After an ultimately successful promotion campaign last term, Season 2018-19 is upon us in the new SJFA West Premiership.
Manager Jimmy Kirkwood is enthused by the new set-up. "It's exciting to see it all get underway, when you look at the leagues taking shape there are going to be some excellent games throughout the season. But if the reconstruction is a nod in the right direction, the fixture lists are a giant leap and should make a big difference to all of the clubs. "
New signings have been introduced this summer for the new campaign, and former defender Jonathan Baillie has returned to join Jimmy's backroom team as First Team Coach. "Obviously, every knows Jonny about the Juniors and from his time at Hibs, but we're delighted to be bringing him in to our coaching team. Jonny has very strong opinions opon how the game should be played (similar to myself, Matt & Andy) and the players are reacting well to it. He'll make a big difference to us going forward, that's for sure."
New signings include:
* Forward Dylan Pooler has signed on a permanent basis, after a successful loan stint last term from Auchinleck Talbot
* Goalkeeper Scott Johnstone, formerly of Auchinleck Talbot and Maybole, joins from relegated Girvan
* Former Partick full-back Matty McInally signs from Cowdenbeath
* Defender Zack Simpson, a loan signing in season 2016-17, signs permanently from Stranraer
* Former Morton midfielder/forward Dylan Stevenson joins from ADL Champions Dalry Thistle
* Former Cumnock and Auchinleck Talbot forward Robert Love has signed from Hurlford
JK: "We are delighted with the business we have done this summer. Myself, John Redmond & Matt Maley, my assistant, were working hard at the tail end of last season to identify where we want to strengtehn & we are happy we've done just that. It wasn't a numbers exercise, it was about bringing in quality in the right areas and we have real competition for places.
It's no secret, it's been in the papers, that Christian Nade has been in training with us and has appeared in the last couple of matches. He used to play under Matt at Stranraer & was looking for training facilities after leaving Dumbarton, so it suits both parties. We're not looking to the future, but you never know."
From last season's squad, club legends Gavin Collins (right) and Tony Murphy have taken the decision to retire. Both have no shortage of happy memories from their time at Portland Park, counting the Super First title & Ayrshire Cups amongst their achievements, and both will be sadly missed around the club. Although, we're glad to say both have been down to support the team already this pre-season!
JK: "Gav & T have been magnificent for me and for the club, and it's always a sad thing to see them leave. Tony was in his third spell here and showed at the end of last season what he could bring, but he's 36 this week and wants to concentrate on running his gym in Ayr, which is going from strength to strength. He has nothing to prove in football anymore and couldn't really justify the time away from family and work, so we wish him all the very best.
Everyone knows Gav has been struggling with his knees for a while now & it is possibly a relief for him to not have to play & train anymore! He will rightly be remembered as one of the best centre-halfs Junior football has seen in recent years, a proper ball winning blood & thunder defender. And as with T, a fantastic big guy who is welcome at the club any time."
Lyle Avci, Grant Thorburn & Scott Miller all returned to their parent clubs after loan spells, and Mark Curragh decided to move on after his contract expired to leave us with a squad of 20, which the Manager sees as the ideal number for the forthcoming season.
After the shortest of close season breaks, pre-season has gone well with the players looking sharp & hungry for the new season. Because of the short close season, the annual pitch maintenance meant the park wasn't ready for our summer 'Portland Cup' tournament, so the team undertook friendlies with Gartcairn (2-0 defeat), Girvan (5-1 win) and Thorniewood (2-0 win) and the Manager was impressed with all three performances. "Three games in which we absolutely dominated possession and had plenty of chances in. Any supporters watching will be very enthused after that, some of younger guys were stroking the ball about beautifully and if we can play like that in the league we'll be just fine."
The Sectional League Cup campaign continued the promising performances with a thumping 9-1 defeat of Craigmark in the opening match, followed by a 4-1 win over Irvine Victoria to put the Seasiders top of the section. A depleted squad was cruelly exposed by Irvine Meadow in the final decisive group match however, as without the influential trio of Ross McCrea, Dylan Stevenson (left) & Dylan Pooler (to add to the injured Dean Keenan, Andy Strachan, Steven McCreadie Ally McInnes) Troon fell to a 5-2 defeat after playing for over an hour with 10 men and a further 10 minutes with only nine.
JK: "Much like the pre-season friendlies, some of the football we played in the first two games was just beautiful to watch. High tempo, lots of passing & chance after chance. We were 3-0 up after 9 minutes at Craigmark such was our start, we need to kick on from that. The Meadow game was bitterly disappointing, we had a few bodies away and injured and had to reshuffle our pack so our start to the game was a bit disjointed. We get the straight red card after 20 minutes, I'm still not sure what for, and it's always going to be a struggle after that. Having said that, we come out after half-time and play some lovely stuff when 10 v 11 and come back from 2 down to draw level and look the better team. Then we lose a very soft penalty award and it's an uphill struggle again, the stuffing is knocked out you."
Saturday marks the first league match of the campaign and the visit of reigning Champions Beith is a very welcome return to the top flight for the Portland Park outfit, but the club's approach is a measured one. Target for the season? "Stay up" says Kirkwood. "Stay up, play good football and build from there." But the hardest of starts doesn't end with a visit from the Champions. Troon's first four matches will see them face the top four from last seasons Premier League! "It's why we worked so hard to get promoted, is to face the top sides and test our mettle against them. But it is a baptism of fire for our young side and we'll have to learn on our feet, that's for sure."
Just to make life a little harder, McCrea, Pooler, Evan Maley & Dan McKay will all be missing for the Beith match through holidays and now Nade & Dean Fulton have suspensions to serve as well. With only Dean Keenan showing a realistic sign of returning from injury, it is certainly a testing time for the young Troon squad. "It is what it is unfortunately" said Kirkwood. "You'd obviously want your players to take their holidays in the close season, but we only had 10 days off this year between the play-offs & returning to training. It's just impossible to expect them to all plan for that, and that's before they have to take in time constraints from their work, their partners work & their other family plans. The early start to the season has compounded the issue this season, but it means next summer should be a proper break. It's just a frustration for us that the players away at the same time have been ones that have really clicked and got the supporters excited in pre-season, but the flip side of this just now is that they'll all be back & refreshed for games against teams who we believe will be in a similar position to us come the end of the season. Those are the games that will be vital for us, and we'll be raring to go."
Predictions for the season?
"I don't get into all of that, I'm just concentrating on our young squad. We feel we have recruited well for our budget and have an exciting batch of young players at the club again, which is how we like to work. We have had some developments off the park within the club over the summer and the future is very bright for the club."