Wednesday, 31 December 2014

April 1992: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love David Kelly

This piece originally appeared in Issue 2 of Newcastle United's Popular Side fanzine.

Looking back now, April 1992 was a horrifically shit month. On the 9th, with the unemployment figures balanced by the fact Neil Kinnock had ginger hair, a Welsh accent and had just made a complete and utter arse of himself on stage in Sheffield, John Major led the Conservative Party to a come-from-behind election victory with 14.5 million votes and a working majority of 21. 'It Was the Sun Wot Won It' trumpeted Murdoch's biggest selling mouthpiece. Not even the sight of Chris Patton and Colin Moynihan - former sports mininster and Thatcher's principal cheerleader for ID cards - losing their seats came close to stemming my teenage rage at five more years of Tory rack and ruin.  Things weren't any better elsewhere in the world.  It was the start of the Seige of Sarajevo and the LA Riots, the Katina P. spilt 60,000 tons of crude oil into the sea off Mozambique, Right Said Fred's Deeply Dippy was nailed to the top of the charts, and my impending GCSEs meant I was spending most of my free time indoors going through the motions of studying dates, equations and four-line French dialogues that all seemed to end with someone wanting un velo, s'il vous plait.  And then there was Newcastle United...

 On the last day of March, the team had marked my 16th birthday with a 6-2 trouncing at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Andy Mutch scoring three times as Kevin Keegan impotently looked on from the touchline of the half-finished stadium.  Single goal defeats to Tranmere Rovers, Ipswich Town and Millwall followed in the first three weeks of the new month, before a catastrophic Easter Monday at the Baseball Ground in which Derby County won 4-1, Kevin Brock, Liam O’Brien, Kevin Scott and Terry McDermott were all red carded and Brian Coddington joined Trelford Mills as persona non grata on Tyneside.  There were only one hundred and eighty minutes of the season left to play and Keegan’s team were third from the foot of the old Division Two, ahead of Port Vale and Brighton but now twelve goals adrift of Oxford United and the precarious safety of 21st position.  With the club haemorrhaging an estimated £700,000 a year in interest payments alone, relegation meant doing a Leeds before Leeds had even thought of doing it themselves.   

Wind back two months and things had looked significantly rosier.  On the afternoon of February 6th, almost eight years after he was last seen being helicoptered clear of the St James’ Park pitch, Kevin Keegan pushed his way through the swing doors at Newcastle Breweries’ Visitor Centre. “I can honestly say that there’s no job in football I’ve ever wanted,” he confidently told the assembled press. “This is the only job I’ve ever wanted.” If the sentiment was confused the reaction to his appointment was anything but.  The previous month had seen Ossie Ardiles’side take a 4-0 hammering at Southend United, go out of the FA Cup to Bournemouth and surrender a three-goal lead to lose 4-3 at home to Charlton Athletic, Alan Pardew scoring the 89th minute winner.  The death knell sounded at the Oxford’s Manor Ground, a dispiriting 5-2 loss dropping the team to second bottom. “A shameful performance,” said Douglas Hall with all his customary tact and understanding.  'He didn’t know how to stop the slide. We would have gone down if he’d stayed. If we had gone down we would have gone bankrupt.”  

Something had to change.  Temporarily, something did. 29,000 people turned out to see Bristol City swept aside 3-0 in Keegan’s first game.  Forty days’ later, in a moment that was pure, unadulterated flounce, the second coming almost ground to an unexpected end when the directors refused to supply the £250,000 needed to turn Oldham defender Brian Kilcline’s one-month loan into a permanent transfer. “It wasn’t like it said in the brochure,” Keegan complained from a Hampshire driveway while fans in beanie hats and beige Harrington jackets barracked John Hall through the press room windows.  The king returned, a Kevin Sheedy equaliser nicked a point at Grimsby Town and then David Kelly scored the only goal of the Tyne-Wear Derby on March 29th; which, for those of you who’ve been paying attention, is right about where we came in.  

April 25th 1992. Financial oblivion beckons as Newcastle United face the unwelcome prospect of a first  relegation to the third-tier of English football.  It’s the final home game of the season and the opposition are FA Cup semi-finalists Portsmouth.  Among the starting line-up are Tommy Wright, Brian Kilcline  - “the most important signing I made for Newcastle,” Keegan later judged – top scorer Gavin Peacock, future football financier Ray Ranson, and Seb Coe lookalike Kevin Brock.  There are 26,000 in the crowd, both the Milburn D Paddock and my stomach are heaving. “Trust in Keegan,” they'd said, but as the 85th minute ticked by on the Gallowgate scorerboard whatever youthful bravado I’d entertained pre-match had long since disappeared I was busily composing a chain of conditional sentences – “If we don’t score here, we’ll have to beat Leicester…but if we don’t beat Leicester…” - which ended in the discomforting thought of Newcastle going not just down but under when the ball was struck forwards in the direction of Micky Quinn, who’d moved two steps off his marker on the edge of the Portsmouth ‘D’ 
What happened next is preserved in video-recorded footage online. Ray Ranson floats a long pass from halfway that brushes the top of Kelly's head. Quinn, his back to the Gallowgate goal, hooks the ball right-footed into space on the Milburn side of the penalty area, Kelly reacting half a yard quicker than Andy Awford to whack a rising shot past Portsmouth keeper Alan Knight on the second bounce.  Kevin Sheedy, a man who’d won two English championships and a Cup Winners’ Cup with Everton, celebrates with a scissor kick to the roof of the net. On the concrete steps of the Gallowgate bodies writhe in every conceivable direction, hats and scarves go tumbling and arms clutch joyously at the nearest neck. I bear hug my dad, grab hold of my brother, half-stumble forwards and am pinioned against a crash barrier by a fat man with beer-and-boiled-onion breath screeching “Get in! Get in! Get in!” over and over and over and over. Sometimes life is as simple as this: the ball hits the net and nothing else matters.  

