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.