All change at Lae City: why did it happen, and what happens next?

This morning, sensational news broke that five-time domestic title-winning coach of Lae City, Peter Gunemba, was sacked by franchise owner and sponsor Ian Chow. Immediately, several questions sprang to mind: Why did this happen? Which players will stay and which will go? And how will this affect the landscape of football in Papua New Guinea going forward?

While we can’t predict the future, we do have some answers.

Why was Peter Gunemba sacked?

After Lae City’s 3-3 draw with Henderson Eels in their opening match of this year’s OFC Champions League, Oceania Football Center was contacted by a source close to Chow, suggesting that the club owner had given coach Gunemba an ultimatum: qualify for the quarter-finals, or face the sack. While this seems to have worked in the first instance, with Lae winning their next game 7-0 against Fijian side Lautoka, the club ended up crashing out of the competition after losing 3-0 to Malampa Revivors. This was the beginning of the end for Gunemba.

Peter Gunemba. Photo: RNZ

Shortly before the news broke this morning of Gunemba’s departure, Chow himself contacted OFCe, and revealed his reasons for the decision he was about to make. He said that the team was too “complacent”, and that the arrival of the two Ecuadorians, Gustine Icaza Vergara and Abdias Aguirre, had been made to “shake up” the side. However, Chow continues, shortly after their arrival, it was reported to him that the Gunemba ‘family’ – a term he uses for the family and close friends of coach Gunemba – were the “bad apples” of the side, indulging in drinking and the smoking of cigarettes and marijuana as recently as their trip to Vanuatu for the Champions League.

“That is why the team has not performed. No discipline, no commitment, no focus and bad leadership. In my three years as owner of the team, I just left coach Gunemba to do what I expect any professional would do. But he has failed miserably and dramatically; he cannot discipline his family and they are the worst offenders in the team,” Chow said, giving reasons for his decision. “It is not too late to save the team from self-destruction from within.”

Will Lae City retain the services of their current players?

In most footballing countries, players don’t leave the club with the manager when the manager is sacked. However, the close family ties that exist within the structure of the club could lead to a mass exodus. This is something that Chow is not particularly concerned about.

“I don’t have a problem if the top players walk out with the coach,” he said. “Some players think they own the spot on the team, and you will know who they are because they will walk out with the coach. Some players will be released and some new recruits have signed on.”

Following the sacking, Gunemba’s son, Raymond Gunemba, claimed on social media that every player would leave the club in solidarity with their coach. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen, but given Raymond’s, and younger brother Troy’s, closeness with their father, one would imagine that the likelihood of the pair leaving the franchise is high.

Who is the man taking over?

Gunemba’s replacement will be Bob Morris, the current manager of Morobe Wawens and the most recent caretaker manager of the Papua New Guinea national team, who guided the side to 4th place at the 2019 Pacific Games. Prior to that, Morris coached Laiwaden FC in last year’s National Soccer League, steering the side to a modest 5th place in the Northern Conference, as well as being at the helm of the side while they were competing in the breakaway competition under the Football Federation Papua New Guinea from 2017 to 2018. He also coached Madang FC to Champions League qualification in the 2015/16 domestic season, and was at the helm of Besta PNG United and the PNG U17 side in the early half of the 2010s.

Bob Morris (far left) with Ian Chow (centre left) and PNGFA President John Kapi Natto (far right) in May 2019. Photo: Post Courier

Morris’ record isn’t phenomenal: he hasn’t won anything, but no other manager has during Gunemba’s reign at Lae, because Lae won everything during that time. But something he has done in recent years must have impressed Chow enough to see fit to bring him in as Gunemba’s replacement in charge of the club.

Which players have joined the club?

Amid the chaos, Chow also revealed which players are set to join the club in the dying moments of the week-long transfer window currently in place. While it doesn’t seem likely that we will have full confirmation until the players actually take the field, brothers Alwin and Felix Komolong should be available fairly soon, having both been free agents, while Nigel Malagian and Stahl Gubag may well be joining from Tusbab Stallions, although rumours that the former is going to join his brother at Hekari United are persistent, while for the latter, the move may have been vetoed by Gubag’s mother, who is reportedly refusing to allow the league’s top scorer to forgo his education in Madang! Elsewhere, goalkeeper Charlie Lepani, who played for Eastern Stars last season, will also join up, as well as another Ecuadorian player called Danyer Lara – more to come on that in due course.

How will this affect the title race?

Well, like we said, we’re not prophets and we can’t predict the future. Coach Gunemba supposedly has his swansong match this weekend against Tusbab Stallions, which, given the transfer saga between the two clubs for Malagian and Gubag, could be a feisty affair. It could well also be the final game in a Lae City shirt for Raymond and Troy Gunemba, among others.

The big question is whether the club will hang on to their top two finish in the league, which is what they will be required to do if they’re to secure qualification to next season’s OFC Champions League. With Hekari United undefeated and debutants Vitiaz United looking very slick and professional, even without the momentous uprooting of the side it was looking to be a tough task for the side to secure a top two finish. The newcomers will have to hit the ground running, and Chow and Morris must be hoping some of the old guard will stick around to bolster the squad depth.

Whatever happens, and however you feel about it, there’s no doubt that this year’s National Soccer League just got way more interesting and intriguing!


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