Posts Tagged ‘Tochigi SC

08
Jul
11

The only way is up

The 2012 season will see the final promotion place from J2 decided by an English Championship-esque play-off, and as the level of the league continues to improve I think it’s a very good idea.

 

The J.League recently announced plans to introduce a play-off system in J2 from the 2012 season, meaning that the teams finishing third to sixth would all be in with a chance of moving up to the top-flight.

While opinion is fairly divided on this – with some asking how the sixth-placed side is likely to fare in J1 when considering the abysmal top-flight form of Avispa Fukuoka, who came third in J2 in 2010 – I am all for it and think that anything which adds to the competitiveness of the second tier is good for the Japanese game.

Avispa have certainly struggled – and nothing short of a miracle will keep them from relegation this year – but prior to them the only side to have moved up to J1 from the final promotion place and been relegated straight away is Shonan Bellmare.

Before this season 11 other teams, including Shonan, had come up in the last available spot and four of them – Reds, Omiya, Kobe and Yamagata – are still there. Four  more – Sendai, Cerezo, Sanfrecce and Kofu – went back down but are now re-established in the top-flight, while the final two sides are last year’s relegated pair of FC Tokyo and Kyoto Sanga – the former of whom are strong favourites to make a return next season.

Although they have recovered slightly from their far from impressive start to life back in the second division, Tokyo’s promotion is definitely not a foregone conclusion though, and the growing competitiveness of J2 was demonstrated by JEF’s failure to gain an instant return last year.

JEF’s head coach Dwight Lodeweges is well aware of the difficulty in gaining promotion, and insisted before the season that just being a big club is not enough to secure a spot in the top-flight.

“It’s not just a name that brings you back or does well or keeps you in J1. We have to do the right things. What I’m trying to do now is to build a foundation but it just doesn’t happen like that, it’s not just like pushing a button and there you go. We have to do the right things and make the right choices.”

Alongside JEF and FC Tokyo this year’s J2 also features two more giants of the Japanese game who could be revitalized by a return to the top table, in Tokyo Verdy and Yokohama FC – although both sides are admittedly shadows of their former selves at this moment in time.

Add to these the likes of Tochigi, Sagan Tosu, Tokushima Vortis and Roasso Kumamoto and you have almost half a division who have either the tradition or ability – or both – to make a go of it in J1.

Indeed, the introduction of a play-off system as opposed to three automatic promotion spots may actually help sides with the ambition of gaining promotion.

While, of course, it would be foolish to claim that any team had ever achieved promotion by accident, it could be suggested that some teams have made the step-up after a season of over-achievement – which they had perhaps not fully anticipated before the first ball was kicked. 

If teams know that there are twice as many berths available with the potential to take them to J1 though, then they may be able to better equip themselves for life in the top tier if and when they get there.

The instant success enjoyed by Cerezo, Sanfrecce and, so far, Reysol after re-joining J1 backs up this argument, with each team having had promotion as their realistic target throughout their season in the second tier. 

Just as importantly, if not more so, play-offs would also add to the excitement in the division by ensuring that more teams actually have something to play for as the season nears its climax. (Relegation, something else that I believe urgently needs to be introduced, would also serve this aim).

Furthermore, just because the sixth-placed team is in with a chance of gaining promotion to J1 it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will take it, and they’ll still have to beat two of the teams above them to earn the right.

And, anyway, even if they do they can’t really do any worse than Avispa, can they?

19
May
11

Tochigi top of the tree

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.

14
May
11

Derby day out

I went to the Tokyo derby and while the atmosphere was in fitting with occasion, the football was some way off…

Officially this was one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the season. 

Yes, it was happening in J2 but the Tokyo derby was back. FC Tokyo’s recently humbled stars were coming face-to-face with Tokyo’s ‘original’ club (if we ignore that whole starting-in-Kawasaki bit) for the first time in three years.

To be honest though, I went along more out of a sense of obligation than expectation. 

I’d been at Ajista for FC Tokyo’s previous game against Consadole and it was dire. Tokyo (red and blue) and Consadole (white) had served up a poor-man’s El Clasico, complete with slow approach play, poor refereeing and Brazilians overreacting. Unfortunately, nobody reprised the ‘Messi’ role and it ended as a drab 0-0.

Verdy, meanwhile, were alone with Tochigi as the only teams to have started with a 100% record in J2 – although they were probably slightly less happy with their three losses from three than the league leaders were with their trio of victories.

Still, it was Golden week, it was Greenery Day (which the pre-match VT took much glee in promoting, to the ire of the away support), and it was a derby. As the original Clasico so wonderfully demonstrated, a game needn’t be technically gripping if the drama can be provided elsewhere.

And things started fairly well. The teams were greeted by nearly 30,000 supporters, the home fans (although, really, there was no such thing as a home team) unfurled a “Real Tokyo” banner to taunt their Johnny-come-lately neighbours, and the match started at a fairly frenetic pace.

After an end-to-end start when Verdy should have had a penalty and Kajiyama should have scored for Tokyo, both teams began to surrender possession far too easily, although Verdy certainly looked the most likely to score.

An FC Tokyo fan I’d spoken to before kick-off confessed he wasn’t holding out much hope for the match and expected the Gas Men to be 1-0 down at half-time and to go on to lose 3-0. I told him to do his best but he replied simply, “It’s not up to us to do our best; it’s up to the players.”

And these fears seemed well-placed as his team struggled to cope with the positive, probing runs of Hiroki Kawano who was steadily establishing himself as the best player on the pitch by some distance.

Half-time came and went without any goals, but shortly after the break the game’s decisive incident occurred.

Roberto Cesar, who had been booked in the first half (and was lucky not to receive a second yellow straight away for showing a complete lack of respect to the referee), burst towards the Verdy penalty area and then flung himself embarrassingly to the ground after minimal, if any contact. A deserved red card, and game on. Although not in the way I’d expected.

Rather than looking to make the most of their one-man advantage Verdy seemed happy to settle for the 0-0 and cut-back on their expansive forays into the Tokyo half.

This approach certainly livened up the occasion, primarily because it enabled Tokyo to create chance after chance. Yazawa had a goal correctly disallowed for handball and Kiyoshi Okuma marched repetitively from the bench, shouted at someone then strode back to his seat swigging water and ruffling his hair. Verdy keeper Doi invited pressure from Suzuki when dallying in possession and was extremely lucky to see the ball squirt up into his arms, then he got injured and sub forward Kazuki Hiramoto had to pull on the jersey as the closing minutes were played out 10 v. 10.

No goals but plenty of talking points, then, and the match was tense, enjoyable and fairly draining.

However, while this is fine for the neutrals, the reactions of both sets of fans demonstrate just how far these two teams are from where they want to be.

The Verdy players were applauded enthusiastically for picking up a point against 10 fairly unimpressive men, while FC Tokyo were jeered from the pitch after their second 0-0 in a row.

I’ll certainly be going to the Tokyo derby again, although, on this evidence, it looks like the fixture will be staged in the second tier for a  while yet.




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