PNG NSL: Season Resumption Preview and Transfer Summary

With the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League due to kick off on Saturday 8 August after almost five months of suspension due to COVID-19 restrictions in the country, and having just witnessed a bonus week of transfer activity within the division, here we go through each side’s transfer activity and assess their chances of claiming the title at the end of the season.

We will go through each side in the order they find themselves in the table, talk about their transfer activity (in BOTH transfer windows), and discuss what they might be hoping to achieve before the season concludes.

1. Vitiaz United – 25 points

In:
Andrew Baniau [GK] (from FC Bougainville)
Peter Dabinyaba Jr. [RB/LB] (from Lae City)
Mathew David [CM] (from Lae City)
Jonathan Allen [RW/LW] (from FC Bougainville)
Donovan Murray [CM/AM/LW/ST] (from Gulf Komara)

Out:
Darius Edwin [CM] (released)
Russell Nirik [RW/ST] (released)
Bernard Purari [ST] (to FC Bougainville)
Rayan Albert, Isaac Agapi (both released)

Surprise league leaders Vitiaz United made all their transfer moves in the first, mid-season transfer window, bringing in five shrewd transfers to further bolster their already impressive-looking squad. In a recent article in The National, manager Rogena Strach said that he was happy with his signings and wouldn’t be considering any more during the extra window – and you can see why.

While the loss of Russell Nirik for personal reasons is a loss – the striker scored three goals for the side in the first half of the season – the players the side have brought in have shown a great deal of promise: Peter Dabinyaba Jr. plays on both sides of defence and played with the U-23 side at the 2019 Pacific Games; fellow Lae import Mathew David scored two goals in his debut for the club, a 3-2 victory over Morobe United on March 14, with another debutant, young winger Jonathan Allen, scoring the third.

Allen so far has seven goals this season, just two short of leading scorer Stahl Gubag, so is a magnificent capture for the club. Andrew Baniau strengthens their goalkeeping depth, while Donovan Murray is also a skillful winger and was, at times, Gulf Komara’s best player before his departure.

With the turmoil at Lae City and the shock defeat of Hekari United against Star Mountain in the last game week, Vitiaz’s stability and shrewd transfer policy may just propel this brand new side into Papua New Guinea footballing history.

2. Lae City – 23 points

In:
Alwin Komolong [CB] (free transfer)
Felix Komolong [CB] (free transfer)
Nigel Malagian [CB/LB] (from Tusbab Stallions)
Stahl Gubag [CM/AM] (from Tusbab Stallions)

Out:
Matheson Nasa [GK] (released)
Mosie Milubwa [CB] (released)
Goropaul Albert [RB] (released)
Valentine Nelson [CB/RB] (released)
Peter Dabinyaba Jr. [RB/LB] (to Vitiaz United)
Troy Gunemba [DM] (released)
Mathew David [CM] (to Vitiaz United)
Nigel Dabinyaba [LW] (to Hekari United)
Raymond Gunemba [ST] (to Hekari United)

It has been quite a tumultuous time for Lae City FC. Following their group stage exit at the Oceania Champions League, club chairman Ian Chow sacked manager Peter Gunemba, an event which led to eleven players – seven of which are listed above – walking out of the club in solidarity with their old manager. This has left a huge talent gap but does give the club a chance to move in a new direction.

Due to the timing of Gunemba’s departure, many of the players that left the club – including Raymond Gunemba and Nigel Dabinyaba, two of the best players in Papua New Guinea footballing history – had initially been unable to find a new club in time for the second half of the season. Thanks to the bonus transfer window, Gunemba and Dabinyaba have now joined Hekari, while Obert Bika and Ronald Warisan have returned to the club. However, experienced defensive players Matheson Nasa, Mosie Milubwa, Goropaul Albert, and Valentine Nelson have not returned.

This will not be the end of Lae’s title push, though. They have strengthened significantly in defence, with both Komolong brothers now among their ranks, and Nigel Malagian having arrived in the first window from Tusbab Stallions – although the latter is currently suffering an illness which may well keep him out for the rest of the season. And, after chasing him for the majority of the first window, the club finally got their hands on the league’s top scorer, Stahl Gubag, who will be an excellent addition to the attacking talent that the club currently has at its disposal.

Stahl Gubag is one of the new recruits at Lae City.

