One of the themes recently addressed among football fans in Papua New Guinea and across the Pacific, where the name Hekari United FC has left a mark, is how and why the biggest national champions and 2010 OFC Champions League champions were unable to play in this year’s Kumul Petroleum National Soccer League final after being eliminated from the competition in the semi-finals for the second time in the club’s history.
This report will provide a summary of the 2020 season in detail and highlight some of the key issues that contributed to the team’s eventual semi-final loss to Vitiaz United FC.
To begin with, it should be noted that Hekari United this season had a very strong squad in the National Football League and had great depth in all positions. However, the fact that the team took third place, even with an excellent better squad, raises the question of whether the players were used correctly to maximise the overall performance of the team.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the changes in the squad during the middle of the season:
Hekari finished the first half of the season undefeated and sitting first in the ladder ahead of champions Lae City FC and debutants Vitiaz United FC. However, two results from the first half of the season that did not worry many fans by that time is that the team also drew against eventual finalists Vitiaz United and Lae City.
This unbeaten run with impressive statistics caused analysts and fans to tip Hekari for the top prize, especially after reigning champions Lae City FC suffered a shocking 1-2 defeat to Vitiaz United FC during the first half of the season.
Then came the OFC Champions League, which revealed many of the club’s weaknesses, prompting management to bring in reinforcements before the start of the second half of the season to address these areas: Carlos Onne and Gregory Togubai, two former PNG U-23 representatives, were brought in to add depth to the defence and midfield.
Both men had a debut to forget as the team succumbed to a 1-2 defeat (the first of the season) at the hands of a Percy Mataio coached Star Mountain side. The two players, however, are not to blame because the side also had a lot of rotations on the day and it looked like the men in yellow were underestimated. This defeat was followed by a long period of rest where football and sporting activities in general across Papua New Guinea came to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this result, Hekari dropped to third and gave the chance for Vitiaz United to move to the top followed by Lae City FC on the second spot.
Before the season resumed, Hekari also lost two regular starters who helped the team compete in the Champions League: Vinicius Reis and Erick Joe. The Brazilian duo were allowed to return home after their contracts expired at the end of June.
Since Carlos Onne and Gregory Togubai were already in the squad at that time, it was only sensible to go after forwards in the third and special transfer window because Hekari did not have much quality and experience upfront. At the same time, Otto Kusunan was released to pursue a full-time job opportunity while Aisome Kila, Magalu Guena and Jonah Phillip were released to join Kutubu FC. Veteran goalkeeper Leslie Kalai was also released.
The third transfer window opened the way for Hekari to land two of the country’s best footballers: Raymond Gunemba and Nigel Dabinyaba. Both left Lae City FC after the resignation of coach Peter Gunemba. There was a bit of controversy and drama with the signing of both players, especially after their former boss Ian Chow went out in the media and publicly refuted the allegations of both men being fired from the club. PNG Football Association and National Soccer League’s board deliberated on the matter and set aside the participation of both players when the competition resumed while a decision was taken in the background.
Hekari played with FC Bougainville in the league’s resumption and managed to beat their opponents by 2-0 to keep the pressure on Vitiaz and Lae City FC. At the end of the week, Raymond and Nigel were allowed to play as the football council was convinced that both men were effectively released by their former club.
Since then, both players have become regular starters in the team, with Nigel playing in every game from the return to Hekari United to the semi-final. For Raymond, injuries were a concern and he was left out of some of the matches due to back injuries.
Having covered the whole season in detail, we now look at some of the key issues that led to the shocking but not surprising semi-final defeat. Many fans and analysts share the view that it was not Hekari’s best starting eleven that played in the semi-final against Vitiaz United FC:
1- If there is a reason why Hekari did not concede many goals in the first half of the season, it is Ishmael Pole. From his acrobatic saves to the distribution of the ball, he seems to have all the characteristics of a good goalkeeper. Everything was going very well for him until he was given a red card in the 1-0 defeat to Lae City FC, and had to miss two games due to suspension.
The young substitute goalkeeper, Dave Tomare, did well during Ishmael’s absence and his brilliant performances in the few games he started made it difficult for Eric Komeng to choose who to start with on the day of the semi-final. Although Tomare did an honourable job that day by saving two penalty kicks in the penalty shoot-out, but it would have been better if Ishmael, the more experienced player, had started this match.
2- The absence of Langarap Samol, who played very well when Daniel Joe and Carlos Onne were unable to play and definitely impressed even though he only had a few chances to play as a centre back. His absence from the squad for the semi-finals is one of the bad decisions taken that day. In the few games he played, Langarap brought stability to the defence and covered Carlos Onne, who sometimes prefers to advance with the ball.
Another thing that Samol’s inclusion brings to the team is the possibility to place Daniel Joe as a full back, where he is given the opportunity to play on the flanks, given his offensive quality and physical explosion.
3- To this day, fans still wonder why Gunemba was left on the bench. Hekari could have secured victory in the first 15 minutes, when the team offered danger to the opposing defense with Ati Kepo putting his opponents in trouble. If Raymond had been played as a striker, the chances of turning those chances into a goal would have been higher.
It is also important to remember that important players like David Muta, Koriak Upaiga and Michael Foster are already over 30 years old. Although they are great players, it is necessary to think about having younger players so that the team will not suffer in the next seasons.
The big problem is that the team has not improved over their previous meetings with Lae City FC and Vitiaz United. If there was one thing Hekari would have learned from the previous meetings it is that their style of ball possession has failed to break stronger defensive teams down. Although it can be argued that it was their defensive errors that led to defeats, this does not mean that Hekari was better offensively. The poor decision making of the main players in the final third, as well as the average finishing, are also responsible for the eventual failure of the team in the most important game of the season.
Players were often too far apart from each other and their positioning limited the passing options of the midfielders. In addition, the attack is often concentrated on the flanks where offensive players like Ati Kepo and Nigel Dabinyaba have often found themselves trying to beat individual defenders. This has been noticed in many games and opposing teams have been able to defend well against this style of play.
The biggest loss caused by COVID-19 pandemics was the impossibility to count on the coach Jerry Allen, who is one of the great responsible for the success of Hekari United. Although Eric Komeng deserves credit for raising and assembling troops for the rest of the season, a change of coach often goes hand in hand with a change in the team’s playing style. The inability to adapt to Erick’s style may have been another reason for the team not winning the biggest matches.
It is not a season to forget, but a season to learn from the mistakes made so that the team can return to the top of national football.