Saturday, 17 October 2015



With the predictability of night following day, S-Pulse have been relegated. The inevitable result of 12 months of turgid, directionless football, and management decisions which amounted to wanton self destruction.

S-Pulse’s Darkest Hour

J2-Pulse. Or maybe S-Pul2e. Hmmm. Neither really roll off the tongue like J2bilo continues to, but when Iwata fans are concocting payback jibes for their Shizuokan brothers, they won’t be too bothered with the details.

Ups and Downs

That crazy October Yamaha afternoon in 2013. Those 90 minutes, and the hours either side, instantly ranked as my best S-Pulse experience. So they remain. From the cacophony of home-end disapproval greeting each relegation related banner to the impossibly furious pace of the game. Most memorable was the utter bedlam which greeted Genki’s penalty.

Undeniably a high point, but the season that followed never really got off the ground. Truth be told, there were some terrible displays. Away at Gamba Osaka at the end of a seven match winless streak to name but one. 20+ shots to 0 before half time. Ouch. Even so, we won our next game and were still only lower midtable. The sacking of Ghotbi then (not his resignation, as the official website bizarrely claims) came as an oddly timed shock. Almost as surprising was the promotion of youth team coach Katsumi Oenoki to full team boss.

I said it at the time, and repeated it ad nauseum, that it was a bad idea. It was, of course. It was a mind bogglingly bad idea. And those misgivings were proved immediately with bad result following bad result. After a narrow victory over the über-crap Tokushima, it took two months to find another win. Even that only came against crisis-wracked Cerezo Osaka. Long story short, we were terrible. We dropped down the table like a brick, conceding countless goals.

The Emperor’s Cup Fiasco

For me, the most revealing episode came when Oenoki forfeited the Emperor’s Cup semi final. He sent out a team of teenagers and reserves to face a near full strength Gamba Osaka. Men against boys, the result was predictable. Five goals conceded and the final chance of a morale boost in a gloomy season was chucked away. For what? A fully rested team that lost 3-1 on Saturday anyway. That our squad can’t manage a midweek game without jeopardising weekend fitness is monumentally depressing if true. What is true however is that from the start of Oenoki’s reign injuries began racking up alarmingly. Did the spate of crocked players stem from the sudden change of management culture and/or inadequate physical training?

If so you couldn’t really blame the players. It would be nice to think of footballers as striving to go above and beyond, to be the best they can be for the good of their club etc etc, but those players are few and far between. Most are no more or less lazy than anyone else, and if their boss says they’re done, off home they’ll go to play FIFA 2015 in their pants. Not until we appointed a new physical fitness coach did we somewhat curtail our incessant injuries. Inept tactics and poor leadership are a major problem, but insufficient training and discipline are worse.

So our first team was rested, while Gamba sent out a strong XI, despite having their own prior mission at hand; attempting to win the league. This they did, along with the Nabisco and Emperor’s Cup. Gamba players could successfully manage three crucial games in 8 days, but we couldn’t. My take away from 2014’s Emperor’s Cup debacle was I was left wondering if our woes came not just via an inadequate manager, but also the result of a squad not being worked, and subsequently not working, hard enough.

Staying Up

In the league, we stayed up on the last day. Barely. But for a late goal elsewhere the previous week, that painful performance to eke out a draw against Kofu wouldn’t have been enough. But it was, and we survived. And after months of rubbish, the manager was not sacked. During the end of season ceremony Oenoki joked about how tough it had been and thousands in the stands laughed along heartily. I cringed. People seemed to think he’d get better. So did the powers that be. The man himself believed he had what it took. I thought he’d step down. Everyone was wrong.

No doubt I lost Twitter followers on account of my repetitive whinging, but 2015 continued as 2014 had ended; very badly. A squad which included more than enough experience and talent dithered about without purpose, lurching from bad result to bad result, heading nowhere but down.

Jobs for the boys

Week after week I wondered when Oenoki would be given the boot. We lost 5 in a row, part of a 9 game winless streak. He was fine. We surrendered a 3-0 home lead in the last five minutes. He was fine. We got hammered 5-0, again at home. He was fine. Oenoki was never sacked, and he never would have been. He would have been allowed to continue indefinitely. Despite the club so obviously heading for J2, the board was not willing to admit their misjudgement by firing the S-Pulse old boy. Why? To save their own face and protect an ex-player from that ignominy? Probably. A ham fisted attempt to hide an obvious mistake, while looking after one of their own. All at the expense of the club’s well-being.

Oenoki finally quit after an away win at Yokohama, but why then? Had he been waiting to finally win a game to make his big announcement? To go out on a high? If so, it was a childish and damaging gesture. If he knew he wasn’t good enough, and loved the club as much as he said (“Nobody could love this club more than me”) he should have walked away months earlier. By this point the season was nearly two thirds over, the damage was done, and we were in terminal decline.

