Saturday, 1 August 2015

Oenoki Out - Tasaka In


Resigned? Sacked? Mutual consent? The official line is he stepped down, and there's no reason to dredge through this episode any further.

Shizuoka Newspaper. Official announcement to come

The writing had been on the wall ever since Tasaka was brought in as "head coach". That Oenoki chose now to call it a day, right after an away win in Yokohama, suggests to me two things. One, as rumoured, the club were never going to actively fire him. Two, he must have been feeling enormous pressure, disappointment and injured pride, but was determined to end things on his terms, ideally on a high.

Yes, I'm happy, but a man losing his job is never cause for celebration. Yes, I've whinged and moaned for months (as is every football fan's perogitive), but one thing I know is Katsumi bleeds orange. He loves the club and couldn't have worked harder to make things work. Whether he was the right man for the job in first place, well my feelings on that have been repeated ad nauseam. This chapter is over, and for it's worth, I hope Oenoki will find a position within the club once again, ideally at youth level. His record as a developer of young talent is good, and worthy of another contract.

Tasaka doesn't bring a particularly impressive management record, but he does have a management record. A history of building teams around a tight defence is of most pressing interest. As things were I couldn't see us escaping the drop zone. With Tasaka, who knows? But something had to be done. What will now be will be.

Saying thank you to Oenoki after all my moaning these last 12 months might seem a bit rich, but football is a game. It's not personal. It never should be. He did his best. Not being being able to deliver for the club he loves must have torn him apart, but ultimately he was man enough to hold his up hands and hand over the reigns. So, thank you Oenoki. Long may you continue to be part of the club you love.

Katsumi Oenoki

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

On The Road Again - Away Days in Japan


How does an away day in Japan compare with England? It’s been a pleasure finding out.


Observe any football fan when the new season’s schedule is published and you’ll witness the same ritual. The long, barren off months are forgotten as he scours the list, pen in hand, circling the major dates. The match closest to his birthday. The derby. The tastiest looking away days. Between 1988 and 2003 it was for England’s Football League fixtures I would count down the days. Since 2004 that energy has been split two ways, with the J. League an additional source of excitement on the football calendar.

Larger routines of this supporting life remain chiefly steady wherever you go, with finer details most subject to the vagaries of local culture. This is no more evident than between England and Japan’s take on away games. Getting on the road with your brethren and taking over rival stadia may be cultural constants, but whereas soccer’s birthplace has evolved over a history spanning three centuries, how does it compare to that in a league barely into its third decade?


While England’s northern and southern extremities extend a mere 400 miles, the distance between Consadole Sapporo and Avispa Fukuoka spans three times that. Though most match ups in England can comfortably be covered within a day, few consider a road trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima without a prior visit to Even taking advantage of the bullet train, (if you’ve not had the pleasure, think a plane minus the wings), travelling beyond the central Kanto and Kansai regions and you begin looking at a seven or eight hour round trip. This is when thoughts naturally turn to making a weekend of it. Since following Shimizu I’ve made more overnight stays than in fifteen years with Brighton where, as any Englishman knows, a 600 mile day trip is par for the course. Get there, watch the match, get back. Stopping over is an extravagance reserved for the occasional big night out. Very much the exception to the rule.

Domestic tourism in Japan is huge business, with each town adept at promoting its unique food and beauty spots. So the commencement in 1993 of tens of thousands of people moving around the country each weekend was inevitably seized upon. Clubs work in tandem with the local tourist industry, promoting the area to out of town visitors. Could I tell you what Coventry is known for? Or Luton, Sunderland or Birmingham? No. But Nagoya? Miso. Sendai? Cow tongue. Osaka? Takoyaki. Yamagata? Cherries. Almost on a par with the football, the local cuisine and seeing the sights rank highly on many travelling fans' to-do lists. Not forgetting of course to purchase souvenir snacks for distribution the next home game. Who has ever visited Newcastle or Southampton with a list of must-eat items, or made anything other than a most perfunctory of sightseeing excursions? Sampling the local brew is about as far as that practice extends.


