North Region Junior football returns this weekend with three of the bosses in the top-flight Super League hoping first and foremost for a full campaign.
The 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons were both declared null-and-void due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Banks o’ Dee – who have dominated the north Juniors in recent years – were 14 points clear at the summit and had won every league game when the 2019/20 season was axed.
Jamie Watt, who is now in sole charge of the Spain Park first team and being supported by a new coaching line-up following Tommy Forbes’ departure, said: “It must be about 18 months since we’ve played for three points.
“We’ve all these games in-between, like the Scottish Cup, but the bread and butter is the league. We’re just champing at the bit to get back and to be competitive again.
“We’ve had a good pre-season, although we had a couple of call-offs against Formartine and Turriff with Covid and players missing, but on Wednesday we played Fraserburgh and it was a good run-out.
“We’re in a good place now to hopefully go and defend our title.”
In terms of departures at Dee, Watt’s defence was hardest hit in the build-up to the season.
He still hopes former Aberdeen and Dundee United man Stuart Duff could be able play this term around his Dons youth coaching role, having lost Greg Alexander and Craig Duguid to work commitments and Josh Winton – now in the dugout with him – to injury-necessitated retirement.
Former Turriff keeper Fraser Hobday, right-sided players Marc Young and Craig MacAskill, from Keith, and ex-Peterhead and Cove midfielder Jamie Redman are among those Watt has signed to bolster the Dee ranks.
The champions begin their league campaign at home to Maud, and know at the end of the season the 2021/22 Super League winners will have the chance to progress to the Highland League via a new play-off route.
Watt added: “It’s there now and it’s something to look forward to at the end of the season, but there’s a long way to go before we start thinking about that and a lot of the teams around us have strengthened.
“But we’ll be competing to win the league and, if that happens, that play-off system’s in place now, which I’m buzzing about and looking forward to.
“The opportunity for clubs to progress can only enhance football up this way and, if it comes to us, it’s something we’d go for with both hands.”
Among the sides who will clearly want to get closer to Dee this season are Hermes, Culter, Bridge of Don Thistle and Dyce Juniors.
‘Everybody has to get closer to Banks o’ Dee’
Boss Alfie Youngson says progression up through the play-offs is “100%” an ambition for everyone, from the committee to the coaching staff to the players, at Dyce.
However, like Watt, Youngson – who will take his team to Deveronside on Saturday – is simply pleased by the prospect of a league season played to a conclusion.
He said: “It’s been a long-time coming, it’s been a fair wait to get there, but hopefully we get going now.
“We’ve a good few games over pre-season, and played seven or eight. It’s been mixed results, but all-in-all good performances and everyone’s got the minutes required. We’re looking forward to it.”
Dyce have lost the likes of Steven Bartlett and Ryan Dick to retirement in recent times, but have been able to make strong signings from the Highland League during the Covid pandemic – Jordan Leyden (Formartine United), Sam Robertson, Daniel Bell (both Buckie Thistle) and Grant Thomson (Keith) are among the “nine or ten” Youngson has brought in.
On their prospects for the campaign ahead, he added: “We’ve got boys with Highland League experience – and winner’s medals in the Highland League as well – to add to the boys we already had, so we should be looking a lot stronger this season than the past three or four.
“I think everybody to start with has to get closer to Banks o’ Dee. It’s hard to say you’re going for the title. I’m sure there’ll be four and five teams who think they’ve got half a chance, and I honestly believe we’re one, but the bottom line is they’re the team that’s been dominant over the last five or six seasons.”
‘It will be a strange season to say the least, but we can only keep working hard and try to enjoy it’
Meanwhile, Bridge of Don Thistle take on Hermes at Aberdeen Sports Village this weekend in the pick of the top-flight games.
Gaffer Lewis Muirhead says he’s “looking forward to the challenge” of the new campaign, and agrees there will be “four or five teams who want to take that title and topple a decent Banks o’ Dee team”.
Muirhead has also lost players during Junior football’s period in stasis, to retirement and the Highland League, and he feels it’s difficult to bring in experienced replacements in the current market.
However, some former Highland League players have opted for the reduced travel commitment in the lower divisions, which has allowed Thistle to make the eye-catching addition of former Formartine defender Craig McKeown, with goalkeeper Andy Shearer also joining from Banks o’ Dee.
Muirhead, who will begin the season with a “good core of 19” including former Buckie and Inverurie striker Chris Angus, said: “There have been illnesses and boys having to isolate due to Covid.
“I’m sure we’re not the only club going through this. It will be a strange season to say the least, but we can only keep working hard and try to enjoy it as best we possibly can.
“Half a dozen games will do me! We had two the last time we opened up and then the season was curtailed.
“But you only follow what the experts advise the government, who advise the SFA, who advise us. You can never write off what’s going to come around the corner, but as long as they’re keeping to the double vaccinations and research is telling them that’s good, then we have to look at positively looking forward.”
Muirhead says upward progression has “always been the goal” for the Bridge of the Don Thistle, with the next stage the building of a new ground on Ellon Road.
He added: “Once we have that, it’s a whole new ball game.
“You don’t build a facility like that to turn round and stay where you are – you want to bring the community into it, you want to bring the kids and girls into it, and you want to have it as an epicentre for the community and be successful as a semi-professional football club.”