National league one gets underway this weekend

National League - Grange's Cameron Fraser keeps the ball from Kelburne's Adam Bain
Grange’s Cameron Fraser keeps the ball from Kelburne’s Adam Bain – Photo Duncan Gray

The men’s and women’s National League 1 season gets underway this weekend as Scotland’s top hockey teams take to the pitch for another exciting league campaign.

Bromac Kelburne embark on their quest for an unprecedented 14th consecutive men’s league title with a home encounter against newly promoted Inverleith at the Glasgow National Hockey Centre.

It has often been remarked at the start of previous National League seasons that the Paisley side cannot sustain this level of success, and will falter, only for such pundits to eat their words at the conclusion.

But it was a close run thing at the end of last season, with Kelburne on the brink of surrendering their title to Grange, the Edinburgh side failed to hold onto a lead and went down 3-2 to Western Wildcats in the final match. Gordon Shepherd`s charges then took full advantage of their good fortune and grasped the silverware with a 2-0 win over Edinburgh University.

And Shepherd has an ominous message for the chasing title aspirants, his target for the season is “to keep winning.”

But the Paisley side will have to fulfil that ambition without the services of the mercurial striker Lee Morton, he has moved to join top English side Reading, and also foreign imports Jonus Nommensen (Germany) and Nick Finlayson (New Zealand), both are not returning.

However, after some time out, former Scotland player Michael Christie returns to grace the midfield this coming season.

For Inverleith, after two seasons in the lower echelons the Edinburgh side return to the National League top flight. Coach Stuart Neave said: “This season is all about consolidating our place in division one, and continuing to build for the future.”

Like most other sides in the division Inverleith have experienced some player movement, but their main gain could be the return of Great Britain Olympian Stephen Dick to the ranks.

So who will be the challengers to Kelburne`s hegemony? The most likely suspects are Grange, who finished second last season, Grove Menzieshill and Western Wildcats…but others may cast their hat into the ring.

Grange coach David Knipe was equally reluctant to pin his targets to the mast. Asked about his aspirations, Knipe remarked, “We aim to continue to develop our style of play.”

There are not too many changes to Knipe`s line-up, Duncan Riddell has departed but in compensation international defender and set piece expert Dan Coultas has moved to the Raeburn Place side from neighbours Edinburgh University.

Last season`s National League 1 runners-up are away to Clydesdale in their opening encounter, who were unpredictable last year. New coach Callum McLeod might bring some stability to the ranks this time – Saturday could provide an early indicator.

National League - Grove Menzieshill

Grove Menzieshill, third last year, will start their campaign with an all-Dundee affair against a Dundee Wanderers side that made an immediate return to the top flight by winning National League 2.

With the departure of Chris Anderson as coach, Gavin Byers and Gavin Tomlinson assume the role jointly. There have been some changes in the Grove Menzieshill ranks, Ciaran Crawford, Adam Fallis and Hamish Galt move on while the Taysiders have attracted Ryan McCurry, Guy Rowson and Jamie Carnegie.

After an indifferent start to last season Western Wildcats clawed their way into the top four with a late burst of victories, it is to be assumed that they will start this season where they left off. Wildcats start their campaign with a home fixture against Hillhead.

Harry Dunlop, Wildcats` coach, said: “Our aspirations are a top four finish again, with a serious chance of winning a European ticket this year.”

Hillhead had the reverse experience to the Wildcats last season, a promising start with a top four place in their sights, but to be followed by a disappointing second half with few points gathered.

Former Scottish and GB internationalist Mark Ralph continues in the coaching role at Hillhead and is hopeful of a better outcome.

“This is my second year at Hillhead and I`ve had a season to get to know the club, so I`m aiming to improve from last season,” said Ralph. “We were disappointed with the second half of last season which came down to injuries. With new players coming in and younger players stepping up to the level, this will strengthen the squad and makes it more competitive for places.”

Although there have been some departures from the Hillhead ranks, including New Zealander Craig Patterson who is to move to the USA, Ralph has quoted several newcomers to the ranks, principally Ross Jamieson from Edinburgh University along with Euan Cochrane and Euan Menzies who are promoted from the youth section.

Uddingston and Edinburgh University don’t feature in the first week of matches in Men’s National League 1, both take to the pitch next weekend with Uddingston taking on Western Wildcats and Edinburgh University playing Inverleith.

National League - Laura Swanson runs at the Clydesdale defence
Laura Swanson runs at the Clydesdale defence – Photo by Duncan Gray

Sam Judge, coach to Scottish women`s National League 1 champions Edinburgh University, has the mammoth task of rebuilding her squad after the departure of several key players, and the process starts with a home game against GHK.

The Edinburgh students have won the league title for the last three years, as well as the Scottish Cup, and have played successfully in Europe, but this season they will have to repeat that success without their two experienced international players. Great Britain striker Sarah Robertson is returning down south while Becky Merchant has had shoulder surgery and may be out for the season.

In addition, the champions will be without Captain Becky Dru and Maisie Morris while Susan Graham, Waverley Millar and Kirsty Abraham have graduated and moved on. Judge said: “So you can see it will be a rebuilding season for us, so we will take each game as it comes. Obviously we would like to make the play-offs and then anything can happen.”

It is not all doom and gloom for Judge, Claire Hill is returning from long-term injury and will captain the side, also youth internationalists Ella Watt and Hanna Mckie will join the ranks.

As in previous seasons the main challenge is likely to come from Milne Craig Clydesdale Western and Grove Menzieshill, although Wildcats could show more of their teeth this season.

Western start their campaign with a home game against newly promoted Grange, but without the experience of Susan McGilveray, she is now coaching at GHK, striker Fiona Bruce who goes down south, and goalkeeper Mairi Fletcher, now at University in America.

Alison Westwood, who has just returned from America, takes over between the posts and Martha Lawson joins the ranks at Titwood from CALA, but coach Derek Forsyth is looking to promote some players from the second team which is part of the club`s development programme.

Forsyth said: “We are looking to be in the position of challenging for the league title at the end of the season, although we appreciate there are other teams with the same aspirations. We feel we can go one better this year having lost the play-off final last season.”

At Auchenhowie player/coach Kaz Cuthbert boasts of some significant additions to the “Cats” pack, principally Scotland defender Becky Ward from Dundee Wanderers. Others include goalkeeper Danie McMurray from the Australian under-21 set up, Rachel Bain from Kelburne, and Watsonians` Emily Cross.

Cuthbert said: “Our aspirations are to secure our European play-off spot again, but to make it into the final this year.”

A home win against Hillhead would start the ball rolling for the Auchenhowie outfit, though the visitors may have other ideas.

National League - Grove Menzieshill versus Kelburne
Grove Menzieshill versus Kelburne – Photo by Mark pugh

Grove Menzieshill start their National League 1 season with a tricky fixture against local rivals Dundee Wanderers, perhaps less of a challenge if the latter will be without Becky Ward and playmaker Vikki Bunce.

The final fixture in a full card brings together Kelburne and Watsonians at the Glasgow National Hockey Centre. This one could be a tasty fixture to get the season started in an east-versus-west showdown in Glasgow.

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