Which brings us to the famous British boozer. Any match is centred around it, but they can take on greater importance and acquire a more focused role on the road. Rampaging hooligans may be confined to the history books, but their shadow casts long over UK football, and nobody wants to spend too much time wandering around in the wrong colours. When behind enemy lines, the designated away supporters’ boozer is a stronghold to rally the troops ahead of kick off. Japan has a distinctly different drinking culture, and public houses, in the UK sense, don’t exist. What does this mean for the travelling football fan?

A laid back attitude to alcohol coupled with an absence of a violent fan history, and no pubs pose small obstacle in creating that mobile base. Rather than heading for a watering hole, supporters merely aim straight for the stadium. They set down tarps outside the away end and break out the six packs. Many arrive hours before the turnstiles open and pass the time making merry, free from open container restrictions or home fan hostility. When the gates are finally unlocked the party is relocated to the stand concourse. Unthinkable in most western cultures, many stadia permit store bought alcohol, allowing supporters to craft their own pub-like environment. The unity engendered in a shared trek over the miles is fostered not in a pub, but with beers and food in and outside the ground.


You learn early when in unknown territory that indicators of team affinity are better kept hidden. Concealing shirts and scarves when leaving the ground was a habit I therefore instinctively carried to Japan. When friends first encouraged me to retain colours on display, my scepticism was surely apparent. It was sound advice. After-game adventures clad in S-Pulse orange have since resulted in nothing save for friendly conversations and free beers. The further flung the location, the better. 280 miles from home and after a 4-1 mauling, I surely cast a suitably pitiful sight nursing a can of warm Asahi. Niigata supporters offered no mockery or scorn, but rather consolation and rice crackers for the journey back to Shizuoka.

Following only the lowest profile games in England do I not recall being shepherded en masse to a station or held in while the home fans cleared. Be it Saitama, Sendai or Sapporo, at the final whistle home and away fans flood the streets in unison. Save for a handful of incidents over two largely spotless decades, a wide spectrum of supporters, male and female, young and old, intermingle without incident.

A welcome shoulder to cry on

Two very different traditions, one old, one new, continue to evolve. Though products of respective backgrounds and bound by their histories and customs, English and Japanese away day experiences remain different sides of the same coin. The former could be argued to be rougher, tougher and more authentic, but recent decades have witnessed an obvious, if gradual, shift towards a more serene scene. Enjoying a pint with home fans, especially post match, is more possible now than at any time since the 1970s.

Fierce British rivalries, cultivated over decades, ensure merely entering another team’s stadium is considered an act of aggression, and this is unlikely to change too much in our lifetime. However, as the years tick by, if we continue to edge a little closer to that laid back utopia in the Far East, who would argue against it? For anyone used to the away day as foray into enemy territory, a J. League game on the road, where visiting fans are treated less as invaders and more as welcome guests, is one for the bucket list.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

P25 W5 D5 L15


Losing a lead after the score stood 3-0 at 85m is infuriating. Obviously. What makes it worse is not just we'd lost five in a row before this. Nor how we chose to invite a team on to us who, but for taking some very real chances, had pretty much matched us first half. Or even that Yamagata had scored just two goals all season but were today allowed to more than double their year's tally. That all stings pretty bad, but the worst part? The bit that makes me sigh with resignation and just want to shrug my shoulders? It's not throwing away this one game, it's the larger disaster 2015 is becoming, and how f-ing inevitable it all was.

Flawless work, Tichmall. Follow him on Twitter!

Surely nobody who watched us play the second half of 2014 could have expected anything less? Apparently enough people, and crucially enough people with enough power, did. They must have seen something I missed. Naive as I was, despite surviving demotion I genuinely thought there would be a change before pre-season. Things had gone very badly, and rather than risk a repeat, it was time to cut loses and bring in a proven leader. That didn't happen. The last thing I am is an expert, but before this season started I predicted a "long, hard year of bad football." I wish I'd been wrong.

