Ahead of the Premier League season I spoke to a Leicester fan about Shinji Okazaki’s signing, and his hopes for the season. This week we revisited some of those thoughts off the back of the club’s historic title triumph… (日本語版はこちらです)
Back in August last year I wrote a piece looking ahead to the 2015/16 Premier League season, wondering how Shinji Okazaki would get on at his new club Leicester City. With very few Japanese players having enjoyed much success in England, my focus at the time was on whether Japan’s No.9 would get many minutes playing for a side expected to be battling against relegation.
In the end, things worked out a little bit better than anticipated for both the player and his club.
And so, in the midst of the excitement swirling around Leicester’s outrageous title triumph, I checked back in with Foxes fan Mayur Bhanji, who I’d spoken to to get some initial reactions on Okazaki’s signing ahead of the season.
The first of those thoughts we had to revisit was the admission that the general feeling amongst Leicester fans when the former Shimizu S-Pulse striker joined was, “do we really need him?”
Bhanji’s wholly justifiable reasoning at the time was that the club already had Leonardo Ulloa (top scorer the previous year as the club dramatically avoided relegation), Andrej Kramarić (signed in January 2015 and highly rated), the experienced David Nugent, and Jamie Vardy (who at that time wasn’t the goal-machine of this season, but a decent player who’d scored as many goals (5) as he’d got yellow cards in 2014/15). It wasn’t entirely clear where a fifth striker would fit into the squad, then, although fit in Okazaki would go on to do with remarkable smoothness.
“Well, it turned out we needed him quite a lot,” Bhanji said. “Alongside the defence he was one of the unsung heroes of the season. His work-rate is second to none, and his ability to chase down lost causes and just keep running was one of the factors behind Leicester’s success.”
As well as needing to put in a shift, goals were another thing Bhanji predicted Okazaki would have to offer in order to win the fans round and earn a regular spot in the team; so, did he deliver on that front?
“Shinji certainly had the ability to score vital goals at key times for Leicester, and the biggest of them all has to be the goal against Newcastle a month or so ago. An overhead kick Cristiano Ronaldo would be proud of. In a game where the team only won 1-0, and spent a lot of time defending, it was another key contribution to a season not a single person at the club will forget.
“I think the fans love him. Again I go back to his work-rate, more off the ball than on it. In English football fans love players who try – who give 100% – and Shinji certainly does that and reaped the rewards this season. To win the biggest prize in England, to play Champions League football next season, is an amazing achievement.”
Something else which Bhanji thinks contributed to Okazaki’s success was the fact that he made a concerted effort to pick up the language, immersing himself in the group and embracing the now-famous team spirit within the side.
“I think it massively helped. I saw a photo recently of him with a certificate for passing an English exam. I think in any league you have to pick up the local language to succeed – many players have gone to clubs and failed because of it.”
The fans were taken with Okazaki’s mentality, then, but perhaps even more important was the impression the 30-year-old’s efforts made on his coach, Claudio Ranieri – a man who himself had been through the process of adapting to the rigours of English football, and the language, and who Bhanji had predicted could become a “father figure” after replacing the more temperamental and aggressive Nigel Pearson soon after Okazaki signed.
“I recently saw an interview with Demerai Gray, where he said Ranieri was like your favourite grandad,” Bhanji said. “It was definitely the case here as well with Shinji. [Ranieri] has something about him that makes players want to play for him. It also helps that the dressing room doesn’t have too many egos – proven by the fact that Leicester have created the biggest piece of sporting history.”
That is without doubt, and Okazaki can and should be incredibly proud of his contribution to a season which will never be forgotten.