Another season is over, and not an uneventful one by any standard. We ended the year midtable, but going into the home straight had a top three position to play for and a cup final to look forward to. It wasn’t to end favourably in either case, but 2012 had more than its share of ups to match the downs, and we can go into 2013 with confidence that our young team will only improve.
2012’s first home game was against eventual champions Hiroshima. They headed home empty handed, just as they would when we played them at their place. Taking full points off the champions is no mean feat, nor is repeating the act against second placed Sendai. While we disposed of the best teams in the country, we struggled against Niigata and Gamba Osaka, the latter now condemned to life in J2, the former surviving on the last day. This is an inconsistency borne perhaps out of a squad which went through a number of significant personnel changes over the year.
Ins, Outs and Standouts
We took on, at different ends of the season, forwards Jymmy Franca and Kim Hung-Sung. The Korean was effectively a replacement for the Brazilian, who failed to make the required impact on the score sheet. Other incomings in the form of Hattanda, Ishige and Senuma made full team debuts towards the end of the season, but perhaps the biggest impact was felt in the departures. In midfield alone, Brosque received an offer he couldn’t refuse, lingering remnants of the Hasegawa years Iwashita and Edamura were loaned to Gamba and Cerezo Osaka respectively, and captain Shinji Ono moved as a marquee signing to the developing A. League.
Those outgoings were, to a man, well established at Nihondaira, and high on the list of influential faces in the changing room. While some changes were made to move the club forward, others, such as Brosque’s loss to Al Ain FC, meant a rapid rebalancing of the squad was required. Kobayashi and Sugiyama, plus youngsters Kawai, Hattanda and Ishige, took over the centre of the park. The youngsters especially closed out the season with plenty of promise.
Given his youth, Ishige grabbed most headlines as a breakthrough player of the year. He spent time in January training with Manchester City, and much will be expected of him next season. However, Kawai and Hattanda made equally impressive first forays into professional football. Kawai especially looked established beyond his years and gave 32 solid performances. The age of our squad was a constant prominent factor. As the veterans were phased out, or were unavailable through injury, we frequently deployed the youngest starting XI in the country. The more experience and maturity they gain we can expect only bigger and better things in the coming years.
Other standouts included Hiraoka at centre back, and Lee Ki-Je to his left. The Korean may have been in his first season in orange, but he ensured our previous left back wasn’t at all missed. For me, our player of the year was another defender, the Dutchman Jong-a-Pin. An immense presence in the centre of our back line, he rarely put a foot wrong and was consistently one of the best defenders in the country. His commanding and calming influence saw him take on the captain’s armband as the year progressed. With his signing of a new contract at the end of the season I heaved a large sigh of relief. We would have missed him immensely had he made a big money move elsewhere.
A home and away derby double and a league cup run which took us to the final were certain highlights, but topping even those I’ve selected my three most memorable games. Sadly I was out of the country for the away derby victory and the wonderful cup semi final second leg triumph, or these may well have featured.
Consadole Sapporo 0-2 S-Pulse
League, September 1st
A true away day if ever there was one. Jumping on a plane with your mates and jetting off to the football. We made a long weekend of it to fit in the requisite sightseeing, but the highlight of course was a solid 2-0 away win at the spectacular Sapporo Dome. Hundreds of S-Pulse fans made the journey and ensured it was an away day to remember.
FC Tokyo 0-1 S-Pulse
League, April 28th
The Ajinomoto Stadium has in recent years not been kind to us. With my three previous visits ending in disappointment, I almost had second thoughts about making a fourth trip. Entering the last 15 minutes of April’s tie reduced to nine men, this was all set to end in a similar vein. Cards had been flying around all game, and when our second player of the day saw red in the 74th minute, we all feared the worst.
Three minutes later, step forward former S-Pulse defender Kosuke Ota. The left back had left us under mildly acrimonious circumstances the previous season, so it was with a sense of justice that his mistake should gift us an unlikely win. High up on the left wing, Ota made an inexplicable pass straight back to Takahara in the middle of the field. The home team were caught on the counter as Taka stormed forward before dinking the ball over to the advancing Takagi. Toshiyuki nearly tore a hole in the net as he slammed the ball home in front of the delirious travelling fans. The combination of disbelief and joy was unforgettable, and we held on to the final whistle for a memorable win.
Nagoya 3-4 S-Pulse
League Cup Quarter Final, August 8th
The second leg of the league cup quarter final was an incredible affair. Having lost the home leg 1-0, we needed a high scoring win to advance. We got it, but entering the final two minutes behind 3-2 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate, nobody would have dared dream it. Up until this point alone the game had been a roller coaster, but we’d not yet seen anything.
Debutante Senuma joined play in the 84th minute, just in time to see Nagoya score their third and put the game seemingly beyond reach. He was not ready to concede defeat, and as we piled forward he pounced on a loose ball to reduce the home team’s advantage in the 88th minute.
Deep in stoppage time and now needing just one goal to grab an away goals victory, Nagoya was seemingly equal to everything we managed. As the clock edged towards 93 minutes they had just to run down the clock the remaining 90 seconds. With the situation desperate, a hopeful S-Pulse cross was aimed towards the penalty area. A deflection from an outstretched Nagoya leg looped the ball perfectly over to the far post, and who was steaming in to meet it but Toshiyuki Takagi. His header found the net and the celebrations were off the scale as the clock finally ran out and a barely believable comeback was completed. A climax to a game that will be talked about years down the line.
2013 Starts Here
2012 may have ended empty handed in terms of silverware, but the journey was an unforgettable one. With kick off just hours away, if there are memories to be made anywhere near as good as the last twelve months, it’s going to be a great year!