Popovich to build youth with departure of skipper

There have been many changes in personnel for the Monaro Panthers for the upcoming Canberra Premier League season, including a change in captains. Queanbeyan Age sports reporter Joshua Matic caught up with head coach Njegosh Popovich to discuss the season ahead.

JM: There have been quite a few changes to the squad this year. How do you think these new players fared in the pre-season, and how do you think they will go in round one?

NP: We've been up against the two top teams from last year, one being the grand finalist in Olympic, and we were 2-1 up and managed to lose the game 3-2. Our first pre-season game was against Canberra FC who were last year's premiers, and again we were 2-1 up and ended up losing the game 4-2. It definitley shows that we're heading in the right direction. We've got a lot of injuries at the moment that we're still trying to work through, but it's given me a great opportunity to see a lot of young players progress in the first grade team, and that experience should definitley help going forward.

JM: With Tom Crossley leaving for China in June, who will be the replacement captain?

NP: I think that my interim captain for now will be Alex Hollis, but I think that going forward my future captain will be Josh Calabria when he comes back [from injury]. Tom has made a decision that he feels he can't give 100% focus on half a season towards playing and having the thought he is leaving in June. It's a very big committment to play Premier League football and that's overcome him a bit at the moment.

JM: Once Tom departs, what sort of a loss will that be for the side?

NP: His experience, his football knowledge, even his talking and organisational skills were probably the best at the club, so it's going to be a loss for us. We've got young guys stepping up so it'll be fine. You've just got to roll with the punches.

JM: So you feel as though Josh Calabria could be the best man to step up to fill the boots then?

NP: Josh Calabria had a lot of opportunities to leave the club, and he stuck by us, where a lot of players didn't. I think that that shows a lot of passion for the club, and it shows that he's a very good person. I think that he's a future captain for us for a long time.

JM: If we look at the main areas on the field- your front third, your mid-field and your defence- who would you rate as the key players to solidify those areas of the paddock this season?

NP: Thomas James is obviously one. He's shown he's a level above most of the players that we're playing against. His speed and his nose for the goal. He's very impressive. I think he'll definitely shine during the course of the year, and will be a player to watch. I think Josh Calabria coming from deep will also be a player to watch. I think the young goal-keeper that we've got- Rory Larkin- he's a player that was involved with ACTAS, and we've been very fortunate to have signed him. He's definitely somebody to look out for over the course of the year.

There's a lot of young players that are coming through like Nicholas Popovich who's just come off the Australian Schoolboys squad. I'll be looking for him to link with TJ. We're in good stead. Young players that were playing under 18's have come through our program and pushed into first grade this year. It's definitely a great thing for us as a club. Both Daniel Linstead and Lewis Bates have shown it's not above their ability playing first grade.

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