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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Season review so far……

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Given that the second half of the season has just begun, it think it might be a good time to go back and look at what lessons can be learned from the first half, and what we might expect in the second half of J2.

  • Leo Mineiro shines bright

Gifu’s vibrant Brazilian forward is the heart and soul of this side. Without him, I shudder to think what might happen to this team. His workrate is outstanding, and when he is given service he can really make teams pay. He has five goals so far, which really could be double that considering the chances he’s had, and how many times he’s hit the frame of the goal. Gifu are a poorer side without him, and must hope that he stays injury free.

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  • Masaya Tashiro – best newcomer?

After a slow start, the youngster has moved himself into the position of first choice centre-half. Excellent in the air and deceptively strong for someone with a relatively slight frame, he has had to take on a leadership role in defence. I’d like to see become even more of a leader, organizing not just those beside him, but those in front of him. Lots of Gifu’s defensive problems stem from the fact that the defence don’t get enough protection in front of them. Given that he is the first choice centre-back (in my view) I think he has to demand that those in front do their defensive duty.

 

  • Where is Bruno?

Back in the early stages of the season, Bruno Suzuki looked like he was the kind of sharp striker Gifu had been craving. He is quick, has good movement & puts in a lot of effort. Goals in Shikoku against Kamatamare Sanuki and Tokushima Vortis in April seemed to hint at Suzuki being a feature of Ramos’ team this term. However, since coming off at half time in the game against JEF United in the middle of May, Suzuki hasn’t seen the pitch since. Why? He hasn’t had a major injury, he’s been involved in training. Maybe Ramos prefers Ryo Takiya? Maybe he thinks Bruno is too similar to Leo Mineiro. I’m not sure of the exact reason, but I find it a bit puzzling that Suzuki hasn’t been involved – even as a substitute. If he’s got some kind of undisclosed injury then I can understand, but I’d like to see him back in the squad at some point.

 

  • Defend the flanks

Part of the reason that Gifu have the joint worst defence in the league (a recurring theme over the last four or five years) is partly down to the fact that opposition teams, if they set themselves up right, can exploit Gifu’s sides. Why? Well, the fact that the full backs don’t get a lot of protection in front of them (there’s that idea of “protection in front” again) is one of the main reasons. Leo Mineiro on the left, and Koya Kazama on the right (when he plays) aren’t in any way defensive minded. They are forward thinking players, which is good if you’re constantly on the front foot. But if you lose possession, then it becomes a problem. I’ve seen sides over the last couple of years in particular make the pitch very wide against Gifu. As a result, it makes a switch of play very quick & effective and more often than not it results in a 2 v 1 for the attacking sides against Gifu’s full backs, as the aforementioned attacking players struggle to get back, and even when they do, they don’t have the defensive awareness to sense danger.

The full back play from the full-backs themselves has been inconsistent. Jun Suzuki, Go Iwase, Shun Nogaito, and Yuki Fuji have shown bits if good form, but none of them has done so on a consistent basis. Ramos and his coaching staff have to address this area, otherwise teams will continue to find joy down the sides, and that puts even more on he plate of the goalkeeper and centre backs.

 

  • Crucial games coming up

From a position of strength early on in the campaign, Gifu are now in the position of looking nervously over their shoulder – a pose that has become second nature to the team. The current run of form doesn’t inspire confidence given that Gifu have lost seven of their last nine games but they simply have to turn it around, starting next Saturday against Mito Hollyhock and then the following Wednesday against Zweigen Kanazawa.

Mito are perennial associates of Gifu towards the bottom of J2, and a defeat for Gifu at the K’s Denki Stadium will set off panic sirens in Ramos’ squad. Should Gifu continue their horrific home form with a defeat against current bottom side Kanazawa it won’t look good – especially given the prospect of an away trip to the Sapporo dome as their next game.

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  • Don’t lose faith

I know a lot of supporters are reaching the end of their tether with Ramos’ FC Gifu side. The constant reinvention of ways to lose home games, while interesting for the neutrals, is not something to placate supporters who part with hard earned money & time to watch the team. It isn’t about the players not caring, they do. I’ve seen it. After games, I’ve seen the experienced players lead group talks about what went wrong. No-one, I repeat no-one, wants to have to go up to the supporters and apologize for a defeat. The core group of supporters want nothing more than the team to be competitive and to learn from their mistakes. One of the most frustrating things is that, at times, Gifu don’t seem to make the necessary adjustments after things go wrong.  So many times in the last two or three seasons we’ve seen opponents score right after we do. Is it so difficult to go defensive for five minutes after we score? My gut says it isn’t, but it looks like the players find it difficult. Of course we want to win, but we must also learn to settle for what we have when it is necessary.

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But that isn’t to say there won’t be good times ahead. As much as it is difficult to keep spirits up at home in the midst of such a wretched run, when the victories come, they will taste sweet. Gifu are in danger of being dragged into a relegation battle again, and if that does happen, we don’t need there to be discord between players & supporters – they need each other.

