I recently interviewed Alan Wilkie before he returned to England after a year-and-a-half stint working for the JFA in Tokyo. The interview ran over two weeks in Weekly Soccer Magazine, with this, the first half, appearing in the November 16th issue.
Alan Wilkie, a former English Premier League referee who famously sent Eric Cantona off just before his kung-fu kick incident in 1996, has been working as Top Referee Instructor for the JFA for the past eighteen months.
His contract ends this week so we met for a pint and some fish and chips to discuss his thoughts on football in Japan. This week’s column will focus on the stadiums, fans and players, next week the more meaty issue of referees will be tackled.
While being impressed by many aspects of the J.League, one thing which has frustrated Alan is the distance supporters often are from the pitch.
“I think they need to rebuild stadia. At the moment, playing football with a running track is not attractive. I went to Yamagata on Saturday and used binoculars to watch the game. Outrageous!”
Furthermore, he believes that the lack of permanent homes for many clubs has a detrimental effect on the game here.
“I go to Jubilo and, “Oh, they’re not playing here, they’re playing at Ecopa.” Impossible. It’s impossible to have belonging. The only thing I should check is, ‘are they at home this week?’
“I think there is a need to focus on the heart and soul of football, which is ownership. You’re born to it and you die with it. My son is black and white (Newcastle United), his partner is red and white (Sunderland). So, the first photo of my grandson with anything to do with football, I draped a black and white scarf over him. So I claimed him – he is my grandson and he is Newcastle!”
The lack of belonging in Japan provides a stark contrast to the way fans operate in England.
“What it means to supporters [in England] is, I give a penalty kick against Manchester City and I get a bullet sent to my home. I get an envelope and in the envelope are broken razor blades. I don’t condone it but that’s what it means to them.”
“A bit of aggression’s good, in the right places. Controlled aggression. I don’t think you see controlled aggression on the pitch. The only time I’ve ever come across any aggression in Japan is on the metro! People will push you, people will kill you if there is a seat!”
He also notes another difference on the pitch.
“Sophistication. It can be stoppage time and it can be 3-0 and the team who are nil will still be going for it. That’s a lack of sophistication. Know when you’re beaten and just see the game out.”
Talk of sophistication inevitably leads to Alberto Zaccheroni (you know how much I admire his fashion), and Alan is confident the Italian can do well here.
“If you are successful in Italy as a coach then you can be successful anywhere. I’m sure that his methods – coaching, food, preparation and everything – will be top class.
“Those moving and playing abroad will come back to Japan as better players and with better understanding of the game. The goalkeeper for instance is quite clearly, personal opinion, the best goalkeeper in Japan.”
And how about the other positions? Who has stood out for him?
“Best defender, Nagatomo. He has introduced, as well as his electric pace, some cynicism, or professionalism. In midfield I like Hasebe, but also Matsui. They’re different but I like Hasebe because he’s also introduced some professionalism.
“Up-front, Maeda. Without question the most naturally gifted forward player in Japan. All he ever thinks about is goals. He would kill his mother to score a goal and I like that. Alan Shearer would kill his mother to score a goal and then say sorry!”
He also identifies several players who he feels will ensure a bright future for Japanese football.
“Kanazaki; I think he will play for Japan many, many times. Gamba have a precocious young player, Usami and Ono from Yokohama F. Marinos will be a star.
“I love Makino! Because he’s crazy! Spontaneous, flexible – he’s your man. I don’t think he’s developed enough to go to Europe yet. I think he has the possibility but he needs to work on his concentration. Because of his flexibility and his character, he tends to do silly things!”