The Centennial Club – Yuki Nakashima

September 12, 2003. Kashima Soccer Stadium, Ibaraki Prefecture. The home side is ready to welcome Kashiwa Reysol to play the Fourth Round of the J. League Cup. It’s incredible, though: the squad led by Toninho Cerezo is down 2-0 in front of their fans after the first half. It seems done and dusted, but never say never with Antlers and their grit. Unfortunately, they recovered just one goal before injury time.

Cerezo threw in a young kid. He signed for the club from Toyama Daiichi High School and he’s struggling to find space, but the head coach understood Antlers need all the attacking force they have. First Masaki Fukai levels the context, but it’s still 2-2. Not for much more, because the young kid finds the late winner in final minutes of the game: it’s an incredible comeback, not the first and not the last in Antlers’ history.

The young kid won’t stay too long in Ibaraki, nor he’ll ever be in the starting eleven that much. But just like other youngsters who left Kashima for other ventures, he’ll find his way. A way paved by promotions, satisfactions, many matches and a lot of goals. Maybe not on the biggest stages, but still with a lot of relevance. That kid has become a man, a senator within a different reality.

“The Centennial Club” comes back to celebrate Yuki Nakashima, who took the time to rewrite history in this first Saturday of Spring. By scoring the winning goal in Kofu, he hasn’t just gifted Zelvia a crucial win, but he also reached the 100 goals-mark in the second division. And who knows what other goals he’ll be able to achieve in a season where he seems pretty inspired.

Made in North

The striker’s journey started a long time ago. Born in Toyama Prefecture in 1984, Nakashima has always maintained great ties with the Northern part of the country: his two other significant experiences were with Vegalta Sendai and Montedio Yamagata. At the same time, his first games were with a special jersey, because Nakashima joined Kashima Antlers back in 2003.

Back then, despite being in between two different winning dynasties, Antlers represented already the best of Japanese football. Unfortunately, the young striker didn’t have time to express himself on the pitch, since Antlers could already count on a packed offensive department: Atsushi Yanagisawa, Takayuki Suzuki and Yuzo Tashiro were featuring back then, so the forward featured just 42 in all competitions, scoring three goals.

He needed a new stage to shine: that chance came under Vegalta Sendai, where Nakashima stayed for six seasons, living it all, from the J2 times to renaissance in the first division, passing through the tragedy tied to the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011. Despite this, the club depended on him, especially to get promoted in late 2000s. Fans loved him, but it wasn’t enough, because pitch time started to drain again.

Under the advice of Makoto Teguramori (the head coach of Sendai), Nakashima remained in the North, but moved to Montedio Yamagata, who just got relegated. First on loan, then permanently. Surprisingly, it worked: Nakashima was a solid option for them and the club gained their spot to J1 after just two years. It lasted just one season, but Nakashima gave it all again and helped reaching the goal with his efforts.

A nice documentary produced by the club to document the promotion and the season behind it.

The renaissance with Machida

Unfortunately, J1 wasn’t the right context for Nakashima. Overall, the striker played 95 games in the top flight and scored just four goals. Evidently, it wasn’t written on the wall for him to succeed at that level. No, the real safehouse for him was the second division, where he always shone. And the best was yet to come, because signing for Machida Zelvia was the best decision he could ever take.

After having already bagged 56 goals, Nakashima lived three seasons in a row with double digits of goals (14, 11, 12). This also brought Zelvia to two historical campaigns, coming seventh in 2016 and fourth in 2018. The club was the right option, because Machida just got back from the third division after a three years-purgatory between JFL and the newborn J3 League.

There was a lot of enthusiasm, the right head coach (Naoki Soma has done a lot for the club) and interesting players. Having seen a lot in 15 years, Nakashima knew how to guide his teammates through the insidious tides of J2. The last two years, though, worried us: both Zelvia and Nakashima dramatically underperformed, lying in the bottom part of the table, far away from the heights of the previous campaigns.

In fact, the club came eighteenth in 2019 and nineteenth last year, showing a concerning lack of stability on the pitch rather than out. The change on the bench – Naoki Soma left, Ranko Popović came back after several years – didn’t change the problems, although there’s a pool of talent within the club. Most of all, Nakashima scored just seven goals in 71 games in the last two years. Was it over?

The rebirth

When Machida signed both Dudu and Jong Tae-se, we were pretty convinced Nakashima would have been the fourth choice among forwards, probably also behind newly-arrived Shunsuke Ota. But this demotion never materialized, because Dudu had problems reaching Japan due to the COVID-19 block imposed on foreign travelers, Ota is playing even as a winger and Jong Tae-se seems a little bit behind on his fitness.

So what? Nakashima started all the games, played almost half of the minutes he played in 2020 (350 against 877) and mostly scored. He never lost the sense of goal, that instinct in front of goal, but he looked rusty. All gone in 2021: opening goal against Júbilo Iwata, the second in the derby against Tokyo Verdy and now, away at Ventforet Kofu, the goal number 100 in the second division.

