Love, Revolution and Architecture: a Year in the Life of the Squirrel Nation, Part Two

Omiya Ardija squirrel mascotEditor’s note: This is the second part in a three part series by furtho looking at Omiya Ardija, a Japanese team living in the shadow of their near neighbours, the Urawa Reds. Read the first part here, which looked at Omiya’s remarkable promotion to the top Japanese division, a joy tempered as their inadequate stadium was demolished at the end of the 2005 stadium. Omiya were homeless, and things would soon go wrong on the field, too, testing to the full the loyalty of Omiya’s “Squirrel Nation”.

A Year In The Life

Throughout 2006 and 2007, then, the majority of Omiya home fixtures were played at Komaba Stadium, a charmless concrete bowl complete with an athletics track. The Squirrel Nation hated the place. It was 25 minutes’ fun-filled walk from the nearest train station, for one thing. And it was located in Urawa. Oh, and it just so happened to be something akin to the Reds’ spiritual home. In contrast to Omiya Park, the small crowds attending Ardija games at Komaba found it almost impossible to generate a proper atmosphere and the hardcore support, instead of being able to reach out and touch the goalnets as they had been used to, were fifty yards from the action.

But an additional factor was serving to isolate fans from the club. While few would have expected it to be easy to compete alongside teams of the stature of Urawa, Yokohama F Marinos or Kashima Antlers, among Omiya supporters there nevertheless existed the feeling that their team had been underperforming and, for many, the root cause of this sense of potential unfulfilled lay in the club’s transfer policy.

Time and again, foreign strikers in particular came to Omiya, failed to make any impact and were quietly let go. On other occasions, the Squirrels got rid of players who immediately went on to achieve terrific success at rival J-League clubs. Holder nominally of the position of Chief Scout, the man responsible for all this was Satoru Sakuma, effectively the General Manager of the club in that he oversaw the relationship with – and indeed continued to be employed by – main sponsor NTT. It was a mess and a constant source of dissatisfaction amongst supporters mistrustful of Sakuma’s power and suspicious of the fact that he was not even employed by the football club.

Former USL striker Mauricio Salles celebrates his solitary goal as an Omiya player

2007 started, then, with Omiya Ardija in an uncomfortable position both off and on the pitch. Toshiya Miura had departed after three years as coach, having taken the team to promotion but then not been able to move things up to the next level via his particularly cautious brand of football. Rumours abounded of the transfer budget having been blown the previous year, meaning that the incoming coach, inexperienced Dutchman Robert Verbeek, had little or no money to spend – or rather, to have Sakuma spend for him. The squad appeared notably weaker than 2006 and a relegation battle looked to be on the cards.

Defeats in all of the first four matches in March brought home what a tough year lay ahead. The team appeared ill-focused, with even less of a cutting edge than had been the case under Miura – and although the defence did begin to tighten up as new import Leandro settled in alongside Daisuke Tomita in the middle of the back four, the Squirrels were scoring on average only once every two games. Worse was to come at the end of April, when the team put in a particularly feeble performance in a home defeat by Ventforet Kofu, one of the few J1 clubs who are actually a smaller concern than Omiya.

After the final whistle, for the first time fans staged a noisy protest calling for the dismissal not of coach Verbeek, but of Satoru Sakuma. It was plain to see, they argued, whose fault all this was: not so much the lifeless football and the dreadful results but the sheer energy-sapping lack of ambition that seemed to be pervading Omiya Ardija, the apparent belief that simply being in the top division was going to be sufficient for the supporters and really ought to provide satisfaction in itself.

Nothing, of course, changed. In fact, although the simmering resentment against Sakuma remained, this heralded a modest improvement in the team’s fortunes. A hard-fought 1-1 draw in the rain at Saitama Stadium against high-flying Urawa turned out to be the first match of an eight-game unbeaten run.

But it was difficult to move up the standings when no fewer than four of those games were 0-0 draws and, as the season reached its mid-point in late June, there was an air of deep despondency enveloping the club: an unloved temporary home ground, third bottom in the league, lacklustre performances from players seemingly unconvinced by the new coach, very few goals… and overseeing it all, Sakuma. How could things be much worse?

The man himself: Satoru SakumaSakuma Yamero!

A break in the match schedule saw the Squirrels squad on a training camp in order to prepare for the second half of the season. Just prior to the recommencement of the J1 calendar, Omiya staged a friendly against Urawa and while the Reds’ line-up was filled with youngsters and fringe squad members, Robert Verbeek fielded more or less a full-strength side. The intention was that the Ardija players should use that match to put into practice the style of play and tactics that had been worked on during the camp, as a springboard for moving up the table.

