Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy New Year, And...

Happy New Year and welcome to this new version of Go! Go! Omiya Ardija! 2009 represents the fifth year of the site's existence and it was time for a freshen up - obviously we're somewhat lacking in content right at the start, but I hope that you like the clarity of presentation which the change has provided. Comments and suggestions are of course more than welcome.

Moving on from what is for most of you the no doubt endlessly engaging subject of blog providers, 2009 is also the fifth year of the Mighty Squirrels' life in J1. The confirmation on New Year's Eve of forward Naoki Ishihara having joined the club from Shonan Bellmare is encouraging at this stage of the close season, but there are far too many issues to be clarified before fans can have a good idea of what the Ardija line-up will be for the first match of the new campaign at the beginning of March. So let's start the new blog and the new year by taking a look back.

Coming out of 2007, of course, and Squirrels supporters were in the main just pleased to have avoided relegation back to J2. Interim coach Satoru Sakuma stepped down almost as soon as Masato Saito's shot hit the back of the net in the dying seconds of the last match against Kawasaki Frontale and within a matter of days it was confirmed that, although Sakuma was staying on as technical director, he was to be replaced as coach by Yasuhiro Higuchi. Hmmm. Two years of taking Montedio Yamagata to bottom-half-of-the-table finishes in J2 seemed an unusual qualification for someone moving into top-flight management.

But Higuchi was rumoured to have a good track record at developing young players and it was this that sustained Squirrels fans, especially when it became clear that more or less the only additions to the squad over the winter were college graduates like Tatsuya Kawahara, Taishi Tsukamoto and Masahiko Ichikawa. Coming in on a year's loan from relegated Yokohama FC, left-sided midfielder Tomoya Uchida was the one newcomer with J1 experience. We had Higuchi, though. Who was supposed to be good with kids, right?

Well, as it turned out it was a young player who pretty much single-handedly got things off to a winning start, Pedro Junior twice cutting through the Albirex Niigata defence on a chilly March afternoon at Omiya Park. It was a patchy early phase of the season and certainly not without some good bits, such as a late come-from-behind 3-2 win at a Gamba Osaka side fatigued from the travel associated with their Asian Champions League schedule, and a truly astonishing triumph over Kawasaki Frontale by the same scoreline, which will live long in the memory.

The Kawasaki game was notable not only for the winning goal netted by captain Yoshiyuki Kobayashi from inside his own half, but also for the fact that rookie midfielder Kohei Tokita scored his first and, as it turned out, only goal of the season to pull Ardija back into a match that had seemed beyond them. It also turned out, however, that Tokita was the only one of the newly-arrived crop of youngsters to be given any significant playing time by Yasuhiro Higuchi - at least until the last half-dozen matches, by which point desperate times were calling for desperate measures.

Another way of putting this was that the new coach was fielding a pretty much identical team to that which had had such a disastrous 2007. Kota Yoshihara, for example, was still picking up playing time despite bringing to the side only the vaguest of attacking threats. Ichikawa rattled in goal after goal for the reserves but always found himself either on the bench or excluded altogether when it came to the first team. Hiroshi Morita and even the seemingly always injured Naoto Sakurai were both selected consistently ahead of any of the kids, to the exasperation of the Omiya supporters.

By July, the Squirrels were slipping down the table, a run of five games bringing one goal and one point, including a 4-0 drubbing at Nagoya Grampus. That the side's performance that afternoon brought to mind the darkest days of 2007 spoke volumes for how rapidly Higuchi's team had fallen into decline - despite the arrival from MSV Duisburg of giant forward Klemen Lavric to replace Pedro Junior, who by this time had run off back to Brazil. Lavric was nevertheless definitely something new and unexpected: a physically imposing European striker, not the most mobile but surely enough to put the wind up the J-League's finest?

