Could you point to Mito on a Japanese map? Could you even say which prefecture it is in? More specific still, could you name any players from J2 side Mito Hollyhock? When J.League supporters think about Mito Hollyhock, usually one name springs to the very forefront of the mind: Koji Homma. The frizzy haired goalkeeper has become an icon at Hollyhock. This is his story, as told by @nellosplendor.
This is getting weird: how is it possible to start an article from a simple question on Twitter?
It all started 22nd February 2017, with this sudden question by Dan Orlowitz:
I had to think, because I follow J. League with a lot of passion, covering all highlights and even trying to update Wiki pages about Japanese football (yes, I’m that committed). I tried to run through 54 professional clubs in Japan and I thought – comparing their status and birth year – they’ve all shared 15 minutes of celebrity.
Then I found an answer. It’s probably because they’re the neighbours of the most successful club in Japan, Kashima Antlers. It’s probably because they’re the longest serving club in J2 League: actually, they were almost one of the founding members, since they’ve played J2 football since the 2000 season. And they’re still searching for a top flight “time in the limelight” moment.
So yes… Mito Hollyhock, I’m talking about you. You’re my answer to Dan’s question. Yes, we don’t talk much about Mito because we’ve probably taken for granted they’re going to stay forever in J2 and they’ll never achieve J1 promotion (despite the fact that we’ve witnessed several “smaller” clubs in the top flight).
But there’s one reason above all why we should pay close attention to Mito Hollyhock. And that reason stands before his goal, defending it from the year 2000. Now he’s a back- up, but he’s also the most “capped” player in J2 by far: at the start of the 2017 season, he had 563 games played, 128 more than second placed Kazuki Kuranuki.
Koji Homma definitely deserves some recognition.
You should have said “Reds”
Homma is actually a son of Ibaraki prefecture, born in 1977 in Hitachi, located in the Northern part of this region. The city helped Hitachi – the company – be founded in 1910. Eight decades later, Homma began his rise through Japanese football pyramid: he first joined Mito Keimei High School in 1993, then he entered Urawa Red Diamonds’ youth ranks in 1996.
At that time, the Saitama squad wasn’t as strong as it is now, but still Homma stayed there for three and half years without any possibility of playing; Not in J. League nor in the Cups. He wore no. 36 and no. 30, but Urawa could field Hisashi Tsuchida, Yuki Takita and Tomoyasu Ando. No space for him.
At a certain point, a decision was required: remaining in top flight football hoping to find pitch time or leaving to pursue a new direction?
In the end, Homma decided to change. Despite seeing Urawa field some fine GKs – Yamagishi, Tsuzuki, Nishikawa – it was probably the best choice for his career. But the real deal is about his next destination.
Despite being the capital of Ibaraki prefecture, already in 1999 Mito was trailing Kashima. While Antlers were ready to achieve a Treble in 2000, Hollyhock were just facing its first pro season in J2. Plus, Mito isn’t exactly the first city that comes to your mind thinking about Japan (or even Northern Japan).
However, Homma didn’t see it as a step down: he only wanted to play, to fulfil his dream of being a real footballer. Being benched wasn’t part of that dream. And Mito needed new protagonists: the club obtained its actual J.League denomination in 1997, but their times in Japan Football League (first 2nd division, then from 1999 the 3rd division: anyway, the first non-pro league) weren’t so good.
In 1997, Mito was dead last in the JFL. While Consadole Sapporo (spearheaded by a goal crazy Valdes) achieved promotion and other actual clubs were preparing to face J2 – clubs like FC Tokyo, Kawasaki Frontale, Montedio Yamagata, plus we can also find Ventforet Kofu, the former version of Tokushima Vortis and Sagan Tosu – Mito HollyHock closed the 1997 season with 10 points, just one shy of Jatco SC.
When J2 League was formed for its opening season, Mito practically had no matches in JFL. After coming 14th in 1998, they actually came 3rd the next season, 10 points behind newly-formed Yokohama FC and 5 behind Honda Motor (now Honda FC). Those 45 points were enough to ask J. League board to take them on for J2 in 2000.
Love at first sight
In this scenario, Koji Homma immediately stepped up: 40 games played, 3808 minutes. He was the most “capped” player in Mito’s first professional season. Manager Branko Babić didn’t hesitate to field him, despite him never having played a pro match in his life.
The irony? The first match of Homma’s career was against… Urawa Red Diamonds, who had just descended into J2 after a painful relegation… ah, you Gods of football.
Despite Mito being always rock-bottom in its first couple of J2 years, Homma kept playing as a starter. In 2006 he had a 14 game season, but he immediately took back his starter spot the next year. Mito had several GKs, but no one was really able to dislodge Homma from his no. 1 reign. Besides, Mito started to live some exciting times, at least from where they began.
Mito have crossed paths with Kashima three times in their history, all in the Emperor’s Cup (since the two teams have never shared the same division). The first was in 2004, when Mito lost only 0-1; the second came in 2007, with Antlers winning 2-0; the third was the really good one, since Hollyhock achieved a massive feat, beating Kashima on penalties. Homma wasn’t in goal, since Takashi Kasahara was prefered in the Cup but not in the league. But the first win in the Ibaraki Derby isn’t forgettable.
Just like 2009, when Mito faced their first impressive season: they came 8th in an 18 team league, in a – let’s face it – crazy season, with 51 GAMES PLAYED. But things have worked well in the last few years because Mito have kept their J2 status, despite sometimes flirting with relegation (like in 2010, 2011 and 2015).
Last season, though, might have been comparable to 2009: in 2016, Mito HollyHock came 13th and had the best attendance per game of its history (5,365 people: 13th also in this special table, +11,3% than 2015). Also the most attended match of their history, a 10,420 crowd for their opening match against Cerezo Osaka in J2.
For the duration of this enormous transitional period, Homma has been fundamental. The goalkeeper has surpassed 24 games played in 15 of his 17 seasons in Mito. In some cases – like in 2000, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012 – he played 40+ matches. And this brought a inevitable record: with Mito staying so long in J2 and himself garnering so much playing time, he, of course, became the all-time J2 appearance record holder.
This lion-haired GK – the only player remaining from the JFL era in Mito – reached 400 games played in October 2011 against Roasso Kumamoto. A record which was actually redefined in August 2014, when Homma appeared for his 500th match, against Giravanz Kitakyushu. Numbers are important, but the love from his supporters never missed.
The game count has now reached 563 matches, but looking for 600 games could be another goal? Who knows what the future holds for Homma.
2017 and beyond
Present times are different. Homma is still a icon for Mito, but Takashi Kasahara has been starting all J2 League matches in 2017. What is known for certain is that Homma will start a football school in Hitachi, but his retirement plan is still a mystery.
It’s not the first time we’ve witnessed a man who has kept on playing despite advanced age. Homma will be 40 in a few days, but just like we saw with Kazu Miura and Masashi Nakayama, age isn’t a problem – it is only a number. What is actually amazing in this case is how it’s not the legend-player making the club known all over Japan, because here we have a mutual relationship: Homma made himself a legend because of Mito and Hollyhock is known because of its long stay in J2 and its loyal GK.
That’s why football is wonderful. And Dan, thanks for the question: it made me think a lot, just like you could all witness.
* All photos courtesy of Mito Hollyhock official website – have a look here