“The place just erupted like you’ve never heard before,” Gavin Peacock remembered. “The relief flooded all over everybody. You could feel it – relief from the whole of Newcastle.” If it wasn’t exactly jogo bonito, it was incontrovertibly the moment that altered everything for Kevin Keegan and John Hall. In the financial circumstances, Kelly had just struck arguably the most important goal ever scored at St James’ Park. “It happened because Kevin was so positive,” he said seventeen years later, as we prepared, less successfully, for another must-win clash with Pompey. “We had been battered at Wolves and Derby and it was looking grim…but he was telling us ‘Get through this and we will be in the top flight in a year’s time’. I think I scored about three goals in my entire career that were outside the box and that was one of them.” 

The rest, of course, you know as well as I do.  For those of us with birth certificates dating from the mid-to-late 1970s football really did seem to have been invented in 1992: when Newcastle United next played Portsmouth we were in the midst of an eleven-game winning streak that would end in promotion with 96 points, 29 wins and 92 goals from our 46 matches. Without David Kelly, we might not have existed at all. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

Ground 249: Kashima Soccer Stadium

They've had it all at Kashima Antlers: superstar Brazilians, seven league titles, nine domestic cups, one treble and three world champions.  Along the way they've sent two Japanese internationals to Serie A, one to Schalke and a Champions League semi-final, hosted three World Cup fixtures and netted one of the greatest individual goals you're ever likely to see.  Not bad for a club which attracts average crowds of under 20,000 and was once told its chance of getting J.League membership stood as low as "0.0001%."

The current crop of Antlers are nowhere near as storied as the likes of Zico, Leonardo, Bebeto or Uchida, but in Gaku Shibasaki and Caio, who left Sao Paulo behind for Japanese high school football and is now touted as a future Samurai Blue, they have a pair of young players of genuine star potential.  They also began the final day of J1 matches as one of three sides who could still top the table, two points behind title favourites Gamba Osaka, who travelled to already relegated Tokushima Vortis, and the stuttering long-time leaders Urawa Reds. 

"Very nice stadium but a bit of a trek to the middle of nowhere," Gamba fan, Guardian writer and Japanese TV star Ben Mabley had warned, though I'd worked out the accuracy of that second clause for myself long before arriving at Kashima Jingu Station - two platforms, one train every hour on Saturday evenings and the final stop on a line which takes in one floating torii gate, several concrete bridges and an innumerable number of paddy fields.  The town has 60,000 people and very little that isn't almost entirely centred on either its football club or shrine, purportedly first raised 1,500 years ago and still home to a two-storied gate, the kind of sword you'd expect to see Ned Stark wielding and the Japanese god of thunder.  Outside the station, the tourist information booth stocks religious guides alongside Antlers biscuits, key rings and stuffed toys; flags flutter by carpark exits, stone footballs ornament street corners and shop windows are adorned with the club badge or players' faces advertising the goods inside.  At the Cheerio Mall, three traffic lights down and four across from the shrine entrance, the staff are dressed in Kashima home shirts and there's a Zico Mini Museum at the foot of the escalators, young children and the elderly staring at TV screens while a life-size statue of the Brazilian looks back across two aisles of shoes and a cosmetics stand. 

Back at the station, it's a 25-minute walk along the side of the main road to Mito or a single stop on the matchday-only train service to Kashima Soccer Stadium, whose concrete curves loom suddenly above the tree cover as you round an otherwise unremarkable bend next to a supermarket and a 100 yen store. The first football-specific venue in Japan, the 40,000-capacity stadium was damaged in 2011's Tohoku earthquake but remains a mightily impressive sight despite beginning to show signs of its age.  The socio gates are already busy an hour-and-a-half before kick-off, red shirted supporters preparing banner displays, the light blue and pink of Sagan Tosu - which I'd last seen on a foul night in Gifu three years ago - sit out in the sun, and from the back of the east stand you can see all the way to wind turbines, smoke stacks, two lighthouses and a cartoonishly hued Pacific Ocean.

