THE countdown is on for the sixteen NFD clubs following the official 2014/15 National First Division fixture list release, which sees the action kicking off this Friday (August 22).
Last season it was Chippa United who blazed the promotion trail, the Chilli Boys winning the title by a comfortable eight points to clinch automatic relegation to the top flight, the Absa Premiership.
Others, such as Milano United and Black Leopards, who made it as far as the promotion play-offs, will be hoping that they can once again mount a strong challenge, and both clubs have made significant changes to their playing and technical staff.
Other clubs such as Golden Arrows, Santos and Jomo Cosmos, who have all won major silverware in the top flight, will also be dreaming of a return to the PSL, but will know that they face 30 very tough rounds of fixtures before that can become a reality.
The 2014/2015 campaign kicks off with some fantastic Friday night entertainment, three matches scheduled for 22 August (kick off at 19H30), with several newcomers to the NFD involved.
Durban’s King Zwelithini Stadium will see Royal Eagles play their first match in the NFD since buying out Sivutsa Stars and moving from Mpumalanga to KZN. Duncan Lechesa will lead the ambitious Eagles side, who have made a host of new signings, into action against Baroka FC, a team that had an extremely successful campaign last time around, their first season in the NFD.
Another club will also be making their debut on the opening night’s action as Cape Town All Stars square up to Ga-Rankuwa United, who were known as United FC last season. The Gugulethu-based All Stars, featuring former Santos midfielder Marawaan Bantam, will be playing their matches at the nearby Athlone Stadium, a venue the Second Division playoff champions will be hoping to make their happy hunting ground.
Also on Friday night, Milano United begin life at their new home base, the Philippi Stadium, where Ian Palmer’s men take on African Warriors, the hosts looking perhaps to emulate last season’s outstanding start to the season when they went on a 10-match unbeaten run.
The remainder of the opening weekend’s action takes place on Saturday, 23 August (15H00 kick off for all fixtures).
Up in Gauteng, Highlands Park, a club with a rich history, make their First Division debut, having gained promotion by finishing as runners up at the Second Division Playoffs in Durban last month.
Coached by former Platinum Stars defender Thierry Mulonzo, Highlands Park face a baptism of fire against a Jomo Cosmos side that finished last season all guns blazing, having shot up the standings in the latter stages of the campaign before finishing just four points shy of a playoff spot.
Thanda Royal Zulu also had a strong second half of the 2013/14 season, and with Royal Eagles having set up camp in KZN, and Golden Arrows having dropped down a division, the Richards Bay-based Thanda will now be out to prove that they are the number one NFD outfit in the province. They will be chasing an opening day victory in their clash with Witbank Spurs, the last remaining Mpumalanga team in the league.
Up in the Free State, Maluti FET College start their second season in the NFD by taking on Vasco da Gama at the Charles Mopeli Stadium, a match both sides will want to win as they look to improve on last season’s campaigns, which saw Maluti ending third from bottom, while Vasco ended ninth.
The first of eight Cape Town NFD derbies scheduled for the season ahead will take place out in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, where FC Cape Town, now coached by David Bright, take on one of Bright’s former clubs, Santos FC, who these days have Farouk Abrahams as the man in charge.
Following their relegation, and the sale of a host of their players, Durban’s Golden Arrows will no doubt have been tapping into the local talent in KZN as they look to rebuild the club. Arrows are sure to be a fresh new XI when Shaun Bartlett leads Abafana Bes’thnde out the park for their opening NFD voyage, which will be away to Black Leopards at a venue still to be confirmed.
Following the opening round of fixtures, the action will continue to come thick and fast, with the following round of games scheduled for Friday 29, Saturday 30 and Sunday 31st August 2014.
A FIFA break means there will be no games during the weekend of 8-9 September, but after that its full steam ahead again on the weekend of Friday 12th – Sunday 14th September.
The final round of fixtures before the Christmas break will take place on Sunday, 21 December, with the NFD restarting on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 (after the African Cup of Nations in Morocco).
The NFD Nedbank Cup last 32 qualifiers are set for 18 February 2015, with the round of 16 a month after that (March 18). The final round of NFD fixtures are scheduled to take place on Saturday, May 10, 2015