The Squirrels had one shot throughout the whole of the ninety minutes and lost 6-0. They were shapeless, clearly uncommitted and ended up being torn apart by the young Urawa side. Verbeek was sacked later that evening.

The fans were split as to the wisdom of dismissing the Dutchman, some feeling that he’d done his best under difficult circumstances, while others took the view that his ultra-defensive approach was only ever going to achieve results by boring the opposition into submission. But there was no such disagreement when the identity of the new coach became clear. To the horror of the Squirrel Nation and with just days to go before the re-start of J1 against a strong Shimizu S-Pulse team, it was quickly announced that Verbeek’s replacement would be none other than Satoru Sakuma.

This was comedy gold for the sports press – who immediately nicknamed the new incumbent the “salaryman coach” – but total humiliation for the fans. As far as they were concerned, Sakuma had proved himself on countless occasions to be an appalling judge of players, he didn’t even have any real coaching experience at all and was, even worse, still to be an employee of NTT rather than coming onto the payroll of Omiya Ardija.

The club talked about how imperative it was to remain in J1 – that they were under additional pressure from sponsors and from the local council, as the financial backers for the new stadium. But how, fans wondered, would it be possible for the team to make desperately-need improvements under a coach who was in reality an office worker, a jobbing member of company staff? The Sakuma appointment seemed instead to represent a one-way ticket back to J2. The redeveloped Omiya Park would surely play host not to top flight football, but to the minnows of the Japanese pro game.

The End…

Luckily for Satoru Sakuma, in his first game in charge, Shimizu S-Pulse were way off form. Omiya scraped a 2-2 draw – only the second time all year that they had scored more than once in a match. The following week, though, Ardija were outclassed at home by Vissel Kobe before then being put to the sword by Kashima Antlers with what was a truly atrocious display. The Squirrel Nation were aghast at how low their team had sunk. The players were uncoordinated and uncommitted – something it would never have been possible to say about Omiya sides of old – and the new coach was nothing but an incompetent with a giant ego.

Protests by the supporters would clearly have no effect, given that Sakuma was now running the show entirely and there was no desire amongst Omiya followers to undermine the confidence of the players yet further by wholesale booing of their increasingly woeful efforts. But the fans’ websites crackled with impotent fury, while those Ardija players who maintained inevitably anodyne blogs as part of their media profile found that, via the comments sections of their sites, they were on the receiving end of a level of anger that surprised even the fans themselves.

On the pitch, matters reached a head one Saturday at the end of August, when Omiya travelled to take on a Nagoya Grampus 8 side on a terrible run of results and further weakened by injury and suspension. If ever there was an opportunity for Sakuma’s team to break out of their slump, this was it.

The Squirrel Nation face further humiliation at Nagoya

Omiya were crushed, 5-0. “The Squirrels followers who made the trip to Nagoya received for their effort and commitment nothing but mockery from the players,” read one fansite after the match. The mother of two young supporters commented on the blog of captain Chikara Fujimoto that she didn’t want her sons watching such awful football again, because it had made them cry. “Despair; thanks!” was the ironic posting of another fan on star midfielder Daigo Kobayashi’s web diary.

But amongst all the animated online discussions, a point that came up again and again was perhaps best summed up by one blog writer when he remarked, “I never realised before now how much I love the club. This situation has brought it home just how much it means to me.” The players seemed to be performing if anything even more poorly since the appointment of Sakuma, but for the Squirrel Nation a sea change had occurred in their attitude to and relationship with the club. The mood was paradoxically buoyant. The players might not look as if they care, the thinking seemed to go, but it’s our JOB to care: we’re Omiya Ardija supporters and we can’t change now.

All that was needed was for the team to provide a win. Any win. With ten or a dozen games to go there was still the possibility of avoiding relegation, but something needed to happen to kickstart a Squirrels revival. Incredibly, it came in the Saitama derby at the start of September when, with the score at 0-0 after an hour, league leaders Urawa had their defence sliced open. Forward Hiroshi Morita latched on to a perfectly weighted through ball after a surging run from the back by defender Leandro and clipped it past Reds keeper Ryota Tsuzuki for a hysterically-celebrated goal.

Ardija players after their shock win over Urawa

The reigning champions pushed Omiya back to try and grab an equaliser, but found themselves matched up against an opponent who had discovered a resilience not seen all year long. Leandro and Tomita were disciplined in the heart of the defence and goalkeeper Koji Ezumi played with an assurance that seemed to unnerve the Urawa attack. Ardija held on, reasonably comfortably in the end, for a 1-0 win. Was there hope still for the rest of the season?

Check back in a few days for the final part of a Year in the Life of the Squirrel Nation. And read more from furtho at Go! Go! Omiya Ardija and Japanese Non-League football.

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