"Sagan Tosu!" the away end bops, fans clinging on to vertical streamers while swinging a flag back and forth like an executioner's axe.  The home fans don't reply until the moment their team enters the field, instantaneously bursting into a 15-minute long rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In as the players begin their warm-up with a group bow.  Four giant banners are rolled across the twin-tiered home end, one showing a deer with a samurai sword, another bearing the message: 'Kashima Antlers Soul Supporter Red Storm Inflight'.   The whole stand pogoes in unison, an red-and-black image sloganned Spirit of Zico making its way towards the pitch. 

Sagan score after just six minutes, Yoshiki Takahashi turning in his only goal of the season as the continuous Kashima din is very briefly topped by the sudden roar of the visiting support.  The Reds ratchet up the noise as their team push for an equaliser, but too many unforced errors in possession allow Tosu to comfortably play out the remainder of the half.  "Hey! Hey! Antlers!" the red shirts pump out as the sides re-enter the field.  Kashima strike the top of the crossbar with a header Tosu's Akihiro Hayashi has well covered and overhit a succession of corner kicks - one so far it gifts Sagan the ball on halfway and has the Antlers' keeper frantically scurrying for the cover of his goal - before some neat triangular passing and a fortuitous bounce puts Yashushi Endo free for a shot he smashes wide.  Shuhei Akasaki balloons into the crowd, Shibasaki crashes the ball back off an advertising hoarding and Naomichi Ueda takes one touch too many.  Tosu defend resolutely, both sets of supporters keep singing until the very end. 

The loss leaves Kashima in third, the victory proving not quite enough to keep Sagan fourth as Kashiwa Reysol net twice to overhaul the Kyushu club on goals scored.  Defeats for both the challengers means the title goes to Gamba Osaka, who recovered from relegation two seasons ago and a 14-point deficit before the mid-season break at the start of the World Cup.  "Absorbingly unpredictable," was how Ben Mabley summed the season up, though with the J.League set to revert to the failed two-stage format, both Japanese football and its most successful club side could be facing more challenging times ahead.

Admission:  2,500 yen (£13.50)
Date:  Saturday December 6th 2014

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ground 248: Ichihara Seaside Stadium, Chiba

On the weekend that Gamba Osaka knocked Urawa Reds off the top of J1 with just one game of the season left to go, Diego Forlan was relegated with Cerezo, and Toto Schillaci's old club Jubilo Iwata lost their J2 promotion play-off semi-final with Montedio Yamagata, the capital city's non-league football teams kept rolling on.  Ome FC and HBO Tokyo met on a training pitch at Urawa's stadium to decide the winners of the Tokyo Senior League Division Two Cup,  FC Shinjuku, Griffin and Nomura Research Institute all played league fixtures, and Nankatsu SC were at home to Marubeni Corporation in a cup semi-final.  On the other side of Tokyo Bay, the group stage qualifiers in the Kanto Soccer League's Ichihara Cup were decided in two rounds of games held just 24 hours apart.

Contested between 20 clubs over 37 games, six days and a month and a half of competition, the final prize of the 2013 KSL season was finally decided 5-4 on penalty kicks, Urayasu SC - second division champions with seventeen wins and a draw - edging out top-flight Tokyo 23 FC after a 3-3 tie in normal time. After strolling to the Division One title with just a single league defeat all year, Urayasu are back to defend their trophy, grouped together with Vonds Ichihara, Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance and MSDF Atsugi Marcus, club side of the Japanese Navy.

Four trains, a half hour walk and 20 minutes in the company of a man with 'If I tell you I have to kill you'  written in capital letters across the back of his jacket after exiting my front door, I arrive at a sunny Ichihara Seaside Stadium, where the views, disappointingly, are more Billingham-on-Tees than beachfront chic. Homeground of J.League pioneers JEF United from 1983 until they relocated three stops north on the JR Uchibo Line to the Fukuda Denshi Arena in 2005, the two-sided stadium's now used by Vonds - their name a fairly unlikely portmanteau of victory and bonds - who, after finishing a distant second and then third behind Urayasu in their last two league campaigns, have finally got in front of their fellow Chiba-ites, a pair of goals better off after the opening two group matches.

Needing the win, Urayasu attack first, ex-Tokyo Verdy striker Koki Takenaka leisurely cutting inside a dangling leg then sweeping the ball past the keeper's left hand.  "Wooah-ooah Urayasu," chant the four visiting supporters.  The man handing out Vonds merchandise sits impassively, a poster curled in his hand.  Urayasu press high, Vonds kick higher:  a shot flies over the bar, a free-kick hits the top of a stanchion and a lofted cross is redirected weakly into the goalkeeper's hands.  The blues are more composed but come no closer to scoring again themselves, the first half perfectly encapsulated when a player takes only three touches to control, shimmy clear of two defenders and then pass the ball out for a throw.