Furthermore, new coach Bob Morris already has a team that was showing signs of potential before the break. The two Ecuadorian imports appear to still be in Papua New Guinea and were beginning to show signs of settling in before the break, while the core of the squad is still strong: captain Emmanuel Simon is the heartbeat of the midfield, while the likes of Jacob Sabua and Emmanuel Airem have plenty of experience. The squad may be a little thin, but the first eleven is one that could challenge any team in the league. Don’t count them out.

3. Hekari United – 23 points

In:
Carlos Onne [CB] (from Gulf Komara)
Gregory Togubai [CM] (from FC Bougainville)
Wira Wama [CM] (free transfer)
Nigel Dabinyaba [LW] (from Lae City)
Raymond Gunemba [ST] (from Lae City)

Out:
Magalu Guena [CB] (to FC Kutubu)
Erick Joe [CB] (released)
Vinicius Reis [CM] (released)
Jonah Philip [LW] (to FC Kutubu)
Aisome Kila [ST] (to FC Kutubu)

Eight-time champions Hekari United are desperate to win their first National Soccer League in five years, and stability seems to have been the keyword in their title push this season. Jerry Allen, the manager who steered them to OFC Champions League glory in 2010, has been in charge across the entire season and has the side playing some good, if not spectacular football.

Lae City’s tumultuous few months has played into Hekari’s hands: the side brought in Raymond Gunemba and Nigel Dabinyaba in the bonus transfer window to add experience and firepower to their front line. While the likes of Kolu and Ati Kepo added pace and energy to Hekari’s attack, they have lacked a man to put the ball in the back of the net consistently; Gunemba should solve this problem, for this season at least.

Unlike Lae City, the club was not able to retain their South American imports: Erick Joe and Vinicius Reis departed midway through the coronavirus crisis, leaving a sizeable gap in defence and midfield. The arrival of young Carlos Onne from Gulf Komara will go some way to plug the defensive gap, while Wira Wama and Gregory Togubai may between them provide enough flair in the midfield areas.

Hekari is still a long way short of the force that they were ten years ago, but all their recent signings have definitely strengthened the side. The key to this Hekari side is teamwork; whether Dabinyaba and Gunemba can eschew their selfish tendencies and become part of that team could be the decisive factor in whether the side can pick up their ninth title or not.

4. Tusbab Stallions – 17 points

In:
Samuel Kini [AM] (from FC Kutubu)

Out:
Freeman Giwi [CB] (released)
Nigel Malagian [CB] (to Lae City)
Stahl Gubag [LW/CM/AM] (to Lae City)

Somewhat in no-man’s-land, Tusbab Stallions are six points adrift of the top three, but four point clear of their nearest rivals Gulf Komara. With coronavirus having disrupted the PNG NSL season, it’s unclear whether there will actually be Championship Playoffs at the end of the season, but in any case, the Stallions will want to fight for that place in the top four and ward off any challenges from the teams behind them.

While transfer activity has been quiet at the club, the management will be disappointed to have lost their two key players to champions Lae City over the course of both transfer windows. Having been chased for the majority of the mid-season window but refusing to leave Madang due to educational commitments, the season delay has meant Stahl Gubag is free from those commitments and has finally made the move to the reigning champions. Star centre-back Nigel Malagian made the move mid-season, leaving the young side somewhat short of experience.

Samuel Kini’s experience will be a boost to a Tusbab side who have lost key players.

The signing of experienced attacking midfielder Samuel Kini from FC Kutubu will go some way to filling the gap left by Gubag, and the side still has the likes of Papalau Awele, Michael Saun, and midfield sibling-duo Jason and Ricky Wadunah to provide creativity and flair in attack. But one can’t help but wonder if the loss of two such key players will affect their ability to continue their playoff push as effectively as they have so far this season.

5. Gulf Komara – 13 points

In:
none

Out:
Carlos Onne [CB] (to Hekari United)
Donovan Murray [CM/AM/LW/ST] (to Vitiaz United)

It has been a quiet period for the team in fifth place, Gulf Komara. The side are four points adrift of Tusbab Stallions in fourth, and given their transfer activity – or rather, lack of it – it looks doubtful that the side will be able to make a serious challenge for the playoffs – unless, of course, stability proves to be the key element of a late-season surge.

The side’s transfers out give some cause for concern – Carlos Onne is one of the most promising young defenders in the country, as evidenced by his move to Hekari United, one of the biggest sides in the country, while versatile attacker Donovan Murray looked skillful and assured in possession in the early stages of the season. With neither of these players having been replaced, it could be difficult for the side to maintain the surge in form they were enjoying before coronavirus precautions kicked in.

