Hello, goodbye (part 1)

The end of the season is a time when, as is usual for J.League clubs, teams release a large number of players, and bring in ones that boards & managers hope will propel teams forward.

In this first part, I’ll take a look at the major in for the club – the new manager Takeshi Oki. Part two will look at the goodbyes – and boy, are there plenty of them….

 

Welcome to the new manager!

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*above picture from fc-gifu.com

The decision to part with Megumu Yoshida came as a surprise to me. I’m not too sure of the internal talks that took place, so I’m not sure whose decision it was. If it was Yoshida’s then he leaves with his reputation in tact and if it was the club’s then I’m curious as to what the reasoning was.

In any event, there was only really ever one candidate. Names like Motohiro Yamaguchi & Naohiko Minobe were mentioned, but the club set their sights on Takeshi Oki and after a few days of negotiation he eventually signed on the bottom line.

 

Who is he? 

Whilst Oki isn’t a particularly big name, his reputation is quite good. His resume includes:

  • Shimizu S-Pulse manager
  • Ventforet Kofu manager
  • Kyoto Sanga manager
  • Japan coach

This last year he was working as an adviser at FC Imabari, the Shikoku regional league team owned by ex-Japanese national team coach Takeshi Okada – and the team which won the regional league championship to progress to the JFL – as well as being a supervisor at Bunnys Kyoto, a Nadeshiko challenge league team.

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Oki on duty with Japan in South Africa, 2010

To go on his last managerial experience in the J.League, he was Kyoto Sanga manager between 2011-2013. During that time his league finishes were:

  • 2011 – 7th
  • 2012 – 3rd
  • 2013 – 3rd

In 2012, Oki’s Sanga were beaten 0-4 at home by Oita Trinita in the J2 play-off semi final (a huge surprise considering Oita finished 6th that year). In 2013, his side went one better by reaching the final, only to be beaten by Tokushima Vortis. He left after that game, and just to put it in perspective, Kyoto have finished 9th, 17th & 5th in the years since Oki left, and have gone through four different managers in the intervening three years.

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Oki & Takeshi Okada pictured at a pre-season training camp

Looking back at his teams at Nishikyogoku, it is clear that he had some talented players at his disposal. Yuya Kubo, Atsutaka Nakamura, Takumi Miyayoshi, Yoshiaki Komai, Shigeru Yokotani, to name but a few who have moved on to bigger & brighter things. His teams had no trouble scoring goals in his time in Kyoto, finishing 2nd and 4th in goals scored in 2012 & 2013 respectively.

According to stats site Football Lab, Oki’s Kyoto fluctuated between a plain 4-4-2 & 4-2-3-1 formations during his time there, so look for any additions to the squad to be those comfortable in these lineups. One would think that Koya Kazama, Leo Mineiro & Junichi Paulo Tanaka would be ideal fits in either formation for Oki, so hopefully they are kept on. As for other reinforcements, I’d be interested to see who Oki has in mind, although one thing that has piqued my interest is the news coming out of Kyoto that several decent players will leave the club, including Koji Yamase & Koki Arita, and there is also the spectre of Kazuki Hara. He has yet to re-sign with relegated Giravanz Kitakyushu and I wonder if Oki will try and make a move for him.

 

For supporters, the off season is a time to relax. For Takeshi Oki, his work is just beginning. Good luck Coach!

 

One more win

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After everything, it comes down to this.

After all the defeats, all the let downs, all the times when we’ve thought it is over – it comes down to this one game.

After all the bits of Leo brilliance, the Tokizawa saves, the additional time winners, the times when we dug deep to salvage something – it comes down to this final act.

We are Gifu, and we need just one more big performance.

#WeAreGifu

Safety…..within reach! (but not there yet)

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It has been a while since I blogged, and a lot has happened in the intervening time. Far too much for me to go over in one post, so I’ll just cut to the chase.