I move to join up with the Vonds hardcore for the second period, bang in the midst of green tartan blankets, thundersticks and tupperware containers, then shift once again to an empty expanse of orange and blue seats where two middle-aged women are echoing Urayasu chants in whispers while divvying up the contents of an Eiffel Tower picnic bag.  The home side huff, puff and almost score when a backpass lands at a forward's feet but the blues kill the game with ten minutes remaining, a free kick looping off a head, over the goalkeeper and just under the crossbar.  The travelling support bang their drum and roll their hands in the air.  Knocked off the top of the group, the home side still go through to the quarter finals as one of the three best runners-up.   

Heading back to Tokyo I end up next to an elderly, bespectacled Japanese man who's chosen to dress in snakeskin boots, blue jeans, a stetson, black leather waistcoat and Texas pin badge. Across the aisle, someone at least two decades younger is attempting to pull off a look which daringly combines 60p plastic porch sandals, a beach bag and a Christmas tinsel wreath hooked over a suitcase.  We all change at Funabashi, where Japan's wild east meets a Hans Christian Andersen Park,  Colonel Sanders in Santa outfits and a seven-storey 100 yen store, while the train speeds on towards Kurihama,  the port where Commodore Perry, laden with gifts including "a working model of a steam locomotive, a telescope, a telegraph wire and variety of wines and liquors",  first opened the long-secluded nation up to western consumer goods and helped make a Chiba cowboy's dreams come true. 

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday November 30th 2014

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Ground 247: Saitama Stadium 2002 Complex

If English football fans remember the Saitama Stadium at all, it's as the place where Danny Mills blundered his way through the second half of a World Cup group stage game against Sweden.  For the Japanese, it's the home of their biggest, reddest and most hated club side, Urawa having deliciously squandered an opportunity to clinch the J.League championship in front of 57,000 fans by losing 2-0 to second-placed Gamba Osaka at the weekend.  Today, the fourth pitch of the Saitama Stadium complex is where the back-to-back semi-finals of the Tokyo Senior League Division Two Cup are being played out, the first a Tama Derby between Toshiba Fuchu and Ome FC attended by precisely 21 spectators, one dog, a suitcase on wheels and a baloon cutlass.

Ome, league champions of a group which included Tokyo Gas, Fuji Xerox, Nomura Research Institute and Sperio Johoku, go into the game as favourites, having already made the final stages of the All-Japan Club Football Championships, though Toshiba, runners up in their own league section to HBO Tokyo, are, like Gamba, no slouches themselves, soundly thrashing the likes of FC Steam, Sumitomo Corporation and Tokyo Bay FC in a campaign which yielded an average of over four goals per game.  Even allowing for the lack of defensive mishaps from Leeds United right-backs, I had this marked down as a high-scoring encounter.

My journey takes 45 minutes, three trains and the same number of prefectures, skirting the route I'd taken to the main stadium nine years earlier and culminating, like then, in a cornucopia of Uwara Reds-branded vending machines, autographed posters, flags on lampposts and a supporters' club banner for every season since 1991, their slogans alternating Eurovision kitsch and the stock phrases of a wedding hall:  Rising Reds, Heart-full Wonderland, Go On Sailing, Sing Out Together Heartily, Forever Always and Take Off Together Now.

With the previous two teams yet to leave the pitch, Toshiba warm-up by playing keep-ball on a tarmacked square while Ome get changed by a flowerbed.  The late arrivals carry the early momentum, their first overlap prompting a chant of  'Ome FC' from the trio of travelling fans occupying a single concrete step, but it's the opposition who break the deadlock, the goal swiftly answered by seven claps, one consonant and two vowel sounds from the visiting support.

 The fourth pitch with the main stadium behind.

Ome waste their first chance to level the scores, the Fuchu backline vainly appealing for offside as a forward  weakly lobs wide in a manner which suggests he's been picking up shooting tips from Mario Balotelli's time on Merseyside. Besides a rebound which is booted clear of the Ome goalline and a Fuchu sidefoot over the bar that has an entire line of substitutes dropping to their knees, the only other action of note in a frankly dull first half is the number of times Toshiba's bench shouts "Hey! Hey! Hey!" when a red-and-black shirt goes tumbling unrewarded in the box.

"Lalalala," urge the visiting trio as second period begins with their team on the attack and me halfway through a second can of Kirin's special winter limited beer. Ome switch the ball with menace, finally equalising when a header bounces on the artificial surface and is hooked into the goal.  Fuchu respond with a free-kick that's pushed away and then gathered under the crossbar, but they're unable to keep possession for any period of time and it's no surprise when Ome score again, a free-kick foreheaded in from close range. "Come on," shout their three supporters, briefly waving a blue and green flag, the moulded studs of the next two sides due on already clattering on concrete.

