Wednesday, 29 December 2010

TENTH IN '10!!: #9. The Fujimoto Story

Let's go back just over five years, to the end of October 2005 and the darkest days of what was to be the first of many J1 relegation battles for Omiya. Under coach Toshiya Miura the Squirrels had lost seven consecutive matches and in an increasingly desperate fight not to drop straight back to J2, the team faced a true six-pointer in the shape of this match at Kashiwa Reysol. Disaster struck early as Yukio Tsuchiya headed the Sun Kings into a ninth-minute lead but Omiya were quickly back on level terms thanks to a neat clipped finish from close range by bulky Brazilian forward Tuto.

In the 23rd minute, however, came a moment that turned Ardija's season on its head and made what had previously seemed a long slow decline to oblivion into an obstacle that the men in orange could and would overcome. A quick interchange of passes from the right-hand side ended in Tuto feeding Chikara Fujimoto just outside the Reysol area and after a few stuttering steps forward, despite the close attention of a couple of defenders Fujimoto somehow managed to conjure up a delicious chipped shot that arched over Kashiwa keeper Yuuta Minami and into the top left-hand corner.

It was a brilliant piece of skill by any measure, all the more so given the tension of Omiya's situation, and from that moment through to the end of the season the Squirrels never looked back: they won four in a row, stayed up and indeed come the beginning of December it was Reysol who were relegated. As for Fujimoto, in the subsequent five years he has been a fixture in the Squirrels' first team - but he has unquestionably never equalled those few seconds at Kashiwa. And although "long slow decline" is a phrase that describes the player's career at Omiya pretty accurately, there is no sign that oblivion may await him... yet.

Turning the clock back slightly further to the close season ahead of Ardija's first year in J1, for Toshiya Miura Chikara Fujimoto was one of the real key signings - a player who already had extensive top division experience with four different clubs and who had even picked up a couple of international caps while with Sanfrecce Hiroshima. At least comparatively speaking, he was a class act, brought in with the likes of Naoto Sakurai and big striker Christian to add some quality to Omiya's squad of in the main J2 journeymen. Chikara Fujimoto was not someone who had ever played a match in J2.

In the early weeks of 2005 Fujimoto clicked well with Christian, providing good service for the team's new goalgetter. It was Fujimoto himself who notched up the Squirrels' first ever J1 home goal, rifling in a penalty for a 1-1 draw against one of his former clubs, Vissel Kobe. And in fact, if you have to try and come up with something it's actually another penalty - a twice-taken effort that helped Omiya to beat JEF United in another relegation scrap, this time in 2008 - that represents Fujimoto's one other main contribution to Ardija as a J1 club. Not much to show for six full seasons and 180-odd league games of regular first-team football.

So how have things been in 2010? Well, to answer that question let's quote our very own Agent Orange, who wrote about the 1-0 defeat at home to Nagoya Grampus in July as follows:

We saw the return of Chikara Fujimoto, who put in a lackluster performance. One could argue that he's not yet in full form after his period of injury, but after watching him play no defense, bog down the offense with his isolation plays to nowhere, complain about his teammates not passing it to where he wants to go, errant passing, dogging it on easily-reachable balls, falling down for no reason, arguing constantly with officials, and committing a stupid foul when it was completely unnecessary, I would say our captain is already back in his regular mid-season form.

And sad as it may seem, that sums up where Fujimoto is in his career now. When he came to Omiya all those years ago, he had a job to do, a role in the team, and executed the associated tasks pretty effectively. Now, as captain, Fujimoto has much more responsibility but makes much less of a contribution: he's supposed to link up the defence and the attack, provide width, speed and create chances for the forwards while scoring a few goals per season himself. In 2010, he's come up with a handful of assists but nothing else. He's a weak link of distracted frustration in a position where the team need invention, mobility and quickness of thought.

Ironically in view of his captaincy, Fujimoto's status in the team under Jun Suzuki is not as assured as it could be: he might have a place in the starting line-up, but with Suzuki in charge Fujimoto actually completed just seven league matches and was used only as a late substitute in the final game of the year at Yokohama F Marinos. He has been preferred in the team to the particularly unfortunate Naoki Ishihara, who not uncoincidentally during the latter part of the season made for himself a reputation as a super sub, coming on and scoring a series of vital goals.

We might have been making these kinds of remarks for several years now, but with no decisions apparently yet made at this point it's hard to see how Fujimoto and Omiya might go forward together for another season. How can he possibly turn it around? Matters of ego aside, how can a fresh start elsewhere not be a good idea? Perhaps the best bit of football played by the Squirrels all year - in the toughest of environments, away at title winners Nagoya Grampus - specifically did not include Chikara Fujimoto, as his most obvious replacement in the current squad, Lee Chun Soo, combined with Rafael for Ishihara to fire past Seigo Narazaki. In other words, we can do it. But six years of experience says we don't need Fujimoto.



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