 

Anyway, that’s my rallying call! Here’s to an enjoyable second half of J2.

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What’s happened lately?

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So, it has been a busy time for me personally, that’s why I haven’t had a chance to update the blog for a while. Hopefully in the next couple of days I can put a few thoughts down. In this post, I’m going to recap the last few games.

June 19th – Yokohama FC 1-2 FC Gifu

Gifu went behind in this one when Kazuyoshi Miura, yes the 49 year old “King” Kazuyoshi Miura, found space in the area to head past Yoshinari Takagi and become the oldest professional goalscorer (in Japan definitely, possibly in the world).

The first half was one of the worst Gifu performances I’ve seen. It was bad. No cohesion, no plan and no substance. Koya Kazama came off the bench at half time and changed the game. His presence instilled confidence in the system – ostensibly a 4-2-3-1 – and he added quality to Gifu’s go forward. Leo Mineiro was the matchwinner with two second half goals, but it was the decision to bring on Kazama that swung the game Gifu’s way.

 

June 26th – FC Gifu 2-3 Roasso Kumamoto

An epic, topsy turvy game. Kumamoto went ahead just before half time, but Gifu once again fought back & played better in the second half. Gifu equalized when Masaya Tashiro somehow squeezed in a volley from a tight angle to register his first professional goal, but looked deflated when Kumamoto scored what appeared to be the winner in the 88th minute. Drama was to follow (understatement alert) when Ryo Takiya smashed in an equalizer in the 93rd minute, only for Kim Tae Yeon to score a sensational last kick winner.

It was unbelievable, but as was put to me after the game not something that we haven’t seen before – especially at home. There just seems to be something about playing at home which makes Gifu susceptible to these kinds of collapses. Mental? Technical? Emotional? Probably a mix of all of these reasons, but as gut wrenching as it was, it was something that all Gifu supporters should have been ready for.

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Gifu players down as the referee blows the final whistle

July 3rd – FC Gifu 0-1 Kyoto Sanga

Promotion chasing Kyoto Sanga secured a vital win for them, and condemned Gifu to an eighth home defeat of 2016 when the sides met on a monsoony style day. A couple of hours prior to kick off, Gifu was hit by a biblical rainstorm which flooded the pitch in a matter of minutes, and which affected the game throughout. A fairly even first half, one in which Leo Mineiro hit the post and nearly set up a tap in for Ryo Takiya, seemed to augur well for Gifu who have a habit of playing their best stuff in the second half. But Kyoto brought on Daniel Lovinho to liven their play up, and he scored the winning goalin the 54th minute when he slotted past Takagi after being put clean through.

Gifu didn’t really look like getting back into it, and had to face up to the fact that, with this defeat, they had lost their last five home games.

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July 10th – V-Varen Nagasaki 2-1 FC Gifu

Back at the beginning of June, Ryo Nagai scored a first half hat-trick to propel Nagasaki to a 4-2 win the Nagaragawa Memorial Centre, and he was back in familiar goalscoring territory in this game.

Gifu actually took the lead when Tatsuya Tanaka picked the ball up on the half way line and used his blazing speed to burn past Nagasaki defenders and put the ball past the keeper and into the net. It was the popular Tanaka’s first goal for the club, but unfortunately it didn’t spur much positive reaction. Ryo Nagai leveled things in the 33rd minute, before delivering his hammer blow in the 52nd minute. Nagai has scored 10 goals this year, exactly half of them have come against Gifu.

One day last Spring….

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It was ten minutes away from being one of the most impressive victories in Gifu’s recent history, but instead it has gone down in folklore – but for very different reasons. Here, I look back on the hazy, crazy game between Tokyo Verdy and FC Gifu last season.

 

The fact that a mere 3,178 people turned up to the cavernous Ajinomoto Stadium to watch this spectacle unfold doesn’t really reflect the scale of events that unfolded during this game. Gifu were in the midst of a pretty horrid run having lost the last four games, and that run included the 2-6 humiliation at Oita Trinita (a game in which Gifu were 0-5 down at half time).

The one thing Gifu had going for them was the form of forward Hiroaki Namba. The then 31 year old was enjoying something of a renaissance at Gifu, and had scored three in his previous five games coming into the Verdy game. Concerns abounded at the state of Gifu’s defence, rightfully so as up until that point the team had conceded 14 goals in the six games they had played. The supposed veteran effect that the likes of Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and Kazumichi Takagi had been brought in to bring to the side had hitherto yet to materialize.