Admission:  Free
Date: Monday November 24th 2014

Friday, 21 November 2014

Ground 246: National Training Centre, Akabane Forest Park

Just a couple of weeks after the All-Japan Club Football Championships I'm back scurrying through the backstreets of the capital's north-west suburbs to catch the first round of the Tokyo Senior League Division Two Cup, in which Sperio Johoku - "Believe in the Dream! Run to J.League" - are hosting Elyse FCDX, a club whose name sounds a bit too much like a bad night out in a Roppongi nightclub.

Sperio are about to celebrate their tenth anniversary of tilting at the J.League but have been caught five promotions short since 2009, their latest league season ending with 11 wins, two draws, 67 goals, a fully fledged ultras group and nothing a runners-up place behind Ome FC.

I arrive at the same time as the Zorro Azul, who are busily unpacking their banner displays and food bags; blue flags and bento boxes, canned coffee and synchronised chanting.  They cluster together in a corner of the 1,000-capacity stand, which faces out over an artificial pitch, landscaped forest trail and a pair of car parks.  "Sperio Johoku!" roars the leader through a megaphone, drawing four syllables out of the first word and shrinking the second down to two.  The two sets of players meet in the centre circle, shake hands and respectfully bow to the stand. "Ole! Ole!" the blue shirts answer, the din continuing unabated for the first five minutes then stopping abruptly, the megaphone downed and replaced, temporarily, by a suburban silence punctuated by traffic noise and the players' shouts.

The home team are all darting runs and flicked passes in the opposing half, but a bit less sure-footed when possession flows the other way. "Joh, Joh, Johoku," rumbles swiftly down the stand as a player bodyswerves an Elyse defender and backheels the ball away from a second. "Oh Sperio, come on Sperio."  The away side intercept,  advance, spread the play to an overlapping midfielder and smack a shot into the net. "Yaa-hoe," scream the visiting substitutes.  The Zorro Azul clap and stomp on regardless.

Neither the noise nor the home club's efforts to muster a goal let up,  the number 9, Nagasawa, slaloming through the area but stumbling as he shoots into bodies.  A second chance is stalled by the snap of a linesman's flag and a third goes begging when a player politely eases up enabling the keeper to collect a bouncing through ball, screams of "Clatter him" or "Get stuck in, man" conspicuously absent as the fans yell on with their support.

Two peeps signal the close of the eight-minute interval, Sperio first back off the touchline as Elyse huddle in a group.  Johoku's number 10 hits the post with a free kick, the Elyse keeper makes a springing save and Nagasawa lofts another half chance into a wire fence.  At the other end, Elyse almost turn in a second but have to settle for a corner which travels all the way across the six-yard-line, meets Hiroshi Kumagai's forehead and bounces into the goal.  The away side celebrate en masse with some Bebeto-inspired arm swinging by the corner flag; Sperio's fans refuse to acknowledge the blow, pogoing with their flags and scarves at the other end of the stand.

 Johoku keep pressing but Elyse largely keep control, Nagasawa drawing appreciative nods from a scout and a save from the keeper after evading a pair of tackles but the away side otherwise restricting the blue shirts to potshots from range.  Off the pitch, only a double substitution quietens the home fans, the corner hushed while the referee checks off the names.   And then, with just three minutes left, a hopeful forward ball sees a Johoku player drift off his inattentive marker and almost apologetically nod into the net.  Sperio race back with the ball, launch it back into the area, and Nagasawa controls with one touch and hits the bottom corner with the second, the referee checking his watch with the Zorro Blue are in mid-Theme from the Monkees.

We're straight into penalties, Elyse missing their opening kick while Sperio convert their first two.  But then the third Johoku player chips against the goalkeeper's legs, Elyse keep on scoring, and when Nagasawa clears the bar it's finally all over.  The blue shirts clamber up the stairs, line up in front of the stand, apologise for the loss and bow once again to the fans, who respond with a choral burst of "Sperio Johoku", the team joining in the refrain.  Elyse take the spoils on the pitch but Johoku retain the honours off it.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday November 16th 2014

Monday, 17 November 2014

Ground 243 - 245: 21st All-Japan Club Football Championships

A holiday weekend, 16 qualifiers representing ten regional associations, four pitches - three inside the 1964 Olympic Park - two time slots per day, a £3 souvenir programme and free entry to the matches themselves.  There's no Wembley final, two-legged tussles, midwinter postponements or complaints about the dominance of the Northern League, but this is as close as Japanese football comes to the English FA Vase.

My tournament began on finals weekend at a rainy Komazawa Park, three stops from Shibuya and formerly host to a Tokugawa shogun, US Army officers' club, the 3rd Asian Games, the 1964 Summer Olympics and the 2014 Tokyo Ramen Show. Originally picked as the main site for the cancelled 1940 games, the park served as the city's second venue 24 years later and is now a public space with baseball, softball and athletics venues, a memorial museum, bike rental, concrete Jenga tower, cherry trees,  a dog run, outdoor swimming pool and leafy jogging trail, "causing inconvenience to others" and "counter-clockwise runners" prominent among the list of impermissible acts.

