As a player, Reginald Davani was one of Papua New Guinea’s most successful footballing exports, now he is continuing his remarkable football exploits as a coach in Australia.
By guest writer: Seamus Marten
Davani shot to prominence as one of PNG’s finest footballers in a successful 17-year playing career that saw him turn out for various clubs in Australia, England, Fiji, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, and Vietnam.
After hanging up his boots for good in 2013, the all-time leading goal scorer turned his talents to coaching, following in the footsteps of father John – himself a former Papua New Guinea national team coach.
This season he became the first Papua New Guinean to coach in the National Premier Leagues (NPL) in Australia when he took the reins at Queensland-based Western Pride FC. Davani helped guide Western Pride to a third-place finish in the league, scoring 96 goals in the process, which was the highest return of the 14 teams.
Western Pride finished third in the Queensland NPL finals, with their U20s and U18s finishing second and third respectively. The achievements placed the Ipswich-based club as the most successful Queensland NPL programme in 2018.
From assistant to top dog
After a distinguished playing career in which he amassed 15 goals in 23 national team appearances, Davani made the transition from player to coach following his international swansong at the OFC Nations Cup in 2012.
“My final years as a national team player, I played under [former Socceroos coach] Frank Farina and I picked up a few good coaching methods from him also, particularly around man management and humility as a coach,” says Davani.
He later held roles as head coach for FC Port Moresby in the National Soccer League, and served as assistant coach for the Papua New Guinea men’s national team under a succession of expatriate coaches in Wynton Rufer, Ricki Herbert and most recently Flemming Serritslev.
But the step up to coaching week in and week out in the NPL – essentially the second tier of domestic football in Australia – was a big one for the quietly spoken Papua New Guinean.
“The NPL is football’s version of the Intrust Super Cup in Rugby League. Each state has its own competition and the winners battle it out for the national title at the end of the season.
“I’ve always tried to maintain and enjoy the moment, but you are coaching in a pressure environment to get results in this competition. I learnt quickly that you can get found out by other teams and coaches, so you need to prepare well during the week for the games,” the 38-year-old says.
A little help from a friend
Davani notes the role has helped his overall planning and organization, in terms of mapping out the weekly schedules, training sessions, programme management and overseeing the three senior teams.
“Tactically you have to be well prepared, you can’t just be putting on sessions during the week that aren’t specific to the problems you will face on the weekend. It’s also developed my man management skills, managing player personalities, egos and the overall team environment,” says Davani.
Pride’s former head coach Graham Harvey was instrumental in his coaching rise, inviting Davani to the club as his first-team assistant, but also in charge of the Western Pride U20s.
“I knew Graham from my playing days in the old Queensland State League and he was aware that I had been involved with the PNG national team during the last FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.
“I saw it as an opportunity to continue my development and improve on my coaching processes and develop my playing philosophy and style,” says Davani.
“I had my reservations”
However, five months into the role Harvey departed Australia to take up an offer with Eastern Sports Club in the professional league in Hong Kong, and Davani was thrust into the head coach role on an interim basis.
“When I first got to the club I had no intention to coach the first team, that wasn’t even in the back of my mind. But when circumstances changed halfway through the season, Graham encouraged me to take up the role as head coach.
“I had my reservations at the start. I didn’t want to do it, but at the same time I knew it was good for my own development and I knew I couldn’t pass it up. In the end, I’m grateful for the experience and opportunity Graham passed on to me, that support and encouragement, gave me the confidence to go on and do the job.”
Fast forward a few months and Davani was one match away from a Queensland grand final and a chance to represent the state against the other Australian NPL champions. However, it was not to be, with Pride succumbing an early lead to eventually lose 1-2 to Olympic FC in a tight semi-final.
Regardless of the result, Davani was happy with the season and proud of the players in the programme.
“I’ve learnt a lot, and the first team group has been a great bunch to work with. One of the best I’ve been involved with. We focussed on promoting youth this season and we gave senior debuts to six players from our U20s,” says Davani.
That promotion of youth led to two members of the 2018 Pride squad signing for A-League clubs, Dylan Wenzel-Halls joining the Brisbane Roar before the end of the league season, and Dan Hall linking up with the Central Coast Mariners.
In addition, defender Hayden McHenery has travelled across the Tasman to link up with New Zealand national league powerhouse Auckland City, one of Davani’s former clubs. Davani had previously been instrumental in nurturing and guiding emerging Papua New Guinean talent overseas, most notably Nigel Dabinyaba to Malaysia in 2016, and is fiercely proud of his heritage.
Naturally Davani holds an ambition to lead the PNG men’s national team, nicknamed the Kapuls, in the near future but his immediate future remains uncertain.
“I’m passionate about the national team, I represented my country as player and that was a major highlight in my playing career. It’s the highest accolade you can achieve in sports and because of that blessing, I’ve had all these different opportunities in football and in life put in front of me. Coaching in Australia is the latest example of that. To coach my country would be an honour and privilege,” says Davani.
Davani is currently back in Port Moresby and is looking forward to the next chapter in his coaching career.
“I’m enjoying the time at home with my family, but I’m also looking to sort my immediate future out very soon.”
“This whole experience has been fantastic. Coaching at NPL is a good stepping stone to coach at a higher level and maybe even professionally one day,” says Davani.
“I thank god for his blessings, my family for their continued support. PNGFA for giving me the opportunity to coach at international level, and also the PNG Sports Foundation who’ve assisted me in my professional development. I’ll always represent PNG with great pride.”