For every end of season miraculous escape, the trap door still has to open. Michael Hudson reports from Japan.
Even when it was over, no-one could quite believe what they’d just seen. “Was that a miracle? Did we really stay up?” joked Vissel Kobe coach Masahiro Wada. "I still can't really believe it. All I can think of is that we managed to stay up”. It was an escape every bit as improbable as Roy Hodgson’s Fulham in 2008. When Toshiya Miura was sacked in the middle of September in the wake of a 3-0 defeat in Kyoto, Vissel had won only five of their twenty-two games. After Wada’s promotion from assistant coach, Kobe lost only three of their remaining sixteen matches and took maximum points from three of their last four games, culminating in a 4-0 rout of Urawa Reds. “We battled and improved as a team late in the season,” Wada said after his side’s final-day win in Saitama. “The players were fantastic. They never stopped believing.” His own efforts were rewarded with a one year contract extension.
There weren’t many jokes in Kyoto, where 3,000 FC Tokyo fans were contemplating their club’s first ever relegation. “I feel numb,” said goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda after goals from Brazilians Dutra and Diego gave already-relegated Kyoto their first win in three months. “When I heard the final whistle I couldn’t think of anything,” said Tokyo’s ex- Heracles Almelo striker Sota Hirayama. “I’m sorry for the people who supported us.”
2010 was supposed to be Tokyo’s year. Hiroshi Jofuku’s side had won the Nabisco Cup and finished fifth in 2009, and four of their players made the national team squad for February’s East Asian Football Championship. But Jofuku, like Kobe’s Miura, was sacked in September, with ten games remaining and his side third from bottom of the league. Former hero Kiyoshi Okuma returned as manager, having led the club to successive promotions a decade earlier. “We did not have the underlying strength,” he later said.
Injuries and loss of form accounted for most of Tokyo’s problems. International midfielders Takuji Yonemoto and Naotake Hanyu were long-term absentees and left-back Yuto Nagatomo departed for Cesena impressing at the World Cup. The fourth lowest scorers in the J1, much blame has been heaped on Tokyo’s misfiring attack, with Hiroyama and Masashi Oguro, the former Grenoble and Torino striker who’s more latterly acquired the reputation of a Japanese Nigel Quashie, contributing a mere fourteen goals between them (Shingo Akamine, mystifyingly loaned to relegation rivals Sendai, scored four in fifteen games for his new club).
Equally fatal, however, was Tokyo’s inability to hold on to winning positions, turning an 86th minute lead at Vegalta Sendai into a 3-2 defeat and allowing Montedio Yamagata to snatch a late equaliser just a week before the disaster in Kyoto.
"The miracle wasn't today, but in the last round of games," Wada said. "We beat S-Pulse but it looked like it wouldn't mean anything until Yamagata scored an equalizer against Tokyo. That kept us in with a chance, and today we felt that the team with momentum would win. That was us." Next season, boosted by internationals Naohiro Ishikawa and Shuichi Gonda pledging their futures to the club, Okuma will be hoping for miracles of his own.
As well as writing for IBWM, Michael is responsible for the fine ‘The Accidental Groundhopper‘ (which we mistakenly labelled the ‘accidental grasshopper’ last week – see what we did there) blog. You can follow him on Twitter @DolphinHotel.