Still, the previous year, Gifu had gone to Tokyo Verdy and won 1-0 in what turned out to be Verdy’s final game (and one of the many “final” events) at the Kokuritsu National Stadium. Soon after that game, the stadium was knocked down to be replaced by a brand new one that owuld be ready in time for the 2020 Olympics – but I think we all know how that particular plan is turning out. Anyway, back to 2014 and Gifu had won 1-0 with a solitary goal from the aforementioned Namba, so Gifu didn’t really have any grounds to be scared of Verdy – even though Verdy had only lost one of their opening six matches.

The first half went as well as a first half could possibly go for FC Gifu. We took the lead in the 14th minute when Namba scored from the spot after Brazilian forward Rodrigo pushed pushed in the area by Verdy full-back Kazuki Anzai. Looking back at the incident, it looks like that could have, possibly should have, been a red card because it is difficult to think of a more clear cut goalscoring opportunity being denied than being pushed over in front of an open goal. The red card never materialized, but that didn’t affect Namba who confidently stepped up and sent Verdy ‘keeper Sato the wrong way.

Gifu were playing really well, and doubled their advantage ten minutes later. Tsukasa Masuyama, playing in a more advanced role, stole the ball in midfield, played Namba through and he did the rest, coolly slotting the ball home to make it 2-0 to Gifu. Things got better for Gifu as the timeless Keiji Takachi stole in down the left hand side, and his low cross was bundled in at the near post by Namba to complete his hat-trick. Game over. Not literally of course, we had barely played 30 minutes but Gifu were cruising – playing with a confidence yet to be seen so far that season.

In the second half, of course Verdy came out to try and take the game back. They made most of the running but didn’t really make too many clear cut chances. Gifu were more than content to sit back and try and soak up the pressure, they were sitting on a three goal lead after all. Keiji Takachi came off in the 65th minute after putting in a great hour of football, and Hiroaki Namba – assuming his work was done for the day – was taken off just before the 70 minute mark.

And then it started.

In the 82nd minute, Verdy pulled a goal back. It was a rather fortunate strike, Verdy forward Hiramoto following up a shot that came off the post. It rarely happens like that, the ball cannons off the post RIGHT to the feet of the on-rushing forward, it often goes just to the side to make the finish a bit more difficult but this one fell perfectly for the Verdy striker.

Verdy players ran to get the ball from the net in order to get the game restarted quickly, but Gifu weren’t duly concerned at that time, but that was about to change. The home side were awarded a free-kick 25 yards out, just to the left of centre. Masaaki Chugo stepped to arc in the most beautiful of free-kicks that left Kawaguchi with no chance at all. It really was a dream of a free-kick, delivered at the perfect time. To be fair to Kawaguchi, the wall was set in the right place, and even a world class goalkeeper wouldn’t have got near it.

Looking back at the game, this was the moment that Verdy really turned the screw. Gifu had had a lucky goal scored against them, and a goal that wouldn’t look out of place in the Champions League, their captain and talisman had been substituted – it just felt like Verdy would go on and get something from the game.

However, that free-kick was scored with 88 minutes on the clock. Additional was set at 5 minutes, so Gifu had around 7 minutes to try and hold back the Verdy tide. The Gifu supporters, massed at the opposite side of the ground, were probably thankful that they couldn’t witness the collapse close up, but were probably hopeful that that the players could just hold out.

92 and a half minutes were on he clock when Verdy leveled things up. A brilliant cross from left found substitute Ryuji Sugimoto, somewhat improbably, unmarked eight yards out, right in the centre of the goal and his flying header made score 3-3. In an era of wild unpredictability for FC Gifu, even this was stretching the realms of credibility – Verdy had scored three goals in seven minutes against a team that really had no necessity to do anything other plant a line of defenders right across their own penalty area.

And then it happened.

With the five minutes of added time up (although, I should point out that according to the rules of the game it was a MINIMUM of five added minutes) the ball wound up on the right side of Gifu’s penalty area, and a cross came in that eventually found Hiramoto completely unmarked, six yards out and he had the relatively easy task of volleying past Kawaguchi. Yoshikatsu came agonizingly close to pushing the ball over the bar, but his hand just wasn’t strong enough and the shot came in from too close a range to save.

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Hiramoto ran behind the goal to celebrate with the disbelieving Verdy fans, while at the other end the Gifu supporters were also disbelieving, but they did not share their counterparts’ enthusiasm for what they had just seen.

There’s a great picture of Hiroaki Namba at the final whistle – the unhappiest hat-trick scorer in history. It really is a picture that speaks a thousand words, probably a lot of them expletives.

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My personal recollection of this game was that I was actually working, and after about the 80th minute I was called into a meeting. I was following the game on Twitter, and I left for that meeting thinking everything was cool, everything was good. When I came back to check the final score about 20 minutes, I could scarcely believe what I was looking at. Of course, I knew Gifu had a penchant for conceding goals but I didn’t really think, especially considering what went on in the first half at Oita – and the lessons that should have been learned from that – that a four goal reversal in the final ten minutes was a realistic possibility.

At least this occasion helped me learn the value of never taking anything for granted in J2.