Many may have forgotten that Jamal Seeto, who has two caps for the national side and was the Golden Boot winner for the 2010–11 season while playing for Besta PNG United, is contracted to the side, although a lack of appearances so far may throw into question his fitness. Other players that the side will need to rely on are midfielder Max Sengum, topscorer Numa Kila, and striker Jordan Kaven. Whether or not they have enough about them to truly challenge for the playoff spots remains to be seen, and many might argue that they should be more concerned about the sides behind them than those ahead.

6. FC Bougainville – 11 points

In:
Steven Inia [CM] (from Star Mountain)
Roniel Igens [CM] (free transfer)
Gabby Yanum [LW/RW] (from Morobe United)
Bernard Purari [ST] (from Vitiaz United)

Out:
Andrew Baniau [GK] (to Vitiaz United)
Luke Kaprangi Jr [GK] (to Star Mountain)
Gregory Togubai [CM] (to Hekari United)
Jonathan Allen [LW/RW] (to Vitiaz United)
Stanley Tumun [AM/ST] (to Star Mountain)

It has been a mixed season for FC Bougainville so far this time around. They have come close against the likes of Lae City and Hekari United, and remain the only side to have beaten league leaders Vitiaz United this season so far following a 2-0 victory over the newcomers on January 18th, with goals coming from midfielder Gregory Togubai and winger Jonathan Allen.

However, those two players have now left the club, with Togubai moving to Hekari United and Allen heading off to Vitiaz; both players could well be considered to be key men in this Bougainville side. They have been replaced, however: the side has brought in Steven Inia from Star Mountain as a direct replacement for Togubai. Inia has five caps with the U-20 side from 2014 and five for the U-17s the year before, and the central midfielder was also part of the Madang FC side that went to the OFC Champions League in 2017. Up front, Bougainville have recruited Gabby Yanum from Morobe United and Bernard Purari from Vitiaz United (via Star Mountain). Both men were part of the PNG U-23 setup for last year’s Pacific Games, so should provide a clinical edge in attack moving into the final stages of the season.

Whether or not Bougainville will be able to put up a challenge to both Gulf Komara and Tusbab Stallions for that final playoff slot is as yet unknown, but the side has shown remarkable organisation and a decent defensive structure throughout the season so far, even if results haven’t quite gone their way. With ex-Star Mountain manager Percy Mataio joining the club in July, and with both Stallions and Komara noticeably weaker than they were before the break, they must be feeling as if they could capitalise.

7. Morobe Wawens – 9 points

In:
Albert Goroko [RB/LB/RW/LW] (free transfer)
Obert Dickla [ST] (free transfer)
James Seske [ST] (free transfer)

Out:
none

Morobe Wawens are somewhat of an enigma for an outsider looking in: generally speaking, the side does not have many transfer dealings with any of the other clubs in the league, and usually recruit from local associations. As a result, many of the players at the club, both past and present, will only ever be seen in action as Wawens players, and won’t be seen plying their trade anywhere else within the National Soccer League.

This has both its benefits and drawbacks: the club seems to essentially have a monopoly on all talent coming out of the Morobe Football Association, but also seems to shun recruiting from within the NSL, meaning players who join the club have little to no elite experience. We know very little about the three players which have been brought into the club during this transfer window aside from where they play on the field; nor do many names in their squad list stand out.

There are a few that do: winger-cum-striker Barthy Kerobin is one for the future who has already impressed at international youth level, while defensive midfielder Dallas Namuesh adds steel to the heart of the Wawens midfield. But with little to no evidence of their squad really having improved since the first half of the season, it’s difficult to see Wawens making a charge for the top four, despite that being the aim of vice-president Peter Seske, according to a recent article in The National.

8. Star Mountain – 8 points

In:
Luke Kaprangi Jr [GK] (from FC Bougainville)
George Gerega [GK] (free transfer)
Moses Arisib [CB/LB] (free transfer)
John Ray [CB/RB] (from Morobe United)
Sammy Campbell [CB/CM] (free transfer)
Toru Simoi [RW/LW] (free transfer)
Kapret Tingut [RW/LW] (free transfer)
Stanley Tumun [AM/ST] (from FC Bougainville)
Riggie Togubai [ST] (free transfer)
Ryan Gerega [ST] (free transfer)
July Elijah [ST] (free transfer)
Lance Vincent (free transfer)

Out:
Steven Inia [CM] (to FC Bougainville)

It’s been quite a few months for Star Mountain, and much of what has happened at the club since the halfway point of the season has been due to the appointment of Percy Mataio as the first-team coach as the club. In Mataio’s first game in charge of the club, Mountain secured a shock 2-1 victory over eight-time champions Hekari United to move them up to 8th in the table, and the time Mataio has had since that victory will surely help the side to further improve. However, in mid-July, Mataio left the club to go to FC Bougainville, meaning his sole game in charge was that victory over Hekari.

