AFTER the high drama of the final day of the 2013 season, there will be a more relaxed start to the new campaign for Dukes North East Premier League First Division teams tomorrow.
With the real business of the 18-game league programme not beginning until May 17, the fixture gap has been plugged by the creation of a four-match Mini League, with the opening games this weekend.
The match schedule has been drawn randomly, and with two new clubs likely to join the Premier League in 2015 from the Durham Cricket League, this is expected to be a once only event.
Sacriston had to endure final-day agony for the second time in three years last September – needing to win their final match to take the title and earn promotion they lost at Boldon, a defeat that saw Whitburn claim the glory in the dying embers of a highly competitive inaugural competition.
Despite that bitter disappointment, Sacriston will go into the new campaign with renewed vigour and expectation, and the return to the club of the influential Martin Hubber can only strengthen their cause. Hubber has played the last few seasons at Shotley Bridge, where he was highly regarded. The only departure from the club has been Ryan Moralee, so it’s one in and one out, and with Mohtashim Ali back again spirits are high in Ian Hunter’s squad.
The team who shattered Sacriston’s dreams, Boldon, look well equipped to provide a more sustained challenge themselves this time around.
The short stay of their overseas pro, combined with a sluggish start, left the Sunderland Road club out of the title picture last year.
But, with Indian Murtuza Hussain arriving in time for the start of the campaign, and all-rounders Joe Coyne and Anthony Brown back at the club, skipper Chris Ellison will be confident that his team will be ready when the league action starts in earnest.
Hussain was South Hetton’s overseas pro last summer and they were disappointed to lose an excellent player, with their plans also affected by the departures of John Leslie, Gary Burlinson and Liam Irving and the retirement of John Pendlington after 18 years’ stalwart service.
Their new overseas man is Pakistani Kamran Shah, an off-spinning all-rounder, while there are four more new arrivals in the shape of Talab Ramzan, Tom Nicholson, Dan Douglas and the much-travelled Omar Shahid.
Burlinson and Irving have gone to Eppleton, who also have other new faces in Zaheer Shahbaz and Stuart Archbold. Student Rizwan Ullah, formerly at Evenwood, provides the overseas interest, but the loss of Neil Young to Burnmoor is a blow for skipper Graham Hoban.
South Shields failed to win a single game in 2013 and paid the price with relegation from the Premier Division last summer, but their plans to re-group have been hit by the loss of seven of their squad, including the influential Matty Muchall.
As a result, 18-year-old Aussie Tim David will have a lot on his young shoulders, particularly if Shields don’t see too much of Durham’s Gordon Muchall.
After a trophy-laden spell with Swalwell, Ian Pattison joins brother Stuart at Seaham Harbour, and, having immediately taken over the mantle of captaincy, he is determined to lift the club after a disappointing 2013 campaign which saw them finish at the foot of the table.
With new signings Jack McBeth, Craig Stephenson, Nathan Newton and Shoaib Akhtar combining with his own outstanding skills, Pattison looks to have the firepower to succeed in that ambition.
Brandon started out as favourites in 2013, eventually finishing as runners-up, but the loss of Karl Turner and Ruel Brathwaite leaves a big gap to fill.
Stuart Poynter is this year’s Durham man, and new signings include Mattie Cowling and Andrew Walker, while Chris Winn is back at the club after a successful spell with Yorkshire outfit Bilton.
Washington have secured the services of Melvyn Betts and Cole Pearce but will have to reckon without Stephen Cuthbertson as shoulder surgery means he will miss the whole campaign.
Willington, having lost Akhtar to Eppleton, are expecting great things from Gaurav Jathar after the Indian impressed in a stint with Seaham Park last summer, and they also have Luke Anderson (Ryhope) on board.
Felling are delighted that skipper Chris Taylor will be available all summer, and he will have Aussie James Crosthwaite lining up alongside new signing Kurt Plumb, who has moved to the area after previously featuring in the Northern League.