Demon Knights FC (14), Souths United FC (13), Hillvue Rovers FC (12), East Armidale United FC (8), Tamworth FC (8) and Armidale City Westside FC (7).