We're back - and it feels good! Sometimes a break's required to recharge the batteries and assess what's really important. And what's that? Watching your team win football matches, having a laugh while you're at it. The two games I got to last month at Brighton's beautiful shrine to soccer the AMEX were both a good laugh, and ended in the right result. But what of S-Pulse during my four month enforced lay off (lazy spell)?
Well, following the master class in bad timing that was the sacking of Afshin, we unsurprisingly took a nosedive. In the immediate aftermath we lost three of four, conceded 10, and only managed a narrow win against the spectacularly rubbish Tokushima. None too inspiring, then. To be honest, you could have shipped Alex Ferguson over and he'd have struggled to steady a team reeling having seen its leader so abruptly axed.
We can't afford David Moyes let alone Fergie, so instead we've installed Katsumi Oenoki at the helm. In Oenoki we have, following footsteps made by former team mate and fellow Shimizu lad Kenta Hasegawa, another old boy in charge. He's been promoted from youth team boss where he'd been honing the skills required in management since 2008. This might be his debut as a first team coach, but given his years experience at Miho, the new environs of Nihondaira's technical area should take minimal acclimatisation.
While our starting elevens have so far largely been tweakings of Ghotbi's side (one big exception being the return of Lee KiJe), Oenoki of course brings intricate knowledge of our former youth players. He's been happy to call upon these and other youngsters, meaning we've seen the likes of Mizutani, Genta Miura, Kagami and Ibuki run out in orange the last few weeks.
So while we're still hovering too close to the drop zone for comfort, if you squint, the green shoots of recovery are visible. Ever the blind optimist (simpering idiot), I'm willing to believe things are about to take an upturn. They pretty much have to, because while Tokushima are to all Is and Ps already a J2 team, of those below us, Sendai and Nagoya ain't going down, and Cerezo will keep throwing money around like maniacs until they move out the bottom three. That just leaves one of Omiya or Kofu to put a run together, and we're right down in the mire.
The green shoots to which I tenuously refer are a 2-2 draw away at second placed Tosu who before that game had the stingiest defence in the league (should have won it, but conceded in stoppage time), and a 2-1 away cup win at FC Tokyo, ground out with zero height up front. We've signed defender Bueno who looked a decent prospect against Tokyo. Strong, persistent and good in the air. With a fit Jong-a-Pin our defence shapes up nicely. Crucially, we're still in the cup, so have something to aim for this year.
So that's pretty much the shape of things as we head into our annual Ecopa fixture against Urawa. It's the only time we use the 50000 seater bowl situated an hour from Shimizu. This is in part due to problems of safety we've experienced when welcoming the Saitamians(?) to town. The last few years they've habitually misbehaved, whether at Nihondaira (pulling down S-Pulse banners. #sigh) or Ecopa (aiming fireworks at our team bus. #rolleyes), but Ecopa undeniably offers greater security and easier in-stand segregation (rarely required at Nihondaira where fans can normally mingle freely). As much as anything though, the yearly jaunt to Fukuroi in an invaluable exercise in marketing.
Situated deep in the traditionally sky blue half of Shizuoka prefecture, Ecopa (an amalgam of Ecology, Pal and Park, if you were wondering) offers a chance to dangle a bright orange carrot in front of the region's school children. Thousands of free tickets are dispersed around the surrounding towns' elementary schools in the hope kids bring their parents, have a gay (old meaning) old time, and everyone heads home at 5pm with a burning love ignited for all things Shimizu. Out of respect for regional boundaries the free ticket generosity stops at the border of Fukuroi and Iwata, which is a shame really. God knows those poor kids could do with some top flight football.
Saturday then will be against the best Urawa team for a while, currently perched above Tosu atop the table. A tough old game for sure, but an ideal opportunity for Oenoki to show us what he's got, and to maybe steal a few wavering Iwata fans in the process. I'll be throwing a match report up here Saturday evening or Sunday lunchtime, but my Twitter (@spulseukultras) and the official S-Pulse account (@spulse_eng) will be the best places to keep right up to date.
Right, I think that's everything. Now time for another four month break (joke).
BARRY WRITES... I really should have thought of doing this as soon as highlights became available officially on YouTube a while back. Be...