Miracle in Ibaraki?

It’s not easy to settle down with yourself. In life, you bear ambition, desires and hopes: not all of them will be granted or achieved. In the worst cases, they could be crushed. This goes for life, but also for football: when you feel like you can’t reach your goals, you settle down for an under-valued reality. You do it on purpose, to survive at your best capacity.

In Japanese football, this happened several times, but in the long-term it’s not an effective strategy. Just look how the course of history changed for Kyoto Sanga and JEF United Chiba, or recently for Albirex Niigata. Change is behind your back and if you’re not ready, it could sweep you away. And after J1 teams, J2 clubs could be soon in the same situation.

Until some years ago, relegation to JFL was almost impossible. The first victim was Machida Zelvia, with the club going immediately back to non-pro football after their first season in second tier. And this faith reached also other clubs: as we learned from Kataller Toyama, Giravanz Kitakyushu and Gainare Tottori, coming back to J2 isn’t easy, especially after J3 was born.

Even Tochigi SC and Oita Trinita – which made it back from the third division – apprehended this lesson the hard way. As a J2 club, that’s the time to grow and I think no team is impersonating that concept better than Mito HollyHock. After an already wonderful season in 2018, this year the club from Ibaraki Prefecture is pushing beyond any possible imagination.

The J2 senators

Ibaraki isn’t the most glamorous Prefecture in Japan. And if you’re already co-existing with Kashima Antlers – the most-winning club of Japanese football history –, life isn’t easy. That happened to Mito HollyHock, which was actually called Prima Aseno in 1990, the year of their foundation. The club was started by Prima Ham’s workers – back then, a food company –, which had the base in Tsuchiura.

At the same time, though, there was another club in the region, FC Mito. When Prima Ham FC Tsuchiura reached Japan Football League in 1996, those two realities merged to form “Mito HollyHock”, given also the fact that Prima Ham discontinued their financial support. The name derived from the family crest of Tokugawa clan, one of the most famous in Japanese history, which was based indeed in Mito.

In their first two JFL seasons, Mito struggled, coming last and third-bottom: they lost 14 matches in a row in their debut year. But in ’99 the 10 original clubs formed the J2 League to push the development of Japanese football. Fun fact: with Sagan Tosu’s promotion in 2011, all those clubs played at least a season in J1. Mito somehow jumped into J2 in ’99, coming third in the table and scoring an average attendance of 891 people.

From there, Mito HollyHock have the longest serving record in J2 League. In their debut match in J2 League, they faced Urawa Red Diamonds and in goal you found… Koji Homma, who’s still today in the club and currently holds the record for most games played in the division. Their whole history in second tier, though, looks like a cry for help.

Mito have often flirted with possible relegation while this wasn’t effective in the division. With 22 squads on J2, they risked to drop into J3 in 2015, when they were 19th on the table; also 2011 was bad not only on the field (17th out of 20), but also due to the terrible Tohoku earthquake, which left some consequences also on Ibaraki Prefecture.

If you look at their history, all data and stats point to a reputation of constant relegation-fighters and it seemed only a matter of time to see them dropping into J3. No big breaks on attendances (even if 2016 was their best year, with an average of 5,365), no great runs on Emperor’s Cup. Mito HollyHock didn’t look remarkable for any possible reason.

Then something changed and that something has the face of a 48 years-old manager, who never got his fair chance before signing for Mito HollyHock.

The savior

Shigetoshi Hasebe had his fun as a player. He was part of the Verdy Kawasaki team which achieved several silverwares before transforming themselves into the way less winning Tokyo Verdy; he played also for Kawasaki Frontale, Vissel Kobe and most of all JEF United Ichihara before retiring in 2003. Always defined as a player with good skills, Hasebe opted to pursue a career in coaching.

He remained in Kobe for almost a decade: with Vissel, Hasebe was a scout, an assistant coach, the U-15 and U-18 manager and lastly promoted into the technical staff for the top team. When he hit the ceiling though, he opted to quit Kobe and came back to another love of this football life, JEF United Chiba. He was a top team coach for one and a half year, even guiding the team himself for five months of 2016 season (20 games with a 7-5-8 record).

After Juan Esnáider brought JEF to the play-offs, Hasebe decided to take the coaching matter into his own hands. To do that, though, he had to leave Chiba, moving to Mito HollyHock, which signed him as a head coach for 2018 (replacing Takayuki Nishigaya). Not an easy job, since HollyHock just lost both their top-scorers: Ryohei Hayashi moved to Tokyo Verdy, Daizen Maeda came back to Matsumoto Yamaga.

Despite these huge losses, Hasebe fielded his squad with a standard 4-4-2. Kenya Matsui on goal, a regista-full back like Diego on the left, the growth of players like Masato Kojima and Ryotaro Ito; the right loans, with Atsushi Kurokawa, Shunsuke Motegi and Hiroyuki Mae being key-pieces in the midfield. Last but not least, a solid attack duo with Takeru Kishimoto and Jefferson Baiano.

It wasn’t all smooth: after seven losses out of eight games, Mito plunged in 19th position, but somehow they climbed back the table to even end as 10th, their best-ever result in a long time (I’d say since 2008, when they came 8th in a 18 teams-J2 League). You would have expected to see them back to struggles, but surprises are a daily matter in the second division.

Expectations against reality

Just like in Winter 2017-18, Hasebe had to face other departures in the last transfer market window: Diego, Jefferson Baiano, Takeru Kishimoto and Ryotaro Ito, all gone. Despite this, Hasebe somehow kept under-rated players, confirming Hiroyuki Mae and Shunsuke Motegi with permanent transfers and picking functional players to the project (Shintaro Shimizu, Takaaki Shichi and Shohei Kishida).

In this scenario, Mito HollyHock have also found two potential stars. Yuya Asano – Takuma’s brother – is imposing himself as a nice prospect emerging, while Atsushi Kurokawa is only on loan from Omiya Ardija, but he definitely picked up his game, being one of the most entertaining players to watch in J2 during 2019 season (apparently some Spanish clubs are following his development).

Nutmeg, dribbling, good challenge: there’s everything in there.

At the time I’m writing, Mito have just snatched another win – 1-0 away at Ehime – and they look comfortably in the top two positions on the table thanks to their blistering pace in home games (20 points out of nine matches). Their impressive defensive record – just 5 goals conceded in 14 games, Matsui collected 10 clean sheets – is the key for this golden moment, but there’s one question hanging on them: will it last?

The length of J2 League suggests we shouldn’t make any assumption. The history of this tier is full of clubs flying in the initial part of the season, then dropping performances and positions to end up disappointed or even relegated. I highly doubt Mito HollyHock will be in that position, but they faced themselves this rollercoaster last season. Luckily, Hasebe seems the steady hand to unlock the impossible.

Moreover, 2018 saw Mito being granted a J1-license for their first time-ever. This came at a crucial time, because we might start thinking that HollyHock have an actual chance of making it, despite J2 League is a long tournament. Will this miracle actually happen in Ibaraki? Mito HollyHock fans would dare to dream a derby against Kashima Antlers, but not in pre-season.

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