The first round pitched local favourites and two-time Japan Youth Cup winners Mitsubishi Yowa against a side of Kagoshima University graduates on the Number 2 Ball Sports Ground.  First used for field hockey in 1964, it has one stand, a scoreboard and trees blocking the view of the neighbouring pitch, where Osaka's Kandai Club 2010 were dismantling a team from Shizuoka.  One photographer and a huddle of 50 or so umbrellas are in attendance, a solitary travelling fan tying a flag above the rain-spattered bench seats as the two sides shelter in gazebos. 

While the players come from opposite ends of the country, the style of football is common to all: played at a zip with brittle defences, little pressure in midfield and lots of neat-and-tidy passing which tends to fizzle out when it comes anywhere near the goal.  Mitsubishi work the game's first opening, eliciting a fisted save and a strangulated cry from a spectator sporting headwear shaped like a birthday cake and a t-shirt which reads, in mellifluous gibberish, 'Too Much Loud Could Says All the Candies All the Time.' He's even less happy when Kagoshima ruffle the net, two lofted corners causing all kinds of consternation in the Mitsubishi defence before an outstretched boot stabs a loose ball past the scrambling keeper and a posse of falling bodies on the line.  The lead lasts all of a minute before a soft free kick trickles into an unguarded corner of the Kyushu side's goal, a hat topped with red-and-white striped candles tossed exultantly into the air.

Both teams come bounding back out from half-time teamtalks in their respective gazebos, some adroit twisting and turning by a corner flag earning Mistubishi a second goal when the subsequent cross is headed through the goalkeeper's hands.  As he hunches Mannone-like hurling insults at his gloves, Kagoshima break quickly upfield and level the scores.  Yowa have a penalty appeal waved away, a shot hacked off the line, an abysmal spot-kick easily saved and then sneak a winning goal in the final minute of extra-time.  The rain thunders down, and only the hardiest of counter-clockwise runners, a few dozen specatators shivering under brollies and the men from Mitsubishi survive.

A couple of hundred metres away, past poncho-clad ramen sellers, military recruitment stands and a teenage girl band pogoing on a covered stage, a sparse crowd is gathered under the roof of Komazawa Athletics Field for the Derby della Diesel Engine, Yanmar Amagasaki of the Hyogo Prefectural League taking on Toyota Motor Hokkaido Soccer Club in a stadium with scant lighting, a blue running track and 20,000 largely empty seats. The stadium hosted seven football matches in 1964, two Emperor's Cup Finals and J-League side Tokyo Verdy, once home to Hulk and Ossie Ardiles; today, on a sodden grass pitch, both non-league teams are zinging the ball around confidently, Amagasaki scoring first when a forward zips through the centre of defence, easing the ball round the keeper as he comes sliding out.  Yanmar dominate, adding a second goal through a deflection before Toyota Motor get a respite from the penalty spot shortly after half-time.  Amagasaki reassert themselves, restoring the two-goal advantage after a defensive error, a drop of the shoulder and a clip off an ankle which sends the ball spiralling into the net. Toyota squeeze a second, a cross fortuitously spinning in between the goalkeeper and a post, and then equalise with five minutes left to play. Back come Yanmar, the ball arriving at the feet of a substitute and his instinctive daisycutter bending into the net.  Game over I think, making my way down the empty orange-and-blue rows to the exit.  But then Toyota get a second penalty and calmly despatch it into the space vacated by the Yanmar goalkeeper's dive.

The first half of extra time is uneventful, the second even more so until two atempts are frantically cleared off the line and a third is headed in.  The Amagasaki scorer celebrates like he's just won the tournament; Toyota don't respond.  Two games, two grounds and fourteen goals isn't a bad return for a rainy Saturday. 

Forty-eight hours later I'm on the other side of Tokyo for the first semi-final at Nishigaoka Stadium.  Built six years after the Tokyo Olympics, the football-only ground is managed by the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences and was previously home to FC Tokyo as well as the venue for some of Tokyo Verdy's peripatetic wanderings around the capital city, though its capacity falls just shy of the 10,000 seats required for permanent J.League membership. Not that anywhere near that number are needed today, a few hundred neutrals, fifty odd Nankatsu SC and a dozen or so Thespa Kusatsu Challengers fans comprising the crowd for the 11am start.  Affiliated to a J2 side, the Challengers are the tournament favourites, scoring seven times in dispensing with Nagoya's AS Kariya and then Yanmar Amagasaki on the previous two days.  Nankatsu, who I'd seen just over a week earlier narrowly failing to earn promotion from the ninth-tier Tokyo Senior League Division Three, have eliminated Kyushu's Kashima SC and Tokyo division two side Ome FC.  "Fly to Wings", "Vamos SC!" and "Get Goal" urge the banners pinned behind their goal. "Powered By Kusatsu" is slung across the opposite end, where the travelling contingent have gathered with a bass drum and flags.  The underdogs fire one effort past the post and force the Kusatsu keeper into a scrambling save, but tire late on as Kusatsu clatter the post, scoop a penalty horribly high and wide, and then force the ball over the line in a goalmouth melee, the whole team rushing behind the goal to celebrate with their fans.  The beaten side have only a third-placed certificate - shared with Mitsubishi Yowa, who were beaten 2-1 by Kandai 2010 in a game played immediately after Nankatsu depart the pitch - and the acclaim of the opposition support to show at the end of a season of near misses.  "We didn't achieve our target," apologises a club official, "but we've taken an important step towards it."

