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.
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.
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.