This should have already been Gamba's year. With old rivals Kashima Antlers and Urawa Reds on the wane, defending champions Nagoya Grampus beset by early season injuries, and newly promoted Kashiwa Reysol supposed to fade once the serious business got underway, Akiro Nishino's side had their best shot at the title since pipping four teams to win it by a point in the final minute of the 2005 season, ending with what football writer and Gamba fan Ben Mabley rightly calls the "preposterous record of 82 goals scored and 58 conceded from 34 games".
Top of the table as late as mid-October, Gamba's trademark defensive frailties resurfaced at the worst possible moment, two blunders from goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaya gifting Grampus a 4-1 win on a rain-sodden pitch in Nagoya. Wins over Yamagata and Kashima were followed by a 2-2 draw in Niigata last weekend, leaving last season's runners-up four points adrift of Reysol with two games remaining. This week the club declined to renew Nishino's contract after a decade in charge, one league title, three domestic cups and an Asian Champions League. "Given the current circumstances this is what I was expecting," Nishino told the Japan Times. "I have to accept and understand the club have a new vision."
Opened in 1970, Gamba are planning to move from the Banpaku to a 32,000 capacity football specific ground - tentatively (I hope) named the Field of Smile - in time for the 2014 season.
Formed in 1991 (three years before their city rivals Cerezo) out of the Matsushita Electric (now Panasonic) company team, Gamba attracted the hardcore football support in Japan's traditionally baseball-mad third city. Founder members of the J.League in 1993, the club - whose name derives from a contraction of Gambare, Japanese for 'fight!' - were a side of no more than middling ability before Nishino arrived at the start of 2002. "He has undoubtedly made a very large and distinguished contribution," Gamba president Kikuo Kanamori told the club's official site. Over pre-match pints I'm handed a felt-tip pen and square of paper to add my own contribution. "Good luck," I scrawl. "But don't go to Urawa."
Smoke bombs explode in the home end as Gamba kick off Nishino's final home game. The travelling Vegalta Sendai support reply with a song to the tune of 'Take Me Home Country Roads', seguing quickly into Twisted Sister's 'We're Not Gonna Take It' and 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by The Ramones as the fifth-placed visitors make the faster start, Shingo Tomita finding Shingo Akimine in space but the striker stabbing the ball straight at a grateful Fujigaya. The let off stirs Gamba into action, young defender Hiroki Fujiharo having a weak shot smothered at the second attempt before a through ball almost finds its way to South Korean forward Lee Keun-ho, and the Brazilian Rafinha is crowded out by two defenders after the best passing move of the half momentarily frees him in the Sendai area. When the deadlock is finally broken, Akimine merits half an assist, his wasteful shot enabling Gamba to counter at pace, Lee nodding in his 13th league goal of the season after his overhit cross is turned back into the centre. The away team respond on and off the pitch, each new chant prompted by a fan with a megaphone and Unity Japan t-shirt, but national team midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi wastes their best chance to level when he sidefoots into Fujigaya's midriff with time and space to advance on goal. Moments later, with Vegalta finding gaps down Gamba's right side, Akimine flicks a header wide of the post after Yoshiaki Ota's cross picks him out, unmarked, in the home goalmouth. It's symptomatic of the half: to Sendai the chances, to Gamba the goal.
The second period continues in much the same vein. Ota heads a difficult chance high and wide and an Akimine chest down is hacked unceremoniously away with the Gamba end belting out a song to the tune of La Marseillaise. Akimine plants another header harmlessly wide, then loses North Korean defender Kim Jung-ya with a clever run but nods just over as the Sendai fans bounce on the spot urging 'Let's go Sendai'. Gamba voices echo back with the potency of a Muslim call to prayer, and when their side do break forward they do so with menace and intent, Lee striking the base of the post on the hour, the rebound fortuitously deflected away for a corner.
With most of Akimine's efforts at goal landing wider of the mark than a Daily Mail editorial it's Sekiguchi who comes closest again, skipping past two defenders before Fujigaya fumbles Ota's weak shot onto the outside of the post. The Brazilian Diego comes on as Sendai push men forward, setting fellow substitute Yuki Moto up for a shot that he lobs high over the bar. With time ebbing away an impeccably timed sliding tackle from Kim takes the ball off Moto's toes as he shapes to shoot at goal, and an off balance Yuki Nakashima can only head Naoki Sugai's cross out for a goalkick. Before Fujigaya can take it the final whistle blows.
To play badly and yet still win is the hallmark of champions. It's a tag Gamba, now just two points behind Kashiwa in third, hope to regain next weekend. A miracle for a side with a propensity to fold when the pressure is really on? As Nishino knows only too well, stranger things have happened before.
"Newcastle played here in 1996," remembers one of the Gamba ultras after the game. "They were pissed off at the size of the crowd (just under 7,000, or a third of the Banpaku's 21,000 capacity, saw Les Ferdinand net a last-minute consolation in a 3-1 friendly defeat) but our football culture wasn't developed at the time and most Japanese fans only knew Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Now everyone knows of Newcastle as one of the biggest clubs." "A lot of Gamba fans think of themselves as the Japanese Newcastle," Ben Mabley tells me. "As cities, they have a very similar relationship to the rest of the country and the same strange accents." "I think Newcastle are more like Kashima Antlers," one of the ultras laughs. "It's always windy there as well."
Date: November 26th 2011
Admission: 2,000 yen.
Many thanks to Ben Mabley for the hospitality, which included the use of his spare mattress in Osaka and an invite to the Gamba ultras' end of season party.