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PNG women’s coach pushing players as World Cup playoffs loom

Spencer Prior arrives at Port Moresby airport with members of the PNGFA
Photo: PNG football

By Craig Stephen

The new coach of Papua New Guinea’s women’s football team admits time is not in his favour as the side attempts to qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

PNG face potentially two play-off matches in February for the tournament being held in New Zealand and Australia later in 2023.

In a 20-year playing career Spencer Prior progressed from lower-tier Southend United to Norwich City, Leicester City, Derby County, Manchester City, and Cardiff City before finishing his career in Australia.

He won the English League Cup with Leicester City in 1997 and other career highlights include playing in the Norwich side that defeated German giants Bayern Munich in Europe.

Now based in Australia, Prior has been assistant coach to the Australian Matildas and head coach of the Thailand women’s team.

With assistant coach Nicola Williams he is overseeing the PNG squad and taking them through their paces, including during a three-week block in Sydney followed by more time in Port Moresby. The 22-strong squad is now back in Australia and is likely to be bolstered by at least two more players.

Last month the team competed in a four-nations tournament in Canberra during which they suffered a 2-0 defeat to Fiji, then suffered a shock 3-0 reverse to Solomon Islands. Illness prevented them from tackling the Australian U-20 side in the scheduled final match.

Asked about his observations of the team so far, Prior said they were “getting better”.

“That would be a pretty short assessment. When we saw them in Canberra it was quite a long way off of where they need to be, but they knew that. The thing was they hadn’t kicked the ball in about ten weeks (since the Oceania Nations Cup in July) so you can’t do that and then just rock up and expect to perform in a tournament.

“So it kind of opened their eyes to where they actually were at, but having then had them for three weeks in Sydney we started to get them back to levels where they were before and getting them even further ahead. So we know that by the time we get to February we need them to be a in a much better place and we’ve got a new camp to give ourselves the best chance of that.

The team plays The Philippines twice in games that will provide a good test, as their opponents have already qualified for the finals.

“We know where we need to get. I’m not sure we are exactly where we wanna be but the forthcoming games against the Philippines will give us a good benchmark as to how we’ve progressed since the tournament in Canberra,” he said.

Prior wasn’t going to dwell on the results in that mini tournament, pointing out that the team has since changed and he now has a full squad at his disposal.

“Credit to Fiji and Solomon Islands for they way they performed in those games, but we didn’t have the full team at that stage and hadn’t had any preparation. So they came in cold. In a way though it was a good thing because it showed them where they were in terms of their level, and that wasn’t acceptable for what they’re looking for.

“It was literally just after that tournament that we stepped in and started to make the changes we needed to make.”

The Englishman now has the task of getting his charges up to speed as a game against Panama looms in Auckland on February 17 in the first stage of the Intercontinental Playoffs for the 2023 Women’s World Cup being co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia. Win that tie and they face either Taiwan or Paraguay four days later for a place at the finals. This is effectively the biggest match PNG have played in women’s football.

Prior is aware of the importance, but admits they’re behind the eight-ball.

“Essentially, we’re trying to do in three-and-a-half months what the other teams have spent three-and-a-half years preparing for. We know that we’ll be up against it.

“But anything can happen over two games of football just depending on how you set them up and how physically they’re prepared for it. We’ve put a lot of focus particularly in the last block of training on their conditioning. We’ve got warm-up games and training matches before Christmas so we’re exposing the girls to a different environment, and different ways of playing.”

As part of the motivation process, Prior took all the players on a tour of the stadium in Sydney in which they would play in if they manage to qualify for the finals.

Having spent some considerable time with the players, Prior has gotten to know them far better as people and has found many positives from that time.

“They’re the most respectful group of players I think I have ever coached. They’re wonderful humans off the pitch and it’s going really well working with them. On the pitch we’re challenging them every day and pushing them as hard as we can without breaking them physically or mentally. But we’re just trying to push them beyond their comfort zone.”

The players will return to PNG from Sydney three days before Christmas and after the new year go through an intensive programme to get them ready for their finals tilt.

“I’m confident and I’ll back the team, and believe that what we’re doing will give us the best chance to get past … I don’t want to say the two games because I don’t want to look too far ahead, but certainly try to get that first one over the line.”

PNG play Panama on February 19 in Auckland and should they win that, play either Taiwan or Paraguay four days later for a place at the World Cup.

Meagen Gunemba in possession for Papua New Guinea in the OFC Women's Nations Cup match against Fiji.

Photo: Kirk Corrie

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