“Taking it one game at a time” and “playing to the very end” are insufferably trite comments offered after seemingly every game I watch in Japan. For Albirex Niigata, that is exactly what they did as the 2012 season drew to a close though…
Gamba Osaka’s relegation was understandably the main talking point after the final round of the J.League season but Albirex Niigata deserve a huge amount of credit for performing their great escape.
The Hokuriku side had been in the bottom three for the last 12 weeks of 2012 – only spending six above the dotted line all season – and after losing 1-0 at home to Kawasaki Frontale in Round 32 it looked like their stint in J1 had come to an end.
An incredible away win over then-title-chasing Vegalta Sendai the next week gave them an outside chance of hanging on, though, and with that victory having gifted the championship to Sanfrecce Hiroshima I decided that for the last league game of the year I would head up to Niigata for their clash with Consadole Sapporo.
I have to admit that I also had slightly selfish reasons for wanting to go to the Big Swan Stadium.
At the start of the year I’d set myself the target of seeing every J1 team play at home at least once, and although I had been to Niigata once this year to see Japan play UAE it looked like Albirex were going to be the only side I’d miss out on.
The surprisingly early conclusion at the top of the table presented the opportunity though, and with Gamba and Vissel both needing positive results and Albirex facing whipping boys Consadole Sapporo I had a feeling the game could be well worth going to.
I wasn’t wrong and as soon as I got to the stadium I found myself caught up in the atmosphere.
Waiting at the players’ entrance, despite the bitterly cold and wet weather, were some 3,000 home fans, waving flags, holding up orange placards declaring, in English, “We are one,” and creating a phenomenal noise to welcome their team.
Results elsewhere had to go their way but the Albirex fans were going to make damn sure their team held up their end of the bargain and get the job done at home.
The players didn’t disappoint, and although Consadole came briefly back into the game at the start of the second half the result was never really in doubt, and for the final 20 minutes or so most people in the stadium had their attention directed elsewhere.
Well, except the Albirex players and staff, that was.
“We weren’t following [the other games] at all,” stand-in coach Katsushi Kurihara said in the press conference (Masaaki Yanagishita was suspended having been sent off in the previous week’s win).
“We knew that our route to stay up absolutely depended on us winning. We wanted the players to be entirely focused on this match so until the very end we didn’t tell the players what was happening at the other venues so they didn’t know.”
Atomu Tanaka confirmed that those out on the pitch had no idea what was going on in Iwata (where Gamba eventually lost 2-1) or Kobe (where Vissel went down 1-0).
“We did what we had to do,” the midfielder said after the 4-1 win.
“We didn’t know at all [what was going on elsewhere] until the very end. After the game finished I looked at the bench. It seemed like the other games still hadn’t finished but I heard that if things stayed as they were we would be ok.”
I asked him if the players had believed two weeks previously that they would still be in the top flight in 2013.
“We weren’t going to give up until the end,” he replied. “Everyone gave everything they had right until the very end. Next year we will be able to play in J1 again so I feel relieved.”
Kurihara insisted that the achievement was a result of continuity and trust.
“Really it didn’t feel at all different to watching a training match. I believed in the players’ strength and knew they would turn up.
“With regards to having to win at home, we thought that maybe because of the support of the fans our path would be made a little easier. In the end that was how it turned out.”
How Gamba and Vissel must wish they had taken a different road.