The following day, I'm back at work as Thespa defeat Kandai in an afternoon kick-off watched by 162 at Komazawa Athletics Field. It's not quite Wembley - even for a Vase Final - but Kusatsu don't mind a bit.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday 1st and Monday 3rd November 2014.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Ground 241: Musashino Municipal Athletics Stadium

It's the last weekend of October, 23 degrees and still shirtsleeves weather in Kichijoji, where I've come to escape the madding crowds of city centre Tokyo and watch Japan Football League high-flyers Yogokawa Musashino play MIO Biwako Shiga, near-namesakes of a team I'd seen walloping all-comers on a daytrip from Kyoto in 2011. While Musashino, formed in 1939 as the club side of Yokogawa Electric Corp, don't have much to show for seven decades of history besides a smattering of prefectural honours and a handful of youth team graduates - notably ex-Japan and Southampton striker Tadanari Lee - Kichijoji is one of the capital's hippest suburban hang-outs; I pass Dutch flowermarkets, Italian trattorias, German bakeries, a faux-Thai backpacker cafe, university campus and, finally and confusingly, two floors of a leisure centre before exiting at the entrance to the ground.

In the typical display of synchronised efficiency, one person takes my 1,000 yen, another simultaneously hands out a free photocopied programme sheet and a third, with a bow, a flyer for a women's game before I'm through into a concourse with merchandise stands, food concessions, volunteer sellers carrying alcohol down to the terraces in boxes, and a Brazilian restaurant stall flogging ice cold lager and meat-on-sticks.  A few dozen spectators sprawl across a grass bank opposite the only stand, which is around half full, shaded by a metal roof and overhanging trees and awash with the noise of the Boys Musashino being comprehensively outsung by six Shiga fans. The visitors break off in a collective shriek as a Musashino shot spins backwards off the keeper's hand, cheer the agricultural clearance which prevents a goal, then pick up with a chant that sounds so disconcertingly like a paean to Newcastle United's Gabriel Obertan that I almost splutter my beer.

Rhythmic clapping and the drone of a helicopter soundtrack most of the half, Shiga probing intelligently down the sides of the pitch while Musashino storm and bully their way through the centre. It's not much of a surprise when the visitors take the lead,  Tatsuya Saito played through, drawing the keeper and sending the celebrating Shiga fans into choruses of Go West and When Skies Are Grey.  Ever polite, the substitutes line-up to clap the starters off the pitch at the interval, two ranks of cheerleaders breaking out into an acrobatics routine which ends in a human pyramid and the closing bars of the theme from Sesame Street. 

Whatever they were listening to inside the changing rooms, Musashino - beaten only once in ten league games but without a home win since March - come back out reinvigorated, levelling the scores when a set-piece is only cleared as far as half-time replacement Daisuke Eiro.   The home support bounce up and down a bit, briefly return their attention to cup noodles and smartphones, and then start bawling out 'Musashino' as the previously unruffled Shiga defence starts gifting up chances.  Blue shirts swarm around the goalmouth but studs and shots miss by inches and the game soon drifts towards torpor despite the boisterous efforts of the Shiga fans, who attempt to rouse their team's attacking intent with bursts of Twisted Sister's We're Not Gonna Take It Anymore.

There are nine minutes left when a harmless ball down the left is centred along the ground and flicked in by Tsuyoshi Kaneko, the third of Musashino's second-half substitutions. Kaneko's marker looks at the goalkeeper, the goalkeeper looks back at him.  Musashino flags twirl in the windless air.  The stunned away fans, defiant to the last, launch into Popeye the Sailor Man.

Admission:  1,000 yen (about £6)
Date:  Saturday 25th October 2014

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Grounds 240 & 242: Niijuku Future Park and Katsushika Sports Centre, Nankatsu SC

Tsubasa Ōzora. Captain, Flash Kicker, global phenomenon.

Aged 11 when the series began in 1981 and still a Roy Raceish 21 three decades later, Tsubasa was brought up in Nankatsu City, where he played in all-star elementary and middle school teams and harboured dreams of becoming the greatest footballer in the world.  His adventures, first serialised in the Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine, have been followed avidly by hundreds of millions on TV and game consoles; in his home country, Tsubasa's triumphs played "a crucial role in Japanese football's exponential growth from relative obscurity" in the early-1980s to World Cup host in 2002 and, to the eventual detriment of the national team, inspired a whole generation to become attacking midfielders.

Captain Tsubasa statue near Katsushika's Yotsugi Station.