Last July, I tweeted "Youth manager Katsumi Oenoki will be taking over the helm initially, presumably while a proper replacement is sought." That time I was wrong. It was no caretaker position, but as we tumbled down the table nobody seemed too concerned about the rookie at the helm. We barely stayed up, and did it with nothing approaching any style. As fans we inevitably seen things in generalisations. We don't know half of what goes on behind the scenes. We judge largely by performances, results, and track records. Well, I think we've all seen enough by now.

This year's surprise opening win over Kashima was just that, surprising. Since then it's been the same deal as last season. Nothing has changed. We've got a solid base of players, and brought in talent in the form of Utaka and Duke - both of whom have impressed - but defensive frailties and tactical decisions see us 16th, in the drop zone. And if we can't defend a three goal home lead against one of only two teams worse off than you, make no mistake, we are getting relegated.

The one thing we have on our side is time. Over two thirds of the season remain. There is no play off to decide the three relegated teams. That nonsensical lottery is reserved for choosing a champion. All we have to do to retain our top flight status is be the 4th worst team in J1. I don't think we have anywhere near the 4th worst squad in the league. What we don't have is a man to in the short term, stabilise the ship, shore up the defense, and in the long term, get the best out of his squad. Until we do, nothing will change.

This afternoon will go down in S-Pulse history for all the wrong reasons, but it might just have been the day that first saw the word "untenable" uttered around the corridors of power. That would offer one very slight silver lining. However, while there is currently time, it will run out fast. Things have to start moving now.


The goals from today. I don't think I've ever witnessed a team I support surrender a 3-0 goal lead from 85 minutes. So, yeah, thanks. I'm going to have nightmares tonight.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

2015 J. League. Meh


Evening, football fans! It's been a while. There's not been much doing this closed season, so I've enjoyed a well earned respite from what, over Oenoki's inaugural five months, was honestly a bit of a chore. We were not fun to watch, and while putting up with mediocrity is something all football fans have to live with more often than not, it doesn't mean you have to like it.

Well, the wait is nearly over. All those who rallied round our beleaguered manager at the end of the year, applauded him as he stuttered his way through his end of season speech, watched five months of rubbish but were still more than happy to see his reign extended, well they'll finally get to disprove all my misgivings.

I'll be dining on humble pie as Oenoki's machine, well oiled and honed to perfection over the pre-season Kagoshima camp, roars out of the traps in J1 Part One and casts to the shadows the memory of last year's non-existent defence, unimaginative midfield, and two isolated, frustrated strikers. It'll all come right in the year of the sheep/goat.

Of course, I'm talking bollocks. I see no other outcome of persisting with the youth team coach than another long, hard year of bad football. Praying I'm proved wrong of course, but what cause have I got to believe otherwise? Blind faith is about all there is. Pre-season has been poor, and while we've signed two forwards who should perform decently in J1, last year that wasn't where our biggest failings lay.

Jong-a-Pin is still out, it's been six months now, and there's no word on when he'll be back. We retained Jakovic, but our defence has a long way to go tighten up on 2014. Will it? Again, it all comes down to the boss. We saw 60 goals conceded last term, with only Tokushima letting in more. You can't read too much into friendlies, but in the one game against J1 opposition we conceded five. Wonderful.

So there you go. You can read a more in-depth, analytical and devil's advocate-ish preview on the brilliant Japan Footy. It all kicks off in a fortnight, and am I excited? Not. Even. Slightly. Two stages and an end of season championship play off (entry into which I'm still not clear on the criteria) leave me colder than a polar bear's nutsack.

Leagues are meant to measure performance over a season. Usually teams play each other once home, once away, the best performer finishing top. Simple. It's the fairest method. You can argue no league system is perfect, but there's a reason the home/away format is the world's most common. Sacrifice that fairness to chase ratings with a system almost certain to produce a champion not the year's best performer, and what have you got? Something I can't even begin to get emotionally invested in. There's absolutely no value in it for me.