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After two successive victories, FC Gifu sit in 19th place in the J2 table on 40 points, three points above bottom placed Zweigen Kanazawa with two games remaining. Gifu will secure their J2 status should Kanazawa & second-bottom Giravanz Kitakyushu (also on 37 points) lose and Gifu avoid defeat in Kumamoto on Saturday afternoon.

That Gifu are in this position at all – with their destiny in their own hands – seems slightly unbelievable given it was not so long ago that Yoshida’s men lost five games in a row. But a gutsy win against Gunma last Thursday coupled with an exhilarating win against Yokohama FC last Sunday have Gifu in control.

Gifu make the long trek south west to Kumamoto on Saturday, and historically it has been a happy hunting ground. They have won there on their previous two visits, and a similar outcome on Saturday will do very nicely. I would hope Yoshida sticks with the same eleven that played so well against Yokohama at the weekend – meaning Taisuke Mizuno & Yuto Ono keeping their places at the base of the midfield, Koya Kazama & Junichi Paulo Tanaka lining up on the wings and expanding their seemingly limitless energy there, and Hiroaki Namba lining up as the lone striker.

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Namba’s role against YFC can’t be under-estimated. He played so selflessly, that it wasn’t until I watched the game again (I actually ended up watching it three times – once at the stadium and twice at home) that I realized how much his pressing gave Gifu, and gave space for Koya Kazama, Paulo Tanaka & Leo Mineiro to exploit. Many people will just look at the bottom line of ‘another game where Namba failed to score’ but that would be a misguided take. Namba harassed the YFC defenders and didn’t give them time to play from the back. If you watch Leo Mineiro’s second goal, it was actually Namba who won the ball off a Yokohama player deep in Gifu’s half, and then he had the presence of mind to feed Tanaka, who went on to play in Leo Mineiro, and Leo did the rest. Namba’s wasn’t a highlight-inducing performance, but it was exactly what Gifu needed in the way they were set up.

Of course though, the undoubted star of the show was Leo Mineiro. His two goals, allied to his goal against Gunma the previous Thursday, have put Gifu in the position they are now. Gifu are not a one man team – let me make that very clear. BUT, it is hard to see things being as positive as they are (and ‘positive’ is a relative term in this case) had Leo not stepped up when the team needed it.

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It is no secret how much I rate Leo Mineiro. I made the argument earlier in the season that he is the best Brazilian plying his trade in J2, and that is a statement I stand by today. In face, if it wasn’t for Chong Tese of Shimizu S-Pulse, I would say he isn’t far away from being the best foreign player in the league. If Namba was doing all the dirty work (the ‘water carrying’ as Didier Deschamps might say) then it was Leo who was doing the box-office stuff. High speed dribbles, long range shots, playing on the shoulder of the last defender……oh, and scoring goals. His penalty was as cool as you could get under extreme pressure, and his second goal was sensational. Taking advantage of tired Yokohama defenders, he latched on to a pass from Junichi Paulo Tanaka, beat two defenders and the keeper before slotting in while losing his balance.

 

Gifu supporters love him. LOVE him. And Leo doesn’t leave anything behind. He gives his all for the team on the pitch. After the (at the time) devastating defeat at Kitakyushu which plunged Gifu to the bottom of the table, he was the player who stayed behind to talk to the supporters that had made the very long journey to Kitakyushu. The fact that he felt the need to speak to supporters at that time shows off a lot about his character. As does the way he is with supporters after the games. He is mobbed, but he always has time for everyone who asks, and no matter what the result of the game, he always has a smile. I find it reassuring, and I’m a grown man. So, what that positivity does to the kids who come to watch Gifu I can only imagine. He looks like he genuinely enjoys playing football for FC Gifu. If Gifu stay up, I really hope they try and sign him on a permanent basis (currently he is only at the club on loan). But the better he plays, the more other clubs will take notice. A double edged sword, if ever there was one.

