A forecast for Thunder strikes

Brandon Barnes is back in Dandenong Thunder colours for the 2024 NPL season. 170575 Picture: ROB CAREW

By Marcus Uhe

New Dandenong Thunder coach Adam Piddick is embracing the challenges of a condensed preseason with his new squad ahead of the upcoming National Premier League season kicking off at home on Saturday against Hume City.

Thunder’s preparation for the new campaign has been unsettled, with significant turnover in the playing group from last season and a new coaching appointment just weeks out from the season opener.

After David Chick stepped down as manager at the end of the 2023 season, Samson Elmazi was named as his replacement in August, with player signings gradually announced throughout the prevailing months.

But Elmazi chose to step down in late January due to personal reasons, leaving the club without a manager on the eve of the season.

Thankfully for the Thunder, Piddick, the 2022 NPL Coach of the Year, was available, having experienced success during his tenure at Port Melbourne Sharks, and in Queensland with Moreton Bay United.

The passion of the Dandenong community attracted Piddick to the position, having admired the atmosphere he’d experienced as a visitor to George Andrews Reserve in previous years.

“Thunder has always been a difficult spot for teams to go because the crowd is right in your face and they support their local team, and that’s something that I felt I wanted to be a part of,” he said.

“People go out there in numbers and they’re at you the whole time, they make things difficult and they may help (the players) rise that extra leg.

“I wanted to see if I can bring some good times to the community there because I know how much the Albanian community love their football, so it’s about trying to bring success and make people happy.”

By the time the Thunder take to the pitch for the first time in 2024 for points on Saturday, Piddick will have had three practice matches in-charge.

Losses to fellow NPL club Green Gully (1-4), and North Sunshine Eagles (0-2) exemplified the task ahead, but Piddick is prepared to be patient as the roster rides some early season ups and downs.

“We’re trying to build a squad and trying to put six weeks into two weeks before we play a game,” Piddick said of his whirlwind first near-fortnight in the hot seat.

“It’s been quite difficult, but we’ve got some new signings in and the boys are working really hard, which is a positive sign.

“There’s things that, I would dare say, five weeks into the season, you’ll probably see us clicking a little bit more, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t win football matches early on, either.

“The challenge for the playing group is, can we get up to speed really quickly and, the quicker they do, the better they’re going to be.”

The Thunder was extremely busy during the offseason, with a number of quality and familiar faces putting pen-to-paper for the club following the departure of a large contingent of the 2023 roster.

Striker Brandon Barnes is back, returning to a club where he scored 98 goals across three seasons between 2016 and 2018, winning the 2018 Golden Boot in the top flight, and the leading goalscorer title in the second division in 2016 and 2017.

The Englishman is expected to form a potent combination up top with returning fan favourite Ali Sulemani, and Wade Dekker, joining from Oakleigh Cannons.

At the back, experienced goalkeeper Pierce Clark will provide seniority with the gloves, while Mersim Memeti will welcome 2023 New South Wales NPL Team of the Year representative, and former Asian Champions League winner with Western Sydney Wanderers, Daniel Alessi into the heart of the defence, along with South Melbourne’s Lirim Elmazi and Aaron Evans, having returned from a stint in the Indian Premier League.

In the middle, Troy Ruthven and Aiden Edwards will offer central midfield options for Piddick, with Daniel Dixon, John Kuol and Daniel Fabrizio providing the attacking options out wide.

The Thunder finished eighth on the NPL table in 2023, missing finals qualification.

Should Piddick take Dandenong to the post-season, it will be first time the club has experienced finals football since earning promotion in 2018.

Conceding that it was too premature in his time at the club to set expectations, Piddick brings a successful pedigree, and wants to see the club return to the pointy end of the competition.

“We want to be an attacking team, with and without the ball,” Piddick said.

“Once the boys get up to speed in terms of their fitness, that’s what you’ll see when you come to watch Dandenong Thunder.

“At the end of the day with so many players coming in we’ve got to gel, it’s always difficult.

“It all depends on how we gel and how quickly we can gel, but I’m a winner and I like winning, so I’ll do everything in my power to bring success to the football club.”