It takes a special kind of team to set a record unbeaten run and club best (worst?) consecutive losing run in the same season. Was firing the coach the right call for Omiya Ardija though?
I interviewed Zdenko Verdenik after Omiya Ardija had beaten Cerezo Osaka 2-1 back in April and asked him tongue-in cheek if he thought Shin Kanazawa would ever be able to repeat his astonishing halfway line goal that had put them ahead inside the first minute of that game.
He laughed and said he very much doubted it, before adding a caveat: “In football anything can happen, nothing is strange.”
I’m not so sure. Kanazawa of course hasn’t managed to replicate his wonder strike, but if he had would it have been any more surprising than Verdenik’s unceremonious firing three weeks ago?
While rumours have swirled since to the contrary, for most of us looking in from the outside the sacking was totally unexpected and it is still hard to understand how a coach who had lifted the perennial relegation-battlers to the top of the table could be so mercilessly dismissed.
Yes, their fortunes had changed markedly since that first Cerezo game, and the loss to Yoichiro Kakitani and co. on August 10th was Ardija’s fifth in a row, but such bumps in the road have been ridden out before. Kashima Antlers lost five on the bounce en route to their 2009 J1 title, for example, while that same season Urawa Reds were defeated in seven straight games without Volker Finke being shown the door.
Verdenik wasn’t afforded such patience tough, and amid accusations of losing the dressing room and arguments with his coaches the Slovenian was disposed of.
Upon my return from England the first game I took in was Tsutomu Ogura’s debut in charge of Ardija – having previously served as a coach under Verdenik and, very briefly, as technical director – and it was clear that there is much that needs repairing at NACK5.
Not least of all there is the form, fitness and, let’s be honest, mood of star strikers Milivoje Novakovic and Zlatan Ljubijankic. The pair will obviously have been two of the most aggrieved at recent events, and just how much longer they will be in Saitama is hard to gauge.
I spoke with Ljubijankic after the 3-2 loss to Reysol, and while he insisted it wasn’t his business who sat in the dugout it is fair enough to assume that the loss of his compatriot will have an impact on his longer-term future at the club.
“No, look, I [have] changed already lots of coaches, so I can only say this is not for players to think about, this is for the people in the club,” he said. “But I want to say only with Zdenko that he is a really good coach and we had a really good time together, good results, and I will never forget this time I spent here with him. So I want to say thank you for that to him, and I hope he is going to have luck [soon] in another job.”
With regards to his future, the 29-year-old maintained he would be going nowhere before December and that he would not be thinking about next year until then.
“We will see, [my contract is] until the end of the season, that’s why I am still here in this club. I need to show my best performance and then we will see. I really like everything here, so we will see.”
As for how a team that just six weeks previously had been top of the table could suddenly be experiencing such abysmal form he was certain that the problem was mental.
“I don’t know what to say. We are in a really difficult period now. I see how it is in Japan when you start winning you can’t lose in a long time and now when you start losing it is also…” he drifted off and laughed regretfully. “Now we [have lost] seven games [in a row].”
Confidence is undoubtedly in incredibly short supply for the Squirrels at the moment, but Ljubijankic is not intending to feel sorry for himself, and demands the same of his teammates too.
“It’s very nice when you’re winning, everything is super with the fans and everything, but the true mentality shows when you’re losing,” he declared. “Then you see if we have a good mentality.”