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So, Gifu travel to Kumamoto know that a win will put severe pressure on the other teams around them. Kumamoto snatched a last kick winner against Gifu in the corresponding fixture earlier this season (a dramatic 2-3 loss for Gifu) so I feel that we owe Kumamoto for that. As I said earlier, Gifu have won on their last two trips to that lovely part of Japan. 2014 was a 3-0 win, keyed by Keiji Takachi’s 40 yard pass into an empty net, while 2015’s edition featured a winning goal from Hiroaki Namba.

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Kumamoto themselves are not mathematically safe just yet, so they do have something to play for. But if Gifu play as well as they did on Sunday, they’ll have a fighting chance to either secure J2 football for next year, or at least put them in prime position to do it on the final day.

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Kick off is at 2pm (JST), Saturday, November 12.

#WeAreGifu

Finally!!!

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After a wait of nearly 6 months, FC Gifu finally won at home again in 2016, beating Ehime FC 2-1 in a match full of drama. Here, I take you through the evening with the help of some photos. (All mine, unless stated)

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Pre match: Not very welcoming weather. In fact, it is always Ehime FC who seem to bring this kind of weather with them. I remember a particular game in 2014 that was played in the aftermath of a typhoon. That game had a pretty dramatic ending as well….

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Pre-match warming up: Yoshida had decided to stick with his preferred 4-3-3 formation, with Choi, Tamori & Aoki in the midfield three, with Namba, Evandro & Leo Mineiro up front.

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Pre-match: Those flags are heavy enough. But covered in rain and with the wind howling? Consider lifting them exercise. Behind the goal was more scarcely populated than usual as supporters headed for the places in the stadium covered by the roof.

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Warming up: I spoke to ex-Gifu goalkeeper Kyohei Noda – who acts as an analyst on FC Gifu games for the local TV channel – and said that these conditions were horrible for ‘keepers. Here you can see Gifu’s goalkeeper coach Yuji Keigoshi firing crosses in to test the handling of starting goalkeeper Yoshinari Takagi.

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The visitors: Ehime FC don’t have a good record in Gifu. And they always seem to get drawn on a Sunday evening, meaning that they can’t bring many fans.

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The game: From my vantage point in the main stand, the two teams go in their customary pre-match huddles.

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The game: Ehime took the lead after two minutes with Sakano nodding in at the far post from a very routine corner which Gifu failed to clear. After eight minutes though, Ehime were reduced to 10 men when defender Nobuhisa Urata was sent off for bringing Leo Mineiro down when he was clean through on goal. The ref took his time to make the decision, but I’m not sure what he had to think about – it was a clear red card offence.

The above photo was one of many scenes I could have shown – it shows Ehime (in white) adopting a 5-3-1 formation after the red card. Because Gifu had selected three holding midfielders it meant they lacked creativity, with only Evandro playing in the gap between Ehime’s defence & midfield. Namba & Leo Mineiro are more “play on the shoulder” attackers, and loads of times throughout the game, I was screaming for Leo Rocha or Keiji Takachi to come on to give another creative mind on the pitch.

Leo Rocha did come on, but I was surprised it was for Namba as I thought we needed all the attacking help we could get. Still, we equalized through Masanori Abe who was in the right place at the right time. Rocha played well, dropping deep to get the ball and with him & Leo Mineiro playing through passes, Evandro had two great chances: one was saved by Kodama, while the other one hit the post.

Keiji Takachi & Naoya Okane came on – Okane came on as a striker – but it looked like being yet another 1-1 draw until Rocha scored direct from a corner to give Gifu a precious win – the first in 13 games, and first at home since March.

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Post game: Almost as soon as the final whistle sounded, the Heavens opened and it just poured & poured with rain. Those supporters who had made their way to the front of the stands to greet the players were caught in a monsoon.

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Post game: I hid under the back stand to shelter from the rain, but my main man Nayoa Okane saw me hiding. We gave each other the thumbs up, and I ventured out into the elements to take the victory photo that I had been so desperate to take for so long.

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Celebrations: Thumbs up from Evandro, and a look upstairs by Leo Mineiro. Leo ran all game – he must have been knackered at the end. But it was another brilliant performance by Leo. Evandro also worked hard, not that you can tell by his relaxed demeanour.