As a result, other things spring above the stadium in the weekend priority list. So, as is my fate as a football nerd, I'll still follow J. League 2015, but no longer going to many games means match reports on here will cease. Maybe once in a while. Big away day adventures, Oenoki's sacking, that kind of thing. Instead, Twitter will be the place to keep abreast of all my whinging and whining.

So, enjoy the new season! I would say may the best team win, but as that's very unlikely in this snazzy new J. League, I'll just say don't drink too much, be good, and most importantly, why the hell am I posting this at 9:30pm on a Saturday night? #footballnerd Damn. See you later, I'm going out.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The J. League's Most Successful Team - 2015


With the last game of 2014 played, it's time to update my J. League all time league table.
Points are awarded as always, as follows. Continental cups are counted, but show-piece super cups not.

League title: 3 Points
League runners up: 1 Point
Cup win: 2 Points
Cup runners up: .5 Points
Relegation: -1 Point
Time spent in lower division: -.5 per year

So here we go. The ten most successful teams in J. League history:

1) Kashima Antlers 41.5
Yokohama F. Marinos 20 
-) Jubilo Iwata 20
4) Gamba Osaka 19
Urawa Red Diamonds 15

6) Tokyo Verdy 11.5
7) S-PULSE 11
8) Nagoya Grampus 10
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 7.5 
10) Kashiwa Reysol 7

The biggest change from last year is Gamba Osaka's fully deserved jump into 4th place, but Marinos also make a step into joint second by dint of Iwata's forthcoming second season J2.

So there you are. Make of it what you will, but I think it's a pretty decent reflection of the last 23 years.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

S-Pulse 0-0 Kofu


S-Pulse 0-0 Kofu

Att 19842
Saturday December 6th, 3:30pm
IAI Stadium Nihondaira, Shizuoka

Line Up

GK Kushibiki

DF Kawai (60)
DF Jakovic
DF Hiraoka
DF Yoshida

MF Honda
MF Takeuchi
MF Omae
MF Ishige

FW Novakovic
FW Takagi T

Subs Used

Nagasawa on for Ishige (57)
Musaka on for Takeuchi (78)
Miura G on for Takagi T (92)


Job done. I can't really complain about the manner it was achieved, because if it was to be either 90 minutes of sexy, silky passing football and losing, or aimless, long ball hoofery and drawing, then there was no choice. As it transpired, after a bright opening minute or two we kicked off our attacking shoes, pulled up a chair, brewed a nice cup of tea, and settled back for the afternoon.

Wasting time and occasionally booting the ball forward was the major theme of proceedings. Not being able to hold on to possession was an unwelcome addition to the final 15 minutes. Knowing one Kofu goal would have relegated us, it was a painful game to endure, especially because the only team who looked like scoring wasn't us.
  Few sights (or sounds) in J1 match a sold out Kop
Away end half an hour before kick off
We held on, Kushibiki made a couple of crucial saves, and S-Pulse survived demotion by one point. A massive relief of course, but tinged by the fact a new manager wasn't announced immediately after the game. With the current regime in place can anyone honestly see us doing anything next season but struggling again? I can't. Oenoki didn't just have a few games to settle in. He had half a season. And we were shite. From beginning to end. A few exceptional performances kept our heads above water, but without Ogawa's late goal last week for Nagoya against Omiya we'd be down.

Well, who knows? Maybe I'll be proved wrong next year. Hell, we could end stage one bottom, stage two second, and then win the league! What's not to like?! Oh yeah, that from 2015 J1 is impossible to take seriously. Convoluted and unfair, it's becoming a parody of a football league. There's maybe a few mischievous away days to be had, but the football? Well, I guess it takes the stress out of it when you know, regardless of points earned over the year, the table is going to be manipulated and warped for the sole purpose of selling a few more tickets and sponsorship rights. Meh, it's been fun while it lasted.

So the curtain has come down on the 2014 J. League season. It's been a gas, and when I moan and whinge, it's only because I care. :) See you next season, Happy Christmas and have a great new year!


Bored? Here's the whole match (minus the first 5 minutes).

The moment we stayed up.

