The 2023 Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL) season is starting in the same manner the 2022 edition ended, as St Benedict's College and Fatima College will meet in the NGC Cup match from 4 pm today at the Hasely Crawford Stadium, Mucurapo.
The NGC Cup sees the winners of the league and intercol tournaments from the previous season meeting to kick-start the new campaign. Last season, St Benedict's and Fatima traded heavy punches, as Benedict's won the premier division with a 3-1 win over Fatima in the "Big 4" final, while the latter got their revenge by edging their southern counterparts 1-0 in the intercol final.
Both schools were also impressive in the other age groups, as Fatima won the national under-14 and under-16 titles, with St Benedict's getting the under-20 crown.
St Benedict's, who are also referred to as the "Golden Lions" or "La Romaine Lions," captured their first national league title since 1967 with their "Big 4" win last year. This season, coach Randolph Boyce hopes his team can bring the right "ingredients" to find the winning formula once more.
"Yes, we have our expectations. Repeating anything is a hard task to achieve but I still think it's achievable," Boyce told Newsday. "The way the school football is set up, you may not be able to have the ingredients all the time because it's a system where students always leave and you have to develop more students and bring more students."
"You might be able to achieve the task, but you may not have the same students to do the job."
In the 2022 season, Benedict's enjoyed an unbeaten run during the campaign, before being undone by a Joshua Mason goal in the intercol final. Then, Boyce's team boasted of national youth players such as Derrel Garcia, Jeremiah Niles, Josiah Ochoa and captain Tarik Lee, who won the 2022 SSFL Player of the Year award. For the upcoming season though, Boyce is staying tight-lipped on his squad composition.
"I don't want to say who left (the school) nah. I want to keep the fear in some of those schools," Boyce said. "Let the players and them run out and let the players see for themselves."
This season, the 16-team premier division reverts to its original format, with each team in the league playing each other for a total of 15 league matches.
"Last year, there was a shortened format and we just had two groups with about seven games each before you could reach a final," Boyce said. "Now, this format will be testing your consistency. Everybody is preparing and wants to do well, so you can't go into this tournament overconfident."
With their national intercol win in 2022, Fatima put their hands on the coveted knockout trophy for the first time in 17 years. Fatima's 2022 team also had good talent, with captain Christian Bailey, goalkeeper Tristan Edwards and defender Jaden Williams all representing TT at youth level.
For 2023, coach Hutson "Baba" Charles will have the aforementioned trio within the ranks, although the impressive full back pair of Jesse Hospedales and Alijah Nunes have left the school. "The season ahead is a long season," said Fatima manager Stephen Williams. "The (NGC Cup) is not the be-all and end-all. Of course, we want to be competitive, but it will be a feel-out game for how the season will be."
Both camps have downplayed the NGC Cup as being "just another game," but neither St Benedict's or Fatima will want to give an inch to their rival before the quest for league supremacy begins next week.