Well, Lavric did indeed begin to click in his partnership with top scorer Denis Marques and briefly the Squirrels seemed to be back on more of an even keel, as the likes of Gamba and Yokohama F Marinos came to Omiya and lost. But the Slovenian international became an even more pivotal figure when Denis picked up a serious injury in the defeat by Urawa Reds and by this time, Omiya's regular Autumn Disaster was in full operation. September and October were, as usual, awful, the home demolition by Kashiwa Reysol - prior to which a hapless Ardija fan with a cataclysmic sense of timing got married on the Omiya Park pitch - a particular lowlight.

Six consecutive defeats put Yasuhiro Higuchi and Omiya right on the edge of the relegation zone, but at last it seemed as if the coach might be prepared to consider some modest changes. Taishi Tsukamoto debuted at right back and in only his second game - a make-or-break clash with JEF United - created more chances than any of his predecessors in the same position had done all year. A stunning Tsukamoto cross-field pass played in Uchida to feed Daigo Kobayashi for a goal and all of a sudden Ardija had a sense of urgency and cause for optimism.

JEF were duly beaten 2-1 and it was at this point that Squirrels supporters remembered that the Autumn Disaster was traditionally followed by the Hell Of A Lot Better November. Chikara Fujimoto looked lively and creative, Lavric scored a brilliant winner - again with an assist from Tsukamoto - against Kawasaki and a far more attacking Ardija battled to a point at Albirex Niigata. Leandro buried a header to equalise two minutes from time against the Swans, his last meaningful action in an Omiya shirt given that an unlucky yellow card meant he would be suspended for the last two matches.

The Squirrels were heading for safety, but a somewhat lacklustre draw with Kyoto Sanga turned the pressure back on for the final fixture of the campaign, away at relegation rivals Jubilo Iwata. In truth, Jubilo dominated possession but couldn't find the net, Koji Ezumi putting in another top class performance between the sticks. The game was eventually decided following another surge forward from Tsukamoto, Klemen Lavric nodding the ball into the goal area for Daigo to head past Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.

So yes, Omiya survived and looking back over the year there were a smattering of impressive team displays. Some players - most especially Ezumi - have emerged from 2008 with their reputations enhanced and it's encouraging to see the club act quickly in the close season by releasing the dead wood of Morita, Yoshihara and Sakurai. With his side ending up in twelfth place, Higuchi ultimately failed to reach the club's stated target of a top ten finish and even after four years of trying, the Squirrels have yet to convince anyone that they are comfortable and competitive in J1. This, then, is the challenge that faces Jang Wae-Ryong.



SMB 1 January 2009 at 13:22  

Wow, why did you decide to slum it at blogspot?

Anyhow, like the new site. you better not squander my wonderful prose from last year though. Journalistic gold my friend!

Anyhow happy new year! And btw....the guy in the picture with mighty mo is Murayama!

Furtho 1 January 2009 at 19:57  

Mrs F uses Wordpress, so I didn't want the hassle of logging in and out and juggling different accounts all the time. I think this is simple enough to communicate clearly enough all the ton of information in the two side panels - a priority - although something will need to be done to make the header a bit groovier.

Just keep the journalistic gold a-coming and it will definitely have a home here. I am already excited about and looking forward to the new season - what wuth the budget problems facing so many clubs, it looks like the playing field could be even more level. Many thanks for the Tennohai book, by the way.

SMB 1 January 2009 at 21:50  

No problem. My favorite picture is the FC Tokyo team photo with Hanyu and Kajiyama behind him. The position and the facial expressions are priceless.

Anonymous,  2 January 2009 at 00:16  

Nice piece but weren't we twelfth? (Im not being a smart arse just half cut)

Furtho 2 January 2009 at 02:07  

Well, I was writing most of that after midnight on New Year's Eve / New Year's Day, so only two idiotically basic factual errors is probably, uh, OK to start things off with. Right?

Mike Tuckerman 3 January 2009 at 10:50  

Looking good, Squirrels fans.

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