Friday, 5 December 2014

You Don't Know What You've Got Til It's (Almost) Gone


Shimizu are one of only a handful of J1 teams to have never been relegated. We're also one of only three of the Original 10 yet to win the championship. Technically one of two, as the F of Yokohama Flügels won J1 in both 2003 & 2004. Sure we won the league in 1999, with more points over the year than anyone else, but you know how things used to be. Two stages and all that. Iwata beat us on penalties to nullify a 16 point discrepancy in class, and they were given the trophy. Heh, ho. The dark days of multistage nonsense. Let's hope we don't see a return to that meaningless circus anytime soon... *sigh*

Anyway, I'm getting side tracked. What I mean to say it is that since 1992 we're been pretty average. That said, two domestic and one continental cup isn't to be sniffed at, and in the early years we were generally nearer the top than bottom. But speaking in terms of the big hitters over the last 22 years, S-Pulse have been also-rans more often than not.

Culturally we hold greater stock than our trophy cabinet might suggest. This a combination of the benefits of J. League founding membership, a string of unforgettable globe-covered shirts, and a strong samba supporter identity. A successfully marketed brand has little benefit on the pitch though. Just look to FC Nippon (aka Verdy Kawasaki, aka Tokyo Verdy 1969, aka 3rd worst team in J2). In a rapidly expanding pyramid nobody can afford to stand still, as former top J1 mainstays JEF United and Jubilo Iwata will join Verdy in testifying. Lose your foothold and there are plenty ready to step in.

And it's there we now stand: on the edge. If we go over and surrender our top flight berth there's no guarantee of regaining it. Before you know it you've joined that list of "Oh yeah, didn't they used to be in J1?" teams. A spectacularly misjudged mid-season firing, followed by an equally mystifying appointment, sent an otherwise mid-table season into free fall. Now isn't the time to delve into the whys and hows that led us here. I've already done that to death. Though our fans are already painfully aware, and you can well argue it goes without saying, the importance of tomorrow cannot be overstated.

It's taken an all-or-nothing final game to give us our first sell out of the season. A mediocre S-Pulse has brought in a 14000 average, the 5th lowest in J1. With that in mind, how many would you expect to turn out for a Wednesday night against Nagasaki? It's no exaggeration to say Nihondaira's location and access work against everything the club tries to attract fans, but that's another argument for another day. The bottom line is J2 football would see thousands finding other things to do.

What of the team? I'd postulate demotion would see (including but not restricted to) Jakovic, Honda, Omae, Takagi T, Novakovic and Jong-a-Pin out the door faster than you say "You can't win anything with (the) kids (team manager)". None of them should settle for J2 football, and whether they have national team ambitions or not, they'd be wasted in the second tier. Before I pipe up with the apparently logical extension that our team is therefore Too good go down, I'll instead wheel out the equally hackneyed but infinitely more accurate The table doesn't lie. Should we drop, we'd begin J2 with an even younger squad than we have now, and fewer experienced heads to lead the way back.

Unlike other high profile relegations, we're not a club faltering under the weight of ageing "stars" stunting the development of the new generation. Anything but. We've just been hopelessly (mis)managed since the summer, with a defensive constitution that makes a sieve look watertight. The second half of this season has been a disaster, but a combination of Cerezo imploding in a pink cloud of incompetence, and Omiya having an even worse time than us (so far), has let us off the hook. Another year and we'd already be down.

Here we are. One point from safety. One defeat from J2. It's entirely down to us. Being this close gives you a genuine appreciation of visiting the Kashimas, Marinos' and Urawas of this world each week. What fan is willing to trade that for (admittedly quite appealing) trips to Kanazawa, Fukuoka and Ehime? Nobody. And who wants to be welcoming handfuls of visiting supporters every other week rather than thousands? Again, nobody.

So while it's screamingly obvious that survival means everything for the immediate future of this club, whatever happens tomorrow there has to be major changes before 2015. Let's have them happen knowing we will be kicking off in March where Shizuoka City needs us to be: in J1.