So, here I am, the latest of a long band of angsty football journalists revelling that ‘football is back!’ While K-League took the initial world focus, before Bundesliga, La Liga, Premier League and even J1 made their bow. It is now the return of the long awaited Mr J2. Like other leagues, we have seen a new and exhaustingly congested fixture schedule as the season has been squeezed by three months. Unlike other leagues where it has been left with one final sprint to establish your European placements, your winners and your relegation fodder. The J2 schedule has more of the look of a mountaineer who has been at basecamp for an inordinate amount of time, itching to go, but procrastinating to make that first step – What I am trying to say here is – We are only one game in and we have a mountain to climb.
With so much football on, pretty much everyday, why should J2 take your focus? Being only one game down, let’s recap with a few highlights from last season, which I have completely originally formatted into a season’s best player/rookie/manager/goal/match template, in a vague attempt to bring you on board.
Now before you go and criticise saying something like ‘So what, it’s only the best player in J2’ but probably more eloquently or at least with meaner words. It should be known that Shinji Kagawa was considered a J-League star before he moved to Dortmund, he had also played only 11 games in the top flight in Japan, compared to the 114 J2 appearances he had made. So the J2 star here could be soon taking the Bundesliga by storm before faltering at a former Premier League giant before his career slowly degrades until he is unfairly finding himself in the Spanish second tier.
Or maybe he has just impressed me so.
It would be hard to deny the best player came from anywhere outside Kashiwa who were clearly the best team in the league. So I have taken the easy route and followed that rule and given the award to Cristiano. Cristiano is an experienced Brazilian forward who is a well-known name in Japan as he has been playing there for about 6 years (for Tochigi, Ventforet Kofu and Kashiwa). He is quick, superb on the ball and very unselfish – an archetype of the modern player and a manager’s dream. However, you don’t need to delve too deep in statistics to discover what a magnificent season he had – 19 goals while laying on 20 assists in 39 J2 games. At 33, he has shown no signs for slowing down (I guess you could argue still a whippersnapper in Japanese terms), getting himself two more assists in his one game in J1 for the 2020 season.
No, I have not switched to an article about Basketball, I have gone for this award as it is one more unique to J2. Every season there will be a new batch of players, fresh out of university who are then sprinkled across every team in J2. They will all have no first team experience, but it is not unusual for these players to be thrust straight into the first team, usually to differing success. One of the most exciting occasions as a football analyst and football fan is watching these young players adapt, grow and quickly show themselves to be some of the best players in the league. It is therefore unsurprising that all my nominations are now playing in J1.
Honourable mentions for Takahiro Sakamoto (once Montedio Yamagata now Cerezo Osaka), Norimuchi Yamamoto (once Zweigen Kanazawa now Yokohama F. Marinos) and Yusuke Matsuo (Once Yokohama FC….still Yokohama FC, they thankfully were promoted to J1).
But the award for me was Ryuho Kikuchi from Renofa Yamaguchi, and yes he has also moved on and will now be playing alongside Iniesta and Vermaelen at Vissel Kobe. Kikuchi was one of those rare things, a central defender who catches the eye in a positive way rather than through making horrible and excruciating mistakes. An imperious defender who when first came on the scene raised eyebrows and provoked questions like ‘Who is that monster at Renofa?’ Which, in turn, could not be a more apt description for a defender that would bear down on unwitting attackers, before chewing them up and leaving them crumpled in a heap. These physical attributes were complimented with perfect timing and a deceptive (even if a touch ungainly) quality on the ball. Hopefully, he will get opportunities at Kobe and the opportunity to learn from the big names will only benefit this talented defender.
Last season brought us a touch of the Domenech’s when Montedio Yamagata’s manager Takashi Kiyama picked 17 year old Riku Handa, not on the basis of injury, form or just giving a young player some first team experience, but on the basis of a revelation from God, who kindly told Kiyama to select the teenager – Of course, victory followed.
However, hopefully without being sacrilegious, he is not my winner. Nor is it the impressive Takahiro Shimotaira of Yokohama FC who not only got Yokohama FC promoted, but also brought through youth players and expertly blended them with their ‘remarkably’ experienced players. My award goes to Shigotoshi Hasebe at Mito Hollyhock who managed to overperform once again with minimal resources. Mito had their squad ripped apart over the offseason and were subsequently relegation contenders, but under Hasebe’s guidance and immense discipline, Mito finished a very commendable 7th (only missing out on playoffs due to scoring three fewer goals than Yamagata). Hasebe has, however, since shown little sentimentality towards Mito – Now at Avispa Fukuoka – He has taken their captain and heartbeat Hiroyuki Mae with him…
Now, I will hold my hands up here, not usually my favourite category for written word, especially perhaps for a league that doesn’t necessarily have a universal following and ubiquitous recall – What I write here will never be able to conjure up the most accurate image and won’t be able to match up to that of a 30 second YouTube video. But anyway…
One of my favourite goals came from the much maligned Robin Simovic of Omiya Ardija (now of Livorno). Simovic is a big target man striker – an often favoured style of striker in J2 – But we rarely get ourselves a Didier Drogba or a Niall Quinn and usually end up with this immobile giant who often has a touch that belies your trust that he is a footballer – A category Robin Simovic fitted snugly into, until, one moment he transmorphed in Robin ‘Ibra’ Simovic and delicately flicked a cross with his heel and back to goal into the far corner of the net, always an eye catching skill, but done with control, finesse and grace to move it into the upper echelons.
However, my winner is Shun Nakamura’s goal from his own half for Montedio Yamagata against Ehime – Just two touches, one to set himself before a perfectly weighted strike that glides just out of the goalie’s reach and then seemingly just kisses the ground once before nestling in the vacant net. But, perhaps the most bizarre element of this was it was not the only goal by Montedio Yamagata scored from in their own half in this game. Amazingly, within two minutes, Takahiro Sakamoto was also able to beat the hapless Masahiro Okamoto from 50+ metres with a much less graceful bumbling shot.
Normally in best matches, people like to go for a 4-3 win with a 92nd minute winner and I am sure there was something along these lines at some point. But for me the game that had me most shocked (and still leaves my mouth slightly ajar) was on the final day of the normal season and was an absolute steamrollering.
Kyoto Sanga were needing a victory to have a chance of playoffs facing the difficult challenge of Kashiwa Reysol, the best team in the league, but with promotion achieved and the league sewn up, there was mutterings of Kashiwa already ‘on the beach’ as the cliche goes. This could not be more wrong as there was no such letting up from Kashiwa who pulled off an almost unspeakable 13-1 hammering. Their Kenyan striker Michael Olunga catapulting his way towards the top of the goalscoring charts with an incredible 8 goals, a feat that Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi, Harry Kane or any top striker has been able to manage. The fallout was pretty brutal too with Kyoto manager Ichizo Nakata given the boot after what had previously been considered an excellent season with Kyoto only just avoiding relegation the previous year.
On the whole, it was yet another wonderful season in J2 offering up its usual dishes of weirdness, entertainment and distraction from world realities. I won’t lie I could do with a feast of these right now, glad we are back.