Mito. You know, in Ibaraki. North east of Tokyo. You know! Famous for……erm, that weird spiral building. Come on, Mito…..
It always seems that J2 Mito Hollyhock are one of the forgotten sides in Japanese football. Why is that? @GifuRichy, himself no stranger to the small/unknown Japanese football club scene, took a trip to the area to find out.
Mito Hollyhock, the longest serving J2 member with 16 years, have had plenty of time to gain a sufficient fan base and be pushing for a J1 spot. However, the team sees itself continually down the bottom half of the table and forever in the shadow of their giant neighbours from down south.
On a trip to Mito last weekend I witnessed first hand how the team is still being beaten by Kashima Antlers, even in it’s own town. But there is still a glimmer of hope for the blue herb boys of Ibaraki.
The Kashima problem:
Unfortunately, when I was in Mito I couldn’t catch a Mito game (although I have previously) so I decided to catch a Kashima game while I was in the area. I went into the local information stall and asked about getting to the game. The middle-aged lady, thinking that I wasn’t interested in Mito Hollyhock, revealed to me that “Yeah, I prefer Kashima Antlers too. I am supposed to promote Mito Hollyhock here ( “here” being located in Mito Station) but Kashima is just so much more exciting”.
Being an FC Gifu supporter it’s a familiar tale – the bigger, more popular clubs – in our case Nagoya Grampus (Or even bigger – Baseball’s Chunichi Dragons), steal the limelight and take away precious fans and revenue from the club. Although FC Gifu have slowly but surely gained a good foothold in Gifu, Mito has still found itself struggling to get on top in some areas. This is really apparent when you walk outside JR Mito Station to find a Kashima Antlers Official Goods Shop, and no Mito goods to be seen. Instead, the only presence of Mito Hollyhock I noticed as I walked around the city was one poster inside the information stall, two Hollyhock flags on the station concourse, and a message that popped up every five minutes on an electronic sign board outside the station.
While it takes over one hour by train to get to Kashima Stadium from Mito Station, by bus it only takes 30 minutes to Hollyhock’s home ground, K’s Denki Stadium, and at a fraction of the price. This however doesn’t deter the Kashima supporters in Mito from taking the long journey. Ultimately, the stadium, atmosphere, and quality of play provided at Kashima Stadium is still sometimes too much for Hollyhock to compete with.
While Mito Hollyhock has struggled to overcome the drain of supporters and resources to Kashima throughout their history, over recent years they have put a fair bit of effort into promotion and getting new fans to support Hollyhock, and by doing so restoring pride in the blue jersey.
They started off in 2009 by moving away from the dreadful Kasamatsu Athletics Field to K’s Denki Stadium, which has an increased number of seats, roofing, electronic screen and lighting for night games. This saw an increase in fans attending games and has given the club a more professional feel to it. Unfortunately the stadium does not meet J1 criteria, being short of the amount of required seating, but hopefully this will be sorted out in the future.
Over the years players like FW Tomoyuki Arata and the dynamic GK Koji Homma kept Hollyhock in the public’s eye, but probably the biggest spike in interest to the club came when ex-Japan National Team member Takayuki Suzuki joined the club in 2011. Wanting to give something back to his home town, Suzuki joined the club on an amateur contract and got heads turning in towards Hollyhock for a change. In 2000, The year Hollyhock entered J2, the team had an average attendance of just 2021, just ahead of Ventforet Kofu. With the new stadium and slightly more encouraging results on the field this jumped up to 3349 in 2011, (18th out of 20 teams). Now, after a lot more work in promotion, the team has finally started to establish itself and in 2015 the attendance was 4815 (18th out of 22 teams).
The road ahead for Hollyhock looks a long and tough one. But with the club looking forward positively there are signs that this team could pick up some momentum in the coming years. However, Hollyhock are not out of danger yet. They are now in an era where mistakes will be punished. There is no longer a cushion of non-relegation safety at the bottom of J2, and a drop to J3 will test any club, no matter their history – or lack of it.
Richy Palmer is a connoisseur of smaller team football & leagues in Japan, and he has first hand knowledge of it being an FC Gifu supporter from way back when. Follow him on Twitter at @GifuRichy