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Celebrations: THAT is the picture I waited so long to take. I didn’t even care that I was soaked and that my camera was getting drenched (I need a new one anyway).

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Celebrations: Keiji Takachi (right) and goalkeeper Yoshinari Takagi must have been fed up of going in front of the supporters behind the goal after yet another winless game. On this day, at least, they could enjoy the plaudits and hopefully it gave them a much needed confidence boost.

 

The final analysis

Did FC Gifu deserve to win?  – Yes….just. We made most of the running (as we should have against 10 men for nearly all the game) and had far more chances. I do believe we should have attacked more, and used more creative players earlier in the game. It was difficult to watch when we had Tsubasa Aoki & Choi trying to be playmakers when Keiji Takachi & Leo Rocha were on the bench.

Where does that result leave FC Gifu? – It leaves Gifu on 31 points, five points above bottom placed Kanazawa, and four points above second-bottom Giravanz Kitakyushu – both of whom lost at the weekend. The 31 points means Gifu are also level with Kamatamare Sanuki.

What’s next? – Next for FC Gifu is a trip to Renofa Yamaguchi. That game takes place on Sunday September 25th, 6pm KO.

 

 

The run-in starts now

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Apologies for the recent lack of posts. Other projects & a summer “holiday” conspired against me. But let’s crack on. Here are the facts of FC Gifu’s current position:

  • Knocked out of the Emperor’s Cup by an amateur team
  • Eleven league games without a win
  • 20th in J2

There are various ways to interpret what has gone on before, but the truth is that from this point on, it is almost irrelevant. What matters from now is the final twelve games that Gifu face, starting this coming Sunday when JEF United visit the Nagaragawa Memorial Stadium.

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Manager Megumu Yoshida is without a win since taking over from Ruy Ramos, but for those wanting a more positive prognosis, he has made Gifu quite difficult to beat. We have drawn the last four games 1-1 (and that rises to five if you include the fact that the Emperor’s Cup defeat against Honda finished 1-1 after 90 minutes).

The fact that Gifu are difficult to beat presents a little bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, if Gifu don’t lose for the rest of the season they should (repeat, SHOULD) be safe, just about. That scenario wouldn’t be pretty in the slightest. But, that not losing scenario isn’t going to happen – no matter how safe Gifu supposedly set up. To play “not to lose” is tant amount to admitting you aren’t good enough to compete, and nobody wants to believe that.

Setting up not to lose is one thing. But setting up without the intention of winning is another thing completely. My conservative estimate is that we will need AT LEAST 12 points to avoid the relegation play-off. Mathematics tells us that this equates to four wins. Those wins are going to be difficult to come by anyway, but especially so if the focus is on not losing.

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Yoshida has set his teams up in a 4-3-2-1 formation mostly. The three sitting midfielders, of which Naoya Okane and Daiki Tamori are important components, ensures that Gifu are more difficult to get through. That is a positive element after Gifu were consistently opened up during the Ruy Ramos reign, and the defensive work is to be applauded (there was something heroic about the rearguard action against Matsumoto Yamaga). Now though, the question Yoshida must ask himself is how to keep a sense of defensive solidity while at the same time giving the attack some more weight.

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Of course, the Brazilian Leo Mineiro will be the most important player for us. His mixture of pace, energy & skill could well be the difference for us. If I was Yoshida, I would probably try and go for more of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, just to give the attack a bit more bite. Something like:

   Takagi

Abe   Tashiro   Iwase   Nogaito

        Okane    Takagi

Kazama      Leo Rocha (Choi)    Leo Mineiro

          Evandro (Takiya/Bruno)

The “Leo Rocha” position is a bit of a headache for me. I think that Rocha gives the team the most creativity, but you could argue for at least three others:

  • Keiji Takachi would give the experience and veteran influence
  • Taisuke Mizuno would give ball skills & energy
  • Choi Sung Keun would add a bit of steel & drive

Between the four of them, I’m pretty sure all of them would give a good account of themselves. I think it is important that Koya Kazama plays. He looked a bit tired coming into August, but hopefully the rest that he has had means he is fresh for the run in. He gives Gifu a unique combination of creativity & energy down the right, and so if he & Leo Mineiro can give Gifu some outlets on the flanks, it will only bode well for the team.