The fictional Nankatsu was based on the real-life eastern Tokyo ward of Katsushika, home to Yōichi Takahashi, a baseball fan and manga artist who'd become interested in football while watching televised games from the 1978 World Cup.  "I did some research into soccer and learned that in Europe it was far more popular than baseball.  Soccer was the world's number one sport. I was hoping I could share the excitement of what I had witnessed on television through my drawings and in so doing hope that football would become more popular here in Japan".  At first Takahashi had to educate and not just entertain his readers: "Even 'World Cup' was an unfamiliar term so I had to explain in Captain Tsubasa that it was such and such an event, that it's the world's greatest tournament, held every four years". 

 Crowd forming at Niijuku Future Park

In the following three decades, Tsubasa has guided Japan to World Youth Cup and Olympic-qualifying success, pioneered the flying drive shoot, clip jump and heel lift cyclone kicks, lost only a single game in which he's played, moved to Sao Paulo and then Barcelona, where he was shunned by a coach modelled on on Louis van Gaal before netting three goals in a 6-5 win over Real Madrid, married his childhood sweetheart, and influenced the likes of Zidane, Messi, Hidetoshi Nakata, Alessandro Del Piero, Andrés Iniesta and Fernando Torres. "I remember when I was a kid....everyone in school was talking about this cartoon," the Chelsea striker said when he visited Japan for the 2012 World Club Championship.  "These two young players got into the national team then moved to Europe and played for Barcelona, so it was like a dream. I started playing football because of this." 

 Ryo Ishizaki, Jubilo Iwata defender renowned for blocking footballs with his face. 

While Tsubasa and his contemporaries have long since departed Nankatsu, his creator still lives in suburban Katsushika, where seven bronze statues and an adult football team commemorate the place where Japan's greatest sporting export first honed his skills.  Formed in 2012 and swiftly renamed to mirror Tsubasa's all-conquering school team, Nankatsu SC currently play in the third division of the Tokyo Shakaijin Soccer League, six promotions off their goal of reaching J3, the lowest rung of Japan's nationwide professional league.

Behind the Wire: Niijuku Future Park

Seating at the Niijuku Future Park is in perspex dug-outs or a grass bank, the pitch fully enclosed by wire fencing and a solitary vending machine and smart new changing block behind one goal.  Nankatsu's pre-game preparation includes passing drills, shuttle runs, set-piece routines and an exhaustive series of sprints and stretches; their opponents, Jam FC, make do with half an hour of pinging a ball off the fence followed by a quick burst of attack v defence. Nankatsu finish off with a loud cheer, I'm handed a free match programme in a cellophane bag, and then, accompanied by the click, click, click of a cameraphone from the visiting bench, the first of the evening's double header gets promptly underway. The 100 or so spectators spread out picnic mats or unfold camping chairs, one practising his golf swing with an imaginary club while the nimble-footed Daiki Hatakeyama skips round two challenges and loops a cross which is redirected into the grip of the grateful Jam goalkeeper.  Moments later Hatakeyama skillfully pirouettes between his markers and chips to the far post, where the number nine is lurking to put Nankatsu ahead.  The lead's doubled from a rapid counter before Hatakeyama drifts into space and slams a cross into the top of the net for the third.  "Wooah!" yells an appreciative spectator between mouthfuls of Pocari Sweat, "Action!" claps the Nankatsu coach.   Jam head one back from a free-kick but Nankatsu smash in a fourth before Daisuke Takiguchi twice unpicks the defence to make the final score 6-1, the two teams shaking hands before walking over to bow to each bench. 

Katsushika Sports Centre
The following week I'm at Nankatsu's final league game of the season, the home side needing a series of results worthy of a Captain Tsubasa plot - a four goal win, the leaders to lose and the second-placed team to emerge pointless from their final two games - to snatch the only promotion place.  The game takes place on the opposite bank of the Nakagawa River,  a few hundred fans converging on the Katsushika Sports Centre's single stand. As the first game of the evening draws to a close, Nankatsu volunteers bustle about setting up sponsor logos, giant drums for the pre-match entertainment and a chalkboard on wheels to keep track of the score.  The club's players are every bit as busy, one goal disallowed and another blocked at the last by the goalkeeper's legs before the Recruit FC defence leave the number 34 alone from a corner to nod Nankatsu's opener with 15 minutes played. 

Nankatsu (in white) on the attack

Shota Meguro toepokes wide after managing to outsprint the keeper to a through ball, the number 18 cuts past three challenges but steers his shot the wrong side of the post, the tireless Meguro scoops wastefully over the crossbar and the Recruit keeper fists a free-kick away for a corner.  Time ticks on, Kazato Yamagishi smacks the ball against the keeper when sent through on goal, and the second doesn't come until the game's in its final minute.  By then, promotion is out of reach.

"Captain Tsubasa will keep going," Takashi recently told an interviewer.   So too Nankatsu SC, whose story has just begun.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday 19th and 26th October 2014.