The dawn of a new Premiership campaign is nigh on Saturday. It brings with it fresh hopes, new targets, in some cases fresh players and coaches…and almost certainly new challenges. And there has certainly been a more than vibrant merry-go-round of players during the close season.
But the clubs all start with a level playing field.
The campaign starts off with nine games between the men`s and women`s Premiership – the universities and also Hillhead will start a week later.
So what are likely to be the key issues for the coming season?
Firstly, are the Premierships to remain two horse races like the end of last season? In the men`s Grange beat Western Wildcats to the title by a single point, but ten points or more over the chasing pack. Even closer, Watsonians took the women`s on goal difference from Edinburgh University, but nine points ahead of Wildcats in third.
In the women`s competition the question is, can anyone topple high-flying Watsonians who won all three trophies last season?
The Edinburgh side start the defence of their Premiership title at Titwood against Clydesdale Western. They will be aiming for opening day three points – Watsonians won all the four contests last season while Clydesdale finished the Premiership campaign in fourth spot.
There doesn`t seem a lot of movement in the Watsonians` ranks although youngsters Kirsten Murison, Sophie Anderson and Ruby Crawford are off to university while Heather Tait has retired. However, back from their studies are Amber Murray and Cailin Hart while coach Keith Smith has promoted under-18 Jess Garden to the senior squad.
So what is Keith`s game plan for the season? This is what he said: “Our aim for the season is to keep trying to improve; last season`s achievements won`t be easy to repeat, but it`s a nice challenge to have, and with two tough European competitions on top, we know we`ll need to be even better this season.”
But Clydesdale are under the new coaching management of the former Great Britain, Scotland, Klein Switzerland and Kelburne player Mark Ralph who will oversee the reconstruction at Titwood.
Going on last season Wildcats might be the most likely side to challenge the supremacy of Watsonians and Edinburgh University, they made third place their own. Kaz Cuthbert`s Cats did make a breakthrough against the top sides last season with a fighting 1-1 draw against Watsonians.
However, Saturday`s clash against GHK may not be the easiest of starts. The Glasgow side finished fifth last season and Fiona Semple still has the coaching brief. But they have strengthened their squad with the addition of the Justice sisters Marjery and Kayleigh along with Robin Robeson and Adie Murray.
The remaining two games involve teams who finished in the lower six table last season – Gordonians v Uddingston and Inverleith v Grange. It will be interesting to see if any of these sides have developed sufficiently during the close season to challenge for a top six place.
Edinburgh University mounted the main challenge in the men`s Premiership last season but fell away towards the end of the campaign, and there was also Clydesdale and Watsonians – but none of these sides made any meaningful inroads into the hegemony of either Grange or Western.
It`s all change at Grange for the coming campaign – so who knows how head coach Stevie Grubb will bed in his new recruits in time to fend off the threat of the Wildcats?
Into the Grange ranks come Edinburgh University`s Robbie Croll, the Clydesdale pair Jamie Green and Jack Nairn, Calum Wood from Watsonians, Archie Stephen and Inverleith striker Livio Belotti. Again Grange have stretched to Australia to recruit Cale Walsh who will also act as assistant to coach Stevie Grubb.
But there are also departures from the Raeburn Place outfit, principally Scotland internationalist Duncan Riddell who has moved across Edinburgh to join up at Watsonians where he will also act as assistant coach.
Also away are striker Fraser Heigh who departed down under midway through last season, Jacob Tweedie who will join English side Canterbury, Albert Rowling who is taking up a new job in Dubai along with Rory McCann, Chris Cook and Matt Murphey who have all retired from the first team squad.
This is what Martin Shepherdson, the Grange manager, said of the situation. “It’s quite a big turnover, but we have a lot of good, young talented players joining, so it’s exciting times ahead. As in the previous few years we believe we will be competitive at the top of the league and will look to be contenders for the title.”
So what about the Wildcats – the winner of the European play-offs and the Scottish Cup last season.
The big news from Auchenhowie is the departure of Andrew McConnell, he was the Premiership`s leading striker by a long way last season – he has signed up for crack German Bundesliga side Harvestehuder.
His flow of goals will be missed – so what does Western`s new coach Steven Percy, who has taken over from Vishal Marwaha, think of this.
Steven said: “It`s a great move for Andrew, he`ll be sorely missed but it will give someone else in the squad the chance to take his place and grow into a key player. There is a load of quality in the group.”
Also missing from Saturday`s line-up for the game at Inverleith is captain Rob Harwood. Along with Nikki Homfray, Harwood has been spending his summer playing in the Australian league, and will return at the end of September.
Steven related: “Both have been playing hockey there so will come back fit and ready to go.”
Ominously for the other sides in the Premiership, Steven laid down his game plan for the season. “Our plan is to win every match.” You can`t get simpler than that!
“The margins are tight, just look at last year. We feel we`ve got that ability in our locker but that still needs executed which is the challenge.
“The EHL is in our short-term thoughts too, great opportunity to win a match plus gain valuable experience against one of the best teams in the world, either Kampong or Bloemendaal.”
At the opening hurdle, Grange are at home to newly promoted Dundee Wanderers while Western travel to an Inverleith side that did make the top six last season, and then finished sixth.
So what about the other challengers – Edinburgh University are not in action, Clydesdale are at home to Uddingston while Watsonians are at ESM.
Watsonians might be the team to watch, they have been doing their share of recruitment during the summer. Principally they have recruited the experienced Scotland midfielder Duncan Riddell as mentioned earlier.
They have also added to their firepower up front with the signing of Heriot Watt captain Gavin Mackenzie, Jack Calahin from Edinburgh University and former under-21 international John Martin. Also supporting the midfield will be Andrew Campbell, formerly of Edinburgh University and Grange and with EHL experience. Not a bad basket of talent!
Inverleith`s new captain Kyle Taylor has confirmed some new additions to the squad for this season – Jesse Drake and Kit MacKenzie along with under-18s James Gordon, Fergus Roberts and Cody Adams. They will have the might of Wildcats to contend with on Saturday.
Now the question is – which of the rest might punch above last season`s weight?
Uddingston and Kelburne have new coaches in Tom Hyndman and Chris Caldwell respectively, although the latter no longer have the experience of Iain Scholefield who has retired and have lost Sam Hunt to Edinburgh University.
ESM might be dark horses if they can repeat the form of the second half of the season when they dragged themselves to safety with an impressive unbeaten run and also managed to reach the Scottish Cup final – a cracking effort!
Hillhead might be a good bet for the top six, after all they just missed out last season. Still under the coach aegis of Yan Adams, Hillhead hope to have captain Fraser Ward back from injury, the Campbell brothers are threatening to return, and David Gay returns to the fold after some years in Denmark.
Looking to the future, Yan also mentioned: “Most significantly, we look forward to promoting and developing a number of players from the unbeaten league and cup winning 2s side from last season.”
And that leaves the Tayside duo of Wanderers, winners of last season`s second tier, and Grove Menzieshill who saw off Dunfermline Carnegie in the play-off.
The `Hill return to the top flight with a promising young side eager to make an impact under the coaching duo of Gavin Byers and Chris Bonnar. And they have Chris McFadden and Fin Donnelly returning from Watsonians along with Jamie Spratt from Dundee University. Gavin Byers will hope for an early three points at home to Kelburne.