Before leaving, Mataio brought in almost an entire squad of new players to help him drag the team away from the dogfight at the bottom of the league as well. The highlights include experienced central player Sammy Campbell, who, while having never been capped, has travelled with the senior national team on occasion, and John Ray, who is capped at U-17, U-20 and U-23 level. Several of the free transfers coming into the club have experience playing in the Port Moresby Soccer Association Premier Division as well as previous NSL experience, so it certainly seems as though Mataio had been on somewhat of a recruitment drive for players who have ‘been there and done that’ since taking over the reins at the club. Whether the new manager will be able to work with what Mataio has provided him remains to be seen.

The victory against Hekari is thus far the only indication we have of the new-look Star Mountain, but if that result is anything to go by, we could see a second-half resurgence from the Tabubil side that may see them push their rivals for a playoff spot, providing they get going quickly enough upon the resumption.

9. Morobe United – 7 points

In:
Jonathan Pole [GK] (from FC Kutubu)

Out:
John Ray [CB/RB] (to Star Mountain)
Dinniget Luaine [CM] (to FC Kutubu)
Gabby Yanum [LW/RW] (to FC Bougainville)
Emmanuel Simongi [AM] (to FC Kutubu)

Oberth Simon [AM] (to FC Kutubu)

To call it a disappointing season for Morobe United would be an understatement: the side made it to last season’s semi-finals, but this year sit second from bottom as we head for the resumption of the season post-coronavirus restrictions. The transfer window also looks like a disappointment for the side, having lost five players, none of which have been replaced, and who look like they might leave some gaping holes in the squad.

Attacking midfielder Emmanuel Simongi has scored four of the side’s ten goals so far this season, while Gabby Yanum also has one, meaning the side has essentially lost half of its goalscorers in the window to rival clubs. Three of them have been lost to FC Kutubu, the only side beneath them in the table, and while the signing of goalkeeper Jonathan Pole is a boost to their defensive prowess, one wonders how much creativity they have left in the side to put the ball in the opposition net.

Dinniget Luaine and Emmanuel Simongi both left the club.

They will need to rely on centre-back Jeremy Yasasa adding to his two-goal tally from defence, as well as the likes of Alex Kamen, Dominic Onea, and Giwi Simon going forward. One would hope that perhaps news of Morobe United’s signings simply hasn’t reached us here at Oceania Football Center, because the way we see it, the squad looks mightily thin without additional transfers in, and they could be heading for a rock bottom finish at the close of play.

10. FC Kutubu – 6 points

In:
Magalu Guena [CB] (from Hekari United)
Dinniget Luaine [CM] (from Morobe United)
Jonah Philip [LW] (from Hekari United)
Emmanuel Simongi [AM] (from Morobe United)
Oberth Simon [AM] (from Morobe United)
Aisome Kila [ST] (from Hekari United)

Out:
Jonathan Pole [GK] (to Morobe United)
Jes Moses [CB] (released)
Samuel Kini [AM] (to Tusbab Stallions)
Andrew Apo [ST] (released)

Two wins from ten games is not a good record, and clearly, Kutubu sponsors felt the same way, with manager Mathew Witu losing his role as head coach during the coronavirus break. Several players followed him out of the club, with some apparently not happy with the way the management had dealt with certain aspects of the club’s day-to-day activities.

Young defender Jes Moses and veteran striker Andrew Apo both left the club and are yet to find a new one, while solid goalkeeper Jonathan Pole – brother of Hekari’s Ishmael – headed off to Morobe United and experienced attacking midfielder Samuel Kini, at times the heartbeat of the Kutubu attack this season, departed for Tusbab Stallions.

Nevertheless, the new management has recruited well ahead of the resumption this weekend. While three younger players were brought in from Hekari United’s ‘reserves’, the most eye-catching signings are those from the club directly ahead of them in the table: Dinniget Luaine, Emmanuel Simongi, and Oberth Simon, all three of whom should walk into the first team and considerably strengthen the midfield.

The identity of the new number one at the club remains to be seen, and young players such as Herry Gulf and Karesa Morris, who have shown sparks of potential so far this season, must also step up now that the most experienced veterans of the club have left. It could be an intriguing battle at the bottom of the table for the final eight game weeks.

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