Shinji Kobayashi. You might not know his name, but you might recognize his work. Here, @nellosplendor looks at the career of the promotion specialist.
Sometimes it’s amazing how life makes you wait. Time has this strange power of rewarding you in a little way and making you wait for something greater. Something unforgettable, your own unique chance.
I don’t know if it came to his mind, but in a competitive society – like the Japanese one – this thought has to have passed through Shinji Kobayashi’s mind. In the span of 15 years, he became one of Japanese football’s finest managers and finally his chance may have come. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go with some order.
It has been a long road for Shinji Kobayashi. Born and raised in Nagasaki, he needed to go first to Osaka and then to Hiroshima to pursue his dream of being a footballer. With Mazda SC (yup, Sanfrecce wasn’t an option in the ‘80s), he had the opportunity of working with Dutch professionals like Hans Ooft and Dido Havenaar, who have been involved in the rise of Japanese professional football.
Unfortunately for him, when he felt it was time to retire, Japanese football turned pro. So while Sanfrecce faced some initial difficult seasons in the J.League, Kobayashi lead the Hiroshima-based club to a J.Youth Cup win in 1995. His real chance, though, had to wait, because Kobayashi was an assistant coach in Fukuoka and Oita.
Yeah, Oita. Before a high quality-youth base, before the J. League Cup triumph and 4th place of 2008, Oita weren’t even in J1. Founded in 1994 and associated with J2 since 1999, Trinita still hadn’t found a way to the first division. The club actually let Nobuhiro Ishizaki go – another unsung hero – to give Kobayashi his first head coaching chance.
It was, of course, a different era then: only 12 clubs participating; Cerezo, Sagan, Kawasaki, Shonan, Omiya… all J2 material. Yet, Kobayashi granted a safe guide and Oita was promoted for the first time to J1. Not only that, the Kyushu club saw a big rise in attendances – from 6638 in 2001 to 21,373 in 2003 – and safety in their first ever J1 season.
Because of his good record, Kobayashi’s career took another update. This time, he was needed in Osaka: Cerezo had an horrendous first stage, gaining only 10 points. In July, Kobayashi was hired. He somehow managed to save Cerezo from a Promotion/Relegation play-off. But most of all, he led Cerezo to an inch of their biggest satisfaction.
Who forgot 2005? Who can, actually? After 33 matches, Cerezo was leading the table after a strong performance all season. They took the lead after their arch-rivals Gamba lost three consecutive games. Problem? Cerezo had to face down many contenders, since not only Gamba was trailing one point, but also Urawa, Kashima and JEF United were only actually two points behind.
What happened on 3 December 2005 was almost inexplicable. Cerezo got a early lead against FC Tokyo, as Urawa did the same in Niigata and Kashima against Kashiwa, while Gamba was forced on a draw in Kawasaki’s home. Crazy thing was FC Tokyo drew immediately and Cerezo even missed a penalty, leaving Cerezo 3rd in the table at half time.
Cerezo retook the lead with Nishizawa’s goal and even if Kashima, Gamba, Urawa and JEF were all winning, it didn’t mean anything as long as the Blue and Pink were able to maintain their result. Unfortunately for Cerezo, a strike by Yasuyuki Konno let Tokyo take a draw. Gamba won in Kawasaki and a city frustration was on.
Cerezo slipped in 5th place, not even reaching AFC spots. This remains one of the iconic moments in Japanese club history, but most of all what you can say after a decade? One thing for sure: Cerezo never got any closer than that moment to win a championship. They sure had their fun with Levir Culpi and a lot of exciting players, but no titles or trophies. And Kobayashi did that despite losing Okubo. Yes, that Yoshito Okubo.
You can’t find a crazier ending to a season in all football history.
After losing a title in that way, you’re under the bus. Nothing matters and Kobayashi did part ways with Cerezo in early 2006. There’s a brief collaboration with V-Varen Nagasaki – at that time a JFL club – but Kobayashi still deserved another chance in the professional ranks.
This chance should come in Fukuoka, where Avispa hired him, but the manager is Pierre Littbarski. And it’s difficult to overview a former West Germany star, plus if he already had Japanese experience both on field and bench. Things didn’t sort out, Avispa couldn’t reach promotion and Kobayashi opted for his way out.
So what’s next? A place and a club which had never even witnessed J1. Montedio Yamagata had already played nine seasons of J2 and they seemed far far away from promotion. Yet the Kobayashi magic takes hold again: Montedio didn’t have any player who scored more than 13 goals in that season, yet the defensive display, a couple of wise loans (does the name Yohei Toyoda tell you something?) and a good run saw Montedio take 2nd place.
It’s J1 for their first time: Yamagata goes insane for Kobayashi. And how could you not do that? Montedio not only reached first division (winning 6-2 in Iwata their first game), but they played in J1 for three seasons. It’s never happened before or after Kobayashi’s reign, topping even 13th place in 2010. The 2011 season meant relegation, but that’s because this feats are like a cycle: there’s a beginning, a rise and – by force – an end. Kobayashi doesn’t renew his contract and that’s the end of a beautiful love story.
But you know, in life there isn’t only one love. If deep, there’s room for more and Kobayashi somehow managed to let another unsung place fall in love with him. In 2011, Tokushima was predicted to reach J1 sooner or later, also because they had Naohiko Minobe as manager and a younger renegade like Yoichiro Kakitani as their star. But probably something more solid and simple was needed.
Kobayashi became head coach in 2012. There was a transition year (15th), but then Vortis got 4th place and earned a chance for promotion play-off just for one point. Luckily it was enough, ‘cause Tokushima did the job in the last two games: first they drew against JEF United (wherever there’s a delusion, JEF is there), then they upset Kyoto Sanga, winning 2-0 the final in Tokyo with goals by Chiyotanda (at his last career-game) and Tsuda. It’s J1: another promotion, another first time.
It should count that two following season will be difficult: first a 18th place in their first J1 season, then a 14th place last year in J2. But in Tokushima none of the fans will remember those results, because playing the first top-flight season has been a huge satisfaction. When it came to last December, Kobayashi left again, leaving a bitter taste in the ones who loved him so much at Naruto Athletic Stadium.
His assistant Hiroaki Nagashima took where Kobayashi left, but still it’s not the same.
2016 has been the chance Shinji Kobayashi has waited for all his career. He gained recognition in these 15 years making dreams come true, but also creating a defensive reputation around him. But there’s no fault in that: Oita was destined to reach J1, but bringing Montedio and Tokushima in the top-flight – plus almost winning a title with Cerezo – are feats you can achieve only with this kind of approach.
Last winter, something changed. Yes, Kobayashi was called AGAIN to clinch a promotion from J2, but this time it wass different.
First of all, a club like Shimizu S-Pulse decided to hire him. A club with a 20 years-tenure in J1, probably destined to come back immediately to first division. Second: this time, Kobayashi had a different squad, with two superstars in their ranks: Genki Omae and Chong Tese. And if you have two players like that, your approach can be a little different.
Of course Shimizu struggled in the first part of the season. Squad was rebuilt with young blood, Omae got severely injured in April and Kobayashi had to settle in a different mindset and environment. But in the end it worked: Shimizu had the best attack by far (85 goals scored) and still a good defense (tied 3rd with Kyoto, 37 goals allowed).
So it worked! And next season Kobayashi won’t have to find a miracle or have a mandatory defensive approach to stronger squads. He could finally try something different. And probably isn’t an accident that promotion came in Tokushima, where he was so loved.
Friedrich Nietzsche said: “All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle”. Probably Shinji Kobayashi figured it out a long time ago for himself: that’s why he’s good at mastering