Friday, 24 December 2010

TENTH IN '10!!: #6. Getting It All Ryong

Ardija moved quickly at the end of 2009. After having missed their target of a top five finish in J1 by a mere eight places, days after the last match at Oita Trinita the Squirrels' office confirmed that coach Jang Wae Ryong would be rewarded for his performance with a new contract for 2010. Well, you know, it's a results business. The news was an obvious disappointment for Omiya supporters after an under-achieving season but by the same token was not unexpected, given the calibre of the decision-making at the club under the presidency of Seigo Watanabe. Jang was in charge for another year and that was that, although more positively the likes of Mato Neretljak and Rafael were also staying at the club; we might have missed out on Takanobu Komiyama but at least Kazuhiro Murakami had agreed to come to Omiya from the position of being a starting player at Kawasaki Frontale.

Things could have been worse as the Squirrels prepared for their sixth campaign in the J-League's top division. And things got worse fairly quickly after their sixth campaign in the J-League's top division actually started. The opening match took place against a backdrop of high emotion following the announcement that young Ardija defender Taishi Tsukamoto was suffering from cancer in his leg and in tribute to their team-mate, Ardija thrashed promoted side Cerezo Osaka 3-0. It was a performance of rare and exhilarating passion, illuminated by Hayato Hashimoto's early opener looped in direct from a corner and a typically sharp close-range finish from Naoki Ishihara. Was this really how things were going to be for Jang's 2010-era Omiya?

The following week a 3-1 defeat at Vegalta Sendai suggested not, as the Squirrels were themselves outmuscled and out-fought by a determined home side. March slipped by and no further points were added to the board, as the Tsukamoto-inspired win over Cerezo began to look more like a freak result than the dawning of a new Ardija. Rafael, Murakami and Chikara Fujimoto all succumbed to injury and following the home loss to Kashima Antlers, Jang mused to the press that, "football is a game of skill, and Antlers have got more of that than we have... I'm sure we'll have more of a chance when we get our injured players back. Until then, we'll just have to make do," seemingly forgetting that he in conjunction with Technical Director Haruo Yuuki had had at least some opportunity over a period of more than a year to do something about that.

The midfield part of the squad, however, was something that they didn't seem to think needed improvement, which meant that players as limited as Tomoya Uchida and Kohei Tokita saw playing time against Kashima. Even putting aside the injury situation, Jang was content to chop and change his starting line-up as he sought to break what was turning into a longer winless run. It didn't work and the booing from fans started as early as round six with a 3-1 defeat at home by Gamba Osaka. Of course, bearing in mind the previous season all of this was hardly a surprise for the Omiya faithful - but what came as a real shock was that, after losing rather unluckily to a freak Masaki Yamamoto cross / shot at Shimizu S-Pulse, Jang quit. As early into the year as the end of April, the Squirrels were already looking for a new coach.

They didn't have to look for long, former Montedio Yamagata and Albirex Niigata boss Jun Suzuki taking the reins within a matter of hours; Jang himself, it was announced, would remain in the employ of the club as someone providing advice on possible transfer targets. Mysterious. But there was little time to dwell on what exactly Haruo Yuuki might have been playing at, as Suzuki's first game in charge was a crucial one at home to another struggling side in Kyoto Sanga. With no time to bring about any real change, the new man in charge nevertheless managed to coax a narrow 2-1 win that moved Omiya out of the bottom three. You could taste the relief, although even so the Squirrels then stumbled into the World Cup break with only a point to show from the next two matches.

Of course, we all know now that the story has a happy ending and that Jun Suzuki delivered Ardija to safety for another year, but he also delivered a level of improvement. Clearly sub-standard players like Uchida and Yoshihito Fujita picked up barely a handful of minutes' playing time and Hayato Hashimoto was another one to find himself squeezed out. There was exasperation among many supporters that ineffective captain Fujimoto still seemed to be earning a place in the starting line-up, particularly as this seemed to necessitate dropping the best finisher on Omiya's books, Naoki Ishihara. That Ishihara developed for himself a reputation as a super-sub, scoring vital goals against Kawasaki, Yamagata and Vissel Kobe, was either luck on Suzuki's part or brilliant man-management.

With Jun Suzuki already in place for the 2011 season the Squirrels seem as well-positioned as they have ever been to make progress, especially as Rafael and Suzuki's key signing, South Korean winger Lee Chun Soo, will both remain at the club. Oh, and also because Haruo Yuuki has gone. But fans do have cause to wonder about a lingering influence from Jang Wae Ryong - was he the connection that enabled Omiya to sign Chun Soo and tigerish midfielder Lee Ho? Maybe we'll never know. But perhaps in the spirit of the club's new openness, and as Omiya try to move forward and Jun and new president Shigeru Suzuki, the current position regarding Jang could be confirmed?



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