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Looking ahead, Gifu face JEF next Sunday, and it is worth remembering that Gifu haven’t won at home since March. They say “win your home games”, but Gifu might have to look at their away games as being more winnable. The away games on the slate are:

  • Renofa Yamaguchi
  • Cerezo Osaka
  • Kyoto Sanga
  • Giravanz Kitakyushu
  • Roasso Kumamoto

The first three on that list are in the top half – with Cerezo & Kyoto in the play-off positions – but the other two represent huge games. Both are “six pointers” and Gifu will look to target those games. But in all honesty, that is a tough slate of games, especially the earlier ones. It might come down to the final games of the year. Here’s how they shape up:

  • Machida Zelvia (h)
  • Kitakyushu (a)
  • Gunma (h)
  • Yokohama FC (h)
  • Kumamoto (a)
  • Tokyo Verdy (h)

When you look at that stretch, it looks like there are plenty of winnable games there. IF Gifu can sort their home form/home mental block out, there is a real chance of surviving this relegation battle. If the poor home form persists, we could be in whole world of trouble.

I’m backing the former. Statistically, you would think there would be some bounce back, and I genuinely can’t see us not winning at home in the next two months. It would be pretty shocking, even for Gifu standards.

So, with that, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Gifu will survive. It might not be pretty, and it most certainly will be nerve-wracking. But, in the end, I think we will be safe. But it is going to take a huge effort from everyone: players, staff & supporters. The supporters have had it rough this year, no doubt about it. But they still turn up, still support. And Gifu will need that going forward.

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But I think the thing that is most needed is bravery. Be brave, be bold. It applies to everyone involved.

  • Yoshida – Be brave in your team selection. Believe you have the players to win games.
  • Players – Be brave on the ball. Don’t always take the safe option, especially in attacking positions. Don’t pass on responsibility, seize the responsibility, take charge. Back yourself, and be confident.
  • Supporters – Be brave and be bold in your support. Never give up, and never lose faith.

It is going to be a difficult end to the season, that is for sure. But standing up and being counted will give us a chance.

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#WeAreGifu

Don’t look back in anger…

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…at least not today. So goes the Oasis classic – in my opinion the absolute peak of the mid-nineties cultural revolution in the UK. But, we are not here to talk about that, we are here to talk about FC Gifu’s decision to dispense with the services of manager Ruy Ramos.

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How did we get here?

In most normal circumstances, this decision would not have raised any eyebrows. It has been a theme of mine over the past couple of weeks to point out the facts surrounding FC Gifu’s current run of form. They don’t make for pleasant reading:

  • Five consecutive defeats
  • Six consecutive home defeats
  • Nine defeats in the last eleven games
  • No home win win since March 26th

Those stats are more than enough in this day and age to warrant a manager change. It wasn’t only the results though, the performances weren’t coming close to being good enough, even in Gifu’s last win (the 2-1 win at Mitsuzawa against Yokohama FC), the first half was probably one of the worst halves of football I have ever seen.

Defensive problems have been a hallmark of the Ramos era, and that never changed despite the myriad of defensive combinations that were tried. It became clear that his message either wasn’t getting through to the players, or possibly the players weren’t capable of following the instructions given. Or, the instructions given weren’t good enough to even be actionable. Whatever the reasons, it was very clear that there was a disparity in what Ramos thought the players could do, and what they actually did. All in all, his departure shouldn’t have been a surprise.

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Ramos consoles William Popp after a home defeat

So, why was it a surprise?

Throughout his reign in Gifu, it has been known that he brings in the money. Money that, by no stretch of the imagination, saved the club from going out of business. Just by being at the club, he guaranteed money, income streams & sponsorships. That was what Ramos brought to the table. His profile, his retained A-list status in Japan which sees him appear on massively popular (not with me, I hasten to add) variety shows on primetime TV, was gold for Gifu.