Oenoki’s replacement Tasaka had been brought in as assistant manager earlier in the year after parting company with Oita Trinita. Oita for their part were looking like dropping to J3. Another inspired appointment, then. But of course Tasaka had worked previously at S-Pulse, not as manager, but as a coach under Kenta Hasegawa. Much like Oenoki, nothing as bothersome as a proven track record was required. He was drafted in purely on past association.

Too little, too late

If Oenoki walking and Tasaka’s appointment was too little, then too late was the throwing around of money to attract Tese and Kakuda. Who ever thought you could undo months of deterioration with a couple of desperate signings? Our board, apparently. Well, at the time of writing, Tasaka is nine without a win. He kept tweaking the back line, but we continued to leak goals. In his defence, he did opt for a more experienced remainder of the XI, regularly sending out Edamura, Honda and Duke in midfield. These were backing up forwards Omae, Tese and Utaka, players very much capable of producing to a high level. 

That a decent side only seemed to get worse was all the more disheartening. If we end the season with a new club record of games without a victory nobody will be surprised. We’re heading for the drop with a whimper. When FC Tokyo, Gamba Osaka and Cerezo got relegated, it went down to the wire. With three games remaining we’re already down. Bottom of the table with J1’s worst defence and worst goal difference. Way to go.

Lesson Learnt?

If this all makes for depressing reading, then it should, because it was all avoidable. The youth team boss shouldn’t ever have been entrusted with the full team. Simple as that. Worse though is how obviously badly it went in 2014, and yet Oenoki was permitted to continue. To a point I find it hard to be too angry with the man. He was out of his depth, but should never have been in that position in the first place.

With full backing he was thrown in the deep end. He sunk from day one, yet either through naivety or simple refusal to accept responsibility for their cock up, the board continued to support him. You can see why he’d feel obliged to press on trying to repay that trust. He should have quit earlier sure, but maybe he was simply manipulated into sacrificing himself and saving someone else that unpleasant task.

Tasaka was another questionable selection, but if you’d brought Alex Ferguson out of retirement it wouldn’t have made a difference. A team that had been floundering for a year was never going to be fixed in time to avoid the drop. The rot was too deep. Tasaka was a cheap and easy appointment, and I struggle to believe the board genuinely thought he could turn things around. Their inaction in removing Oenoki had left it too late and, amongst other things, the club’s morale was irreparably damaged.

It must have been apparent that we were done for. Effort spent trying to find a high quality manager so late in season would have been worthless. It wouldn’t have made a difference, and you’re better off doing the job properly by taking your time at the end of the season. Am I giving the suits too much credit? It could be that they’re a just bunch of incompetents who genuinely thought Oenoki were Tasaka were fine choices to lead S-Pulse to glory. 

See You Next Year

We have an OK team with some decent players. Relegation will see several leave of course, and I’d imagine Utaka and Duke will be among them. Jong-a-Pin? He’s one of the best paid but has been out for most of the last 18 months. We may as well plan as if he won’t be around. On the plus side, Tese and Kakuda are under contract and must be retained. When Genki is playing with confidence he’s a quality playmaker and will be one of the best in the division. Hiraoka and Jakovic are solid defenders. Honda and Edamura used to be part of a strong S-Pulse side, and there’s no reason they can’t be again. Our squad is certainly sufficient. We should aim for an immediate return to top flight football.

What we need is an experienced, strict, and respected manager. A boss, not a mate. 100% most definitely not some old boy there for that reason alone. By no means do we have to look overseas, but European coaches have performed well in Japan. The appointment of Oenoki, and the refusal to sack him, caused a year of decay and decline. It brought us to the lowest point in our history. Cut corners with the manager and relegation is what you get. It’s been a hard lesson, but one I hope, learnt.

If the board want the club to return to J1 then they need to remove Tasaka and do their damnedest to attract an experienced coach with a track record. If we’re serious about bouncing back, there’s no room for taking chances. If we can desperately splash cash around for Tese and Kakuda we can cut some dead wood and employ a decent coach. To persist with Tasaka, whose only managerial achievement was winning the lottery of the J2 play offs with Oita after finishing 6th, would be a huge gamble. The fans have supported in numbers despite the slop continually served up on the pitch, and the last thing they deserve is yet more half-arsed, semi-competent leadership of their club.

Bring it On

I'm optimistic. 2016 in J2 is going to a right laugh. The prospect of winning more than four games all year alone has whetted my appetite. Bring on the fun, the goals and the away day adventures. Here’s hoping Iwata blow their promotion efforts again and we get to reignite the derby. After the way it went down in 2013, the next Shizuoka Derby, when and wherever it is, is going to be a day to remember.

Having spoken to FC Tokyo, Omiya and Gamba fans, the spell they had in J2 gave them memories they’ll never forget. It’s our turn now, and while it’s criminal the way our club has been reduced to this, we’ve no right to be in J1. We’ve got exactly what we deserve, but now it’s decided, I say bring it on.

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.