By Jack Sharp
Watch for the emergence of young stars in this year’s Northern League as a new rule kicks in this weekend, forcing teams to use at least 10% of available playing minutes for U-20 players.
The rule — which covers the Northern, Central and Southern Leagues — replaces the previous requirement that forced teams to start every game with at least two youngsters in the line-up.
It’s expected the rule change will force coaches to make more use of their young players, though it’ll be interesting to see how game time is managed from the dugout.
Bulk deal on stopwatches?
Anyway, the focus on young players will make early season games interesting, while we learn which teams are best prepared for the campaign ahead.
Auckland City, as always, start the season as title favourites but where will the challenges come from?
And how will promoted sides West Coast Rangers and Manurewa fare?
We’ll know more by Sunday night …
Game of the week
Sunday’s clash between Birkenhead United and Manurewa looks like being a belter.
United host the game but play at McFetridge Park while their Shepherds Park base is overhauled as part of the FIFA Women’s World Cup upgrade programme.
So, it might feel as though neither side has home advantage, with both teams likely to get strong vocal support, despite the game clashing with the live broadcast of the All Whites v China international.
Birkenhead were strong last season and but for a few lapses, could have done better than their 4th placing in the national league.
They’ll have no problem complying with the rule change about the use of U-20 players, and they should be expecting another strong season.
But they might have wished for an easier opener than facing a pumped-up Manurewa, full of confidence after a promotion-winning season and with the addition of some new players.
Rewa have picked up some interesting imports including attacking midfielder Ronaldo Lopez (23), from Chile, and English pair of winger Ross Stayley (28) and midfielder Joe Budd (20), both from National League South club Taunton Town.
Player to watch
After spending six of the last eight seasons with Auckland City, midfielder Reid Drake (27) will make his debut for Western Springs against his old club.
Drake has often been a bench player for City and he gets the chance to increase his game time at Western Springs under new coach Scott Hales, who moved north from Wellington’s Miramar Rangers.
Drake knows the City system inside out and if the Navy Blues have a post-OFC Champions League play-off hangover, they could find it tough.
What odds that Drake scores for Springs? Don’t be surprised.
Promoted West Coast Rangers are going to start their season well, having sorted out their new-season squad earlier than most of their rivals.
Before the Christmas break they had already signed goalkeeper Damian Hirst, from Birkenhead United, and several U-20 players. Leading goalscorer Allan Pearce (39) committed to another season at the top level.
Their season starts at home against a Hamilton Wanderers that has lost defender Joe Harris (to Miramar Rangers) and Dylan Morris and Connor Probert (both to Manurewa).
At least Northern League Golden Boot winner and captain Derek Tieku has returned from a short stint with Wellington Olympic in time for the season opener.
The score? Rangers off to a winning start, 3-1.
One more thing …
Bay Olympic will play Manukau United under their new floodlights at Olympic Park.
The lights create atmosphere and Olympic will look to make the most of them this season.
Games to be played on Saturday March 25, 2023
Auckland City v Western Springs
Kiwitea Street, Sandringham, 3pm
Auckland United v Takapuna
Keith Hay Park, Mt Roskill, 3pm
Bay Olympic v Manukau United
Olympic Park, New Lynn, 6pm
Melville United v Eastern Suburbs
Gower Park, Hamilton, 3pm
West Coast Rangers v Hamilton Wanderers
Fred Taylor Park, Whenuapai, 3pm
Game to be played on Sunday March 26, 2023
Birkenhead United v Manurewa
McFetridge Park, Glenfield, 3pm
Jack Sharp is a long-time follower of club football in New Zealand, and is a volunteer writer for Friends of Football. He’s filling in for our regular Northern League writer Jonno Ross who’ll be back soon.