His introductory press conference was live on TV (eclipsing the Nagoya Grampus presser, which was at the same time). He brought in Alex Santos & Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, two legends of modern Japanese football which helped put bums on seats. The increased media interest in Gifu started a snowball effect which resulted in increased exposure, increased crowds and increased interest in a team which up until that point had been ignored by a large percentage of the local population.

That “magic” effect started to wear off through last season when Gifu were embroiled in an all out relegation battle. The casual supporters that were attracted to Ramos when he was new had come to the realization that the standard of football wasn’t up to much, and the “core supporters”, those that turn up rain or shine every game, believed that the team was only going in one direction.

But, most people – myself included – believed that the decision would be taken by Ramos himself, such was the influence he held at the club. But in the press release announcing the decision it was stated that it was a mutual decision, meaning that the current management structure, headed by recently appointed new chairman Mr. Miyata, were actively involved in it. It is possible that Ramos had had enough, and the reaction by the supporters after the defeat against Zweigen Kanazawa was strong enough that a lot of managers wouldn’t want to have that coming at them. But also the chairman and board had to look at the predicament that the club were in, and given the tightness of the division there is no real “safe zone” this year. This means that Gifu’s downward trajectory could have (could still) seen them bottom within weeks, and relegation to J3 would spell all sorts of problems for the financial side of the club, not to mention the loss of status that comes with being a J2 club. It was a mutual decision, but it had to be instigated by someone.

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As someone who was brought in to raise the profile of the club, he was highly successful. A smash hit, in fact. But his footballing credentials didn’t live up to the scrutiny that a managerial position brings. Lots of times in post-game press conferences, I heard him say “I’m not sure why they didn’t follow my instructions” or “they are professionals making very basic errors. I don’t understand it” or “We couldn’t play our football”. They began to sound hollow last year, and when they were repeated this year as well, it didn’t fill anyone with confidence.

As I said, he made FC Gifu relevant again for local people, and maybe for the first time in the Japanese consciousness. He was always patient with supporters, genial even. After defeats he would still stop and pose for photos and sign autographs. PR like that is brilliant for a small club like Gifu. But, ultimately, results need to be there as well – and in general, they weren’t.

To that end, the stats back it up. FC Gifu lost 56 of 108 games under Ramos (51.8%), conceding 170 goals in those games (1.57 goals per game). Had these kinds of stats continued for another half season, there’s a good chance that Gifu would finish bottom. The board had to act – it is that simple.

Thank you for your hard work Mr.Ramos, but now we have to look to our new manager.

Who is Megumu Yoshida?

Yoshida was Gifu’s top team coach before he accepted the call to take the helm. Prior to Gifu, Yoshida was at Kyushu based club Sagan Tosu, acting as their caretaker manager when Yoon Jung-Hwan was fired when they were at the top of J1. Now he comes into a very different situation, this time taking on a team that is fighting for survival.

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(photo from fc-gifu.com)

His first order of business was to terminate the contract of Wellington Rocha, the injured defender, and there are rumours today that Yoshida will return to Tosu to sign Korean midfielder Choi Sung Keun. Next up is tonight’s daunting looking trip to Hokkaido to face J2 league toppers Consadole Sapporo. Sapporo, who stuck four past Gifu earlier on this season, are in great condition and will likely field a front two of Ken Tokura – the best striker in the division – and Yoshihiro Uchimura – a player who ALWAYS scores against us. Not an easy task first up.

Still here’s hoping a fresh face can invigorate Gifu. Goodness knows they need something to happen for them, and soon. Supporters want to see a winning, coherent team. That’s all. For all the off field stuff, what is really important for the health of a football club is what happens after the white line. Yoshida needs to get it together and start to produce results, otherwise it is going to be a very, very long autumn in Gifu. But have faith! As supporters, we now need to get behind the team as much as possible.

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