DURBAN – The race for supremacy in the National First Division (NFD) will be intense in the new season which is kicking off this coming weekend.
Ajax Cape Town were relegated together with Platinum Stars, who will henceforth be known as Cape Umoya United, after the side relocated to Cape Town by coach and new co-owner Roger de Sa.
The Western Province will be represented by Umoya, Ajax, Stellenbosch FC and Ubuntu Cape Town while KwaZulu-Natal will be rooting for Real Kings, Royal Eagles, Richards Bay and Uthongathi FC to shine.
Ajax will have their first taste of lower tier football after they were relegated from the top-flight PSL, but still have the respected Muhsin Ertugral as head coach.
While Stellenbosch FC have new owners, they have placed their faith in last season’s coach, Steve Barker.
Ubuntu managed to narrowly survive their debut campaign in the NFD last season, though they did capture the imagination of football followers with an admirable run in the Nedbank Cup; their head coach, American Casey Prince, will no doubt be keen to improve on last season’s showing.
Umoya are the new Cape kids on the block. Head coach Roger de Sa was at the helm of Platinum Stars last season and he then also fronted a consortium which bought the franchise of the Rustenburg-based club. With Platinum relegated from the PSL, De Sa and his partners relocated the club to the Mother City and renamed it Cape Umoya United.
The Eastern Cape doesn’t have a representative in the NFD this season, after Mthatha Bucks were relegated last season, along with Super Eagles.
In total the NFD will boast eight coastal teams and eight Inland sides.
Inland sides Jomo Cosmos, University of Pretoria and Maccabi FC are all based in Gauteng, while TS Galaxy, Witbank Spurs and Mbombela United hail from Mpumalanga.
Limpopo-based Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila and TS Sporting will complete the Inland sides.
The big question that everyone is asking right now is who will be crowned the champions and who will qualify for the play-offs?
KZN, Limpopo and Gauteng have dominated the NFD in the past few seasons.
Last season, Highlands Park (from Gauteng) ran away with the title while Black Leopards won the play-offs.
In 2016/17, Thanda Royal Zulu (from KZN) reigned supreme and Baroka won the play-offs.
Baroka (from Limpopo) FC lifted the NFD triumph in 2015/16 while Highlands Park emerged victoriously in the play-offs.
Before Baroka, it was Lamontville Golden Arrows who got promoted * 2015/16 and Polokwane City joined them as the play-off winners.
Royal Eagles, Real Kings, Ajax Cape Town, Cape Umoya and Jomo Cosmos will start as favourites to win promotion this season.
Eagles have assembled a very solid squad which is made up of the mixture of youth and experience.
They have acquired the services of the likes of Nkosinathi Mthiyane, formerly with Orlando Pirates, Siphiwe Mtsweni (once on the books of Kaizer Chiefs), Khanyisa Mayo, Anthony Gordinho, Mbulelo Wambi, and Bongani Chikila.
On paper this team should beat everyone in the NFD but we all know the story of football, names don’t play the game, only individuals take the field and perform.
This team is under good leadership in Roger Sikhakhane who knows all the ins-and-outs of the NFD.
He was at the helm when Chippa United were promoted in 2011/12 as well as when Thanda reached the top flight in 2016/17.
“We’ve signed a few players. I don’t want to put pressure on my team. There are 16 teams in the NFD and we will see how it will pan out,” Sikhakhane, who has earned the reputation as an NFD specialist, explained.
“All the 16 teams in the NFD want to get promotion but it depends how you have prepared and assembled your team. If we do things according to our plans we will see where our results takes us at the end of the season. You invite the pressure.
“My job is simple, it is to guide these boys without focusing on other things.”
Eagles will open their account against Stellenbosch at Chatsworth Stadium on Saturday at 3pm.
Kings came close last season but lost momentum towards the end of the season and even missed out of the play-off. They went for experience in this transfer window.
Coach at Kings, Simo Dladla, is targeting outright promotion.
“I’m still looking for a defender. I’m hoping that Orlando Pirates will give me Brian Hlongwa. Our plan this season is to get automatic promotion. We’ve learned from our mistakes last season.
“Papy Faty will give us a valuable experience,” Dladla said as he signaled his intentions of winning the title.
Kings will welcome Witbank Spurs at Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium in Clermont on Saturday at 3pm.
Ajax will be looking to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Jomo Cosmos, Arrows, and Highlands Park who have all been relegation yet bounced back immediately. They have kept the core of their young squad, and former Pirates star Issa Saar will give them experience in the middle of the park.
Ajax have a tough task in their first assignment against Jomo Cosmos away from home on Sunday at Makhulong Stadium. Cosmos have been hit by financial constraints but are always in the mix.
Last season they fell short in the play-offs.