Arguably the most exciting, pulsating and supported football league in T&T - the Secondary Schools Football league (SSFL) kicks off this Saturday with the Digicel Cup between the two top schools from last year - southern rivals Naparima College against Presentation College.
Naparima dramatically won the league last year when, on the final day, they visited Trinity Moka while Pres journeyed to Bourg to take on the tough San Juan North Secondary. Naps needed to win and hoped that their rivals slipped up in what turned out to be a superb exhibition of goalkeeping by the San Juan custodian, Emmanuel John. John single-handedly thwarted attack after attack from the Pres boys; the game ended 1-1 while Naps handed the Moka boys a 2-0 defeat thereby winning the title by just one point point.
Before the final day started, San Juan also harboured hopes of taking the title. As remote as it seemed, they needed to win by five clear goals and also hoped that Naparima lost. Unfortunately for them, they didn't achieve their goal and finished 3rd. Steven Spielberg could not have written a better script for a thrilling 2018 ending.
Can we expect similar type drama for the 2019 season? One never knows what to expect from the SSFL from year to year. Once again, I think the league is going to be hotly contested right down to the wire. It's always a challenge to predict who will come out on top, as senior players leave school and have to be replaced by youngsters. It, therefore, becomes easier after a couple of rounds to see the teams play with their new squads and then predict who will be the top schools.
The defending champs Naparima played second fiddle for long periods last year and I expect them to be in striking distance again this year. They are well-coached and the school has a winning mentality so Naparima will have to be the team to beat.
Presentation is very much mirrored to Naps and they will be tough to beat. They lost out on both the Intercol and the League last year and so they will want to put that right. Once some of their junior players step up, they may be even more difficult to defeat.
San Juan North could be a fly in the ointment. They possess a good mentality but when the going gets tough, they must show the right mettle to fight it out as they have consistently failed to show that. This year, if they can get some more goals then who knows? The title could leave South.
Carapichaima East Secondary was a surprising fourth but never looked like closing the gap on the front three. They played some tough, effective football without looking pretty and were difficult to beat at home. If they keep it simple and defend well, they could again be in the top five but it will be a tough ask.
St Benedict's College had a mixed bag last year and I don't expect much from them this year. On their day, they can hold their own against the 'big boys' but they are far too inconsistent to be outright title contenders.
Queen's Royal College (QRC) looked good in parts. They were well organised at the back and only Naps conceded fewer goals than them. However, they found difficulty in putting the ball in their opponents' net. If they can solve that, they can spring some surprises.
East Mucurapo Secondary languished around the relegation zone for most of the season but a string of wins to the end lifted them to finish mid-table. They are a confident bunch, who I expect to learn from last year and come better prepared for the 2019 season.
Trinity College Moka has always been a difficult team to beat at home. But they played too many ordinary games with no fight last year and finished in 8th position - better than I anticipated.
St Mary's College was far better than their 9th position suggests. They were far too defensive and never put their opponents under severe pressure. They were a talented side whom I expect will do better this year if they held on to a couple of their senior players.
St Augustine Secondary defended poorly but had some good attacking players. But if you leak goals at the back, you will lose more games than you win and they may very well struggle again this year.
Trinity College East just could not score goals and in the end, that was their downfall. They were well organised at the back but couldn't breach the opponents' goal and so ended up drawing half of their games. If they get a goalscorer for 2019, they could well be a spoiler.
St Anthony's College was a huge disappointment. They were extremely talented but lacked proper direction and so gave away silly goals and lost matches they should have won. I expect a huge turnaround from them and they could be up there with the best this season.
Meanwhile, It is often difficult to assess promoted teams. Malick Secondary is back and that's great for the SSFL. I expect them to be tough to beat and real fighters. Pleasantville Secondary is also back and would play a good open attacking style of football but have to be tight at the back. Finally, Speyside Secondary is representing the sister isle. I hope they give a better account of themselves than both Bishops and Signal Hill. I have been extremely disappointed in what the schools in Tobago have been giving us in the SSFL - totally lacking in basics and very disorganised.
Let's look forward to a great season full of goals and excitement. Good luck to all the schools!
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not reflect the views of any organisation of which he is a stakeholder.