Ken Tokura means different things to different people: the guy with a mouthguard; the guy who did the Balotelli celebration; the man who likes to look after his body. But to the supporters of Consadole Sapporo, Tokura is the main man. @NelloSplendor looks at the life & times of Sapporo’s sharpshooter.
When he was a kid, he probably didn’t think of going so far to shine. He was a youngster at new-born Yokohama F. Marinos, then he moved to the Kawasaki Frontale youth ranks. And he was born in Shibuya, so… Tokyo or at least Kanagawa should have been his home for his life and career.
Slightly more than ten years later, Ken Tokura has become an underdog. He mostly played for J1 teams, but he found his real inner strength in J2. After scoring a lot of goals in the 2nd tier, he’s finally ready – at 30 years old – to give a signal to everyone in the top division.
It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna score goals)
His uncle Shunichi Tokura is actually a great composer, who learned to play violin at the age of three. Just like his uncle, the little Ken imposed himself in football with his first and best-known attitude: strength. Despite not being almost two meters, you can see how Tokura can drag the opponent, win second balls and duels with headers. This kind of skills has always been with him since his Frontale times.
After attending Keio Senior High School, football had to go along with university. He was a youngster of Yokohama F. Marinos, but Kawasaki Frontale’s offer was too juicy a chance to give up. But despite Frontale being at the top (they almost won the title in 2005, Tokura’s rookie year), the young Ken didn’t find his space. Just six appearances in the J.League plus one in J. League Cup. Too few minutes. A disappointment.
So, for the first time in his career, Tokura puts sacrifice to the test and accepts to being loaned out in J2, at Thespa Kusatsu. He won’t regret it.
He had to adapt, but after six months he found the net three times. It’s enough for both parties to agree a permanent transfer from Kawasaki. From Tokura’s words of goodbye, you can see his will to succeed:
“My team may change, but my dreams, my passion for football won’t change. I will do my best to improve and bring Thespa forward”
And in 2009, he’ll have a wonderful season: 23 goals out of 43 matches, which labels Tokura as the 2nd-best scorer of the league, in the year with most games played in a J2 season (51! Thank you, JFA!). Ahead of him, there’s just Shinji Kagawa.
After that exploit, it’s normal to witness him being given a second chance at the top. This time, he heads to Kobe. But again, sacrifice isn’t enough sometimes.
Vissel Kobe is probably the strangest club in J. League. Despite a good financial backing (Rakuten putting their hands in their pockets in the last few years), the club wasn’t able to climb the table enough to lift a trophy or even enter the top nine. In his four years in Kobe, Tokura will see it all: in 2010, Vissel avoids relegation, finishing just one point ahead of FC Tokyo. Two great wins in the last two games (1-0 against Shimizu and 4-0 away at Reds’) and a 15 points-run in the last seven matches incredibly save Vissel from J2.
From then, it’s a rollercoaster: Vissel obtains in 2011 the best finish in their history (9th), but in 2012 Kobe will go down in J2, this time without any hope (and any warning, since Albirex clinch a 4-0 victory in the last day to avoid second division). Despite staying, Tokura won’t be efficient enough even in 2nd-tier, incapable of repeating his Thespa days and being just a by-stander in Kobe’s promotion back to J1.
The real problems are two. First: despite playing several games, Tokura didn’t score enough in Kobe, finding the net just 15 times in 95 matches in all competitions. The four year tenure with Vissel wasn’t the right switch. But most of all, Tokura risks to be remembered just for this.
Only 48 hours after Mario Balotelli’s brace puts Germany to misery in 2012 UEFA Euro semi-final, Tokura scores against his former club Kawasaki and emulates Balo’s celebration. It’s funny, but nothing more. And Tokura wants to be remembered for something else.
When his contract expired, Ken needed to start again somewhere else. Europe was on the table (precisely in Denmark), but the trial was just a trial and so Tokura came back to Japan. When Consadole Sapporo made his move, he probably didn’t expect to experience a renaissance like his.
The giants of the North weren’t able to retain their J1 status in 2012 and were relegated. They were a mid-table in J2 and that status didn’t change throughout three years in the second tier. A 8th and two 10th places weren’t enough. Plus, Consadole wasn’t able to find a right commander to come back in J1: neither Keiichi Zaizen nor Ivica Barbarić were able to fill Nobuhiro Ishizaki’s shoes, who meanwhile took even Montedio Yamagata in the top flight.
Despite that, Tokura found some stability. He played always 34 games per season and he scored at least 13 goals in the first two seasons. But he needed a different coach to shine again. One like Shuhei Yomoda, who took the helm at Consadole in July 2015. After a tryout period, Yomoda was granted a confirm as manager and he was retained for 2016 season.
The Magical One
It isn’t rare to see such Instagram posts by Tokura, redefying the concept of “lifting” (and we’re not talking only about physical weights).
It was rumoured that Matsumoto Yamaga offered him a spot in their J1-debut season… but Tokura decided to stay in Sapporo. He found some stability and he wanted to pay back Sapporo’s love and trust. And he did it, because 2016 was THE ONE for Consadole. The club relied heavily on Tokura for a firing start: a hat-trick against FC Gifu, one goal to seal a win in Shimizu S-Pulse’s field and a brace against Kyoto Sanga.
You could see his burning desire to shine. Sapporo granted him the front spot as CF and he paid back: 19 goals in 2016, plus one in Emperor’s Cup. They mostly came in the first part of the season (he scored in all matches against 2nd and 3rd, but he collected just two in the last 11 games), but he saved the best for last.
The last goal of his season came in the second-last game, in Chiba. After JEF United took the lead, Consadole needed a draw. Who else but him, Ken The Man? With a late winner by Uchimura, return to J1 was almost done. A 0-0 home draw against Zweigen Kanazawa will be enough to celebrate it.
Along the 20 goals in 2016, there’s another record. While helping Consadole getting back into J1 after 5 seasons (and just like in 2009, he finished 2nd in top-scorers behind Shimizu’s Jong Tae-se), Tokura has climbed the all-time scoring ranks in J2. Ken has reached the tally of 74, just like Marx. Two goals shy of 4th Yasunori Takada, 15 goals away from Tetsuya Okubo.
We hope Tokura won’t be able to improve that record, because it would mean that Consadole has retained their J1 status and had a good season. And for now it’s going well: Sapporo-based club has clinched 12 points out of 10 games and it’s doing well in J. League Cup. The structure imposed by Yomoda is working – at least for now – and Consadole is dreaming.
Tokura is again fundamental: he scored six goals between J. League and the League Cup, proving to be the winner-scorer against FC Tokyo. His headers are evergreen, always useful, in every situation. Especially for a team which is just trying to achieve salvation. That’s probably the point where the comparison with Balotelli disappears: Ken Tokura knows how to suffer and rise to the top. Maybe this time for good.