October 4, 2020. The day that Woonona stunned the Illawarra football community.
Heading into the final Premier League round, Wollongong United had looked a shoe-in to claim the premiership. But then something incredible happened.
United fell 3-2 to the battling Coniston at Macedonia Park, opening the door for the Sharks to secure their inaugural title. And they didn't disappoint, recording a 3-0 win over South Coast United to create a slice of 131-year club history.
But fast forward six months and a new challenge has emerged for coach Dan McGoldrick and his men: can they go back-to-back?
With the likes of Wollongong Olympic, Bulli and Albion Park bolstering their squads, the pressure is closing in on Woonona.
"The first thing I've got to do is to reinforce to the guys that the teams that finished below us have all strengthened this year. The White Eagles have Pedj Bojic, who is a quality player who played A-League and state league for Sutherland. I hear Olympic is strong and Bulli have Guy Knight back, and a few others as well," McGoldrick said.
"So there's no gimmies in this league, it's going to be tough and we're going to need to be up for the challenge. But the new guys who have come through this year, there's a good half a dozen of those, will force the first grade players to start looking over their shoulder and going 'if I don't perform well, I'm not a walk-up start into a first grade side, even though I won the championship last year'.
"That's great motivation for us with the young crop coming through. And the older crop know, we give our young guys an opportunity. If they're good enough, they'll play first grade. So the older guys don't get the opportunity to sit on their laurels. It has made for a lot of competition, in both training and the pre-season games."
In a shortened, COVID-effected season, Woonona fell 2-1 to Bulli in their opening game before recording a 3-1 victory over Cringila.
From there, the Sharks never looked back. The side prided itself on a strong defence, led by captain Tyler Bromham-Fuller, young gun Taro Regan Wiliams and goalkeeper Jair Fernandez, conceding just eight goals on their way to notching up seven victories. It was enough to secure the premiership by just one goal from Wollongong United.
But in 2021, the hunter has become the hunted.
"I think the top teams and top coaches will have worked out how we play, and how they counter that," McGoldrick said.
"It's up to to us come with plan B, plan C and D to be able to conquer that. And I'm under no illusions to how tough the competition is going to be. But I will be lying if I didn't say that if we don't finish in at least the semi finals, I will be very disappointed. And we've got to go out there with the attitude that we're league champions, and we want to retain the league championship if possible."
However, the job has been made more difficult as the Sharks opening clash with Bellambi at Elizabeth Park has been postponed due to the past week's rain.
Fernandez won't be at the back in 2021. Last year's Golden Glove nominee has joined NSW NPL club Bankstown City.
"I actually thought Jair was the player of the year in the whole comp. The thing that went against him in the early rounds was we played teams where we weren't challenged a great deal defensively, and he didn't have to do a lot. But in the last five, six, seven games, he really came into his own," McGoldrick said.
"But we've got a keeper (David Booth) at the moment, he's been over to the US through the college system there. He's still finding his feet, he's with the Tottenham Academy at the University (of Wollongong), so he's still trying to come to terms with their pre-season training, getting organised for uni and training with us. So he's a work in progress."
But while disappointed to lose Ferandez, the Sharks have managed to retain the majority of their 2020 talent.
It's been a pleasant shock for McGoldrick, especially since Woonona were unable to pay their players due to the financial impact of COVID last season.
"It's a big surprise given what usually happens (after tasting success), so we've been lucky," he said.
"We've picked up a new crop of players as well. We've got a good supply line from around the Woonona, Thirroul, Bulli area. Those young guys - a bit like Robbie Gaudiosi, Luke Toohey and Taro (Regan Williams) last year - we've got another similar crop to them coming through.
"Our biggest concern right now is Jai Mellor has gone in from surgery, and that's going to be a three-month recovery process, so we won't have one of our starters from last year. But we've picked up Corey Haines-Grose back from Wollongong Olympic. Compared to where we were at the start of last season, we're well in front."
While he is excited about what will come in 2021, McGoldrick has taken the time to stop and reflect on Woonona's premiership. The coach has worked extensively with Dylan Arvela on his book A Drop in the Ocean, which covers the Sharks' journey to the top.
"I've had a lot of input into that so when you're talking about it so regularly, you stop pinching yourself and saying 'I can't believe it happened'," McGoldrick said.
"I'm just really proud of the boys, and the work that my assistant coach did. He looked after our attack and I looked after our attack, and we worked really well together. And the coaches that did the other grades too, we worked together as a team. We were basically on the same page of how we tried to play as a team.
"So it's (premiership win) happened, it's real. And no one can take that away from us. But it's on us to prove that it's not just a flash in the pan in terms of the strength of our side. I'd like to think that we're still going to be a side that every side knows we're not the easy beats any more. If a side plays Woonona, they're going to be in for a tough game because we're a good, solid defensive side. And I'm hopeful that we've got a few more strings to our defensive bow.
"I'm quietly confident of us making the top five. And anything beyond that would be a bonus."
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It's on to prove that it's not just a flash in the pan in terms of the strength of our side.- Dan McGoldrick