Late-autumn 2004, and while the leaves are falling, Omiya Ardija are already up. Kyoto Purple Sanga players walk back towards the halfway line, a Brazilian forward dances by the corner flag, the orange-clad crowd restart a raucous chant of "Let's go, Omiya, let's go!", and a fan sits on a crash barrier raising his middle finger to the beaten Kyoto goalkeeper, as he has done throughout the entire second half. "Maradona played here once, you know," my friend Declan leans across and shouts in my ear. If ever there was a moment to fall in love with a football team, then that was it for me. Later that night, half-drunk, I shin up a lamppost in a shopping arcade and liberate an Ardija flag, two Omiya fans and a shopkeeper cheering me on.
I didn't know much about Ardija until that game, though I passed through Omiya station every weekend on my way into Tokyo. I'd heard there was a John Lennon museum somewhere nearby, and that the club was named after the Spanish word for squirrel, the symbol of the park the Omiya Soccer Stadium was located in. I wanted to go to Yokohama, where the World Cup Final had been played, and had a soft spot for Vissel Kobe, who at the time played in black and white stripes. I'd even thought about going to Urawa Reds, the other half of the Saitama Derby, before discovering they modelled themselves on Manchester United and had just taken part in the Vodafone Cup. Urawa had moved to the Saitama World Cup Stadium, where England played Sweden in 2002. Omiya still played in a ground built for the 1964 Olympics. The trees outside the stadium were almost as tall as the cramped main stand.
The Reds like to think they're special. "Why do you like Omiya? They never win anything," I was sometimes asked, but only ever by people who supported Urawa. The mayor of Saitama City, wearing an Omiya shirt over his salaryman uniform of white shirt and dark tie, once took to the pitch with an eight-foot squirrel and made a speech extolling Urawa's recent effect on the profile of the city. Omiya fans were not impressed. Somewhere on the packed terrace behind the goal, there was a man in sunglasses, orange scarf half-covering his mouth, extending a middle finger towards the centre of the pitch.
Let's go Omiya, let's go!