I didn’t plan my trip properly but was very impressed on my visit to Tochigi; a club that seems to have a much greater sense of direction than I do…
My old P.E. teacher always used to say, “Fail to prepare and prepare to fail”, and it turns out I really should have listened more in school.
Last Sunday morning I was up bright and early to go and check out the surprise early leaders of J2, Tochigi SC.
Having initially intended to go to the game with a friend (who cancelled the night before) I hadn’t done anything in the way of planning, and set off half-asleep for Tochigi station.
The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed my error: Tochigi, of course, play nowhere near Tochigi station, they actually play close to (well, a fairly substantial bus journey from) Utsunomiya station.
Anyhow, while sleep-walking my way to Shinnakano I was blissfully unaware of this. As I got closer to my destination I did start to wonder why there weren’t many people on the train (except for an Indonesian guy who chatted me up and asked for my number on the way to Itakuratoyodaimae), but seeing as it was still a good few hours before kick-off I wasn’t too worried.
My first attempts to research where the team played only came after I’d got off at Tochigi, and a quick check online and a plea on twitter soon had me on my way.
Thankfully, despite my error, I still made it to the wonderful Tochigi Green Stadium before kick-off, and was even honoured with a personal escort to the press entrance (who radio-ed through that there was a “gaijin free-writer” trying to get in. I nearly joked that I was actually a gaikokujin but didn’t know how long I’d have to be walking with him so resisted the urge).
Although I’d aimed to arrive an hour-and-a-half earlier I still had a little time to soak up the atmosphere, and enjoyed a bit of banter with the fans behind the goal in the home end before bumping into (a hot and sweaty) Kazu as he came off after the warm-up.
I also had a chat with my friend from Yokohama FC who said he was there because the team hadn’t been doing so well lately and that he might be needed after the game to apologise to and appease the fans if they lost again.
Thankfully there were no major problems, although within seconds of me taking my seat things didn’t look too promising for him, as young centre-back Park Tae-hong headed a cross from the right-wing past a stranded Kentaro Seki and into his own net.
The goalkeeper at the other end, Hiroyuki Takeda, had a much better start to the afternoon, and reacted well on several occasions to keep the home side in front.
The last time I had seen Tochigi in action was back in 2009 when they were in a completely different situation and were rooted to the bottom of J2. I was impressed with the energy and positive play of the rejuvenated side, with them looking to break as soon as they were in possession. Their enthusiasm to get forward did mean that decisions were often rushed though, and there was a fairly high turnover of possession.
On occasion it would have made sense for them to just keep the ball and slow down the pace a little, although for the neutral such a gung-ho approach made for a far more exciting game.
Their vulnerability on the counter-attack was eventually taken advantage of when Yokohama sub Yosuke Nozaki won the away side a penalty after a great run down the left wing shortly after coming on at half-time.
The injection of his creativity certainly livened up a fairly ordinary Yokohama side, but Tochigi continued to buzz around the pitch and their winner, a Hirofumi Watanabe header in the 74th minute, was richly deserved.
It is still very early in the season and as injuries come into play and teams become familiar with Tochigi’s style they will certainly have to improve to make a real push for J1.
If they can maintain this level of performance they do have the potential to mount a serious challenge though, and they certainly have a clear idea of where they are aiming for. Which is a lot more than can be said for me.