Northcote City’s new coach Alex Gymnopoulos is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and that heart is full of pride for the club he’s served loyally through coaching its youth teams for the last 10 years. It shows when he speaks about Northcote’s ability to develop young players. But also, a different kind of pride shows through in his responses to pre-season predictions about how Northcote will fare this season.

“Although everyone out there says to us ‘you’re a young team, you’re favourites to get relegated’, as a true believer for the kids, I like to think they’re wrong.”

Gymnopoulos is challenging his young squad to defy the pundits.

“You know I say to the boys, ‘I get really upset when people say that this team’s going to get relegated’. I said to the players: ‘As a player you’ve got to have that pride. Who the hell are they to say I’m going to get relegated. You’ve got to have that belief.’ And I’m trying more with my coaching staff to get that into their heads.”

Charged with rebuilding a senior squad following the departure of coach Goran Lozanovski and about eight of the senior squad, (including its strikers) at the end of last season, Gymnopoulos has signed about half a dozen new players and promoted four of the youth squad into the seniors list. One of his major concerns has been to bolster a defence which conceded plenty of goals last season. To that end, he’s brought in new signings, Michalis Karvouniaris (from Panachaiki) and Anthony Rizk (Melbourne City youth) who’ll join Jacob Eliopoulos to strengthen the defence.

He’s also signed English-born attacking midfielder Michael Cunningham from second division USA team, Rochester Rhinos. Because of the departure of the club’s senior strikers in the off-season, young rookie forwards Todd Dekker and Aminta Makalovski are expected to lead the line. “Last year’s team was much more experienced,” says Gymnopoulos. “I’d like to say this team is for the future, younger kids, hopefully more enthusiasm.”

He’s well aware of the enormity of the challenge ahead. “It’s going to be a long, long year. I’d like to think we’re giving those kids the opportunity. They have to stand up.”

He also believes this season will be the strongest NPL ever. “From what I see, a lot of teams have recruited very well. A lot of established players are moving around now in the NPL and a lot of boys are coming from interstate who have played A-League. Players who have come to the NPL to your South Melbournes, your Heidelbergs, your Oakleighs, Bentleighs and Green Gullys, which I think will be the teams that kick on and will shoot away from the rest of the group.

“I’m fortunate and happy to say that at least with Northcote, the vast majority of our squad has also played for Northcote somewhere along the line in the past, through our youth system. So although we’re doing the right thing, I believe other teams aren’t in that sense. That’s their issue. I like to believe, and that’s what we say to the kids, ‘we always give you an opportunity at Northcote, through our youth system, to come and hopefully one day, play senior football’.”

Northcote opens its season away to another young team, the newly-promoted Melbourne Victory Youth team, on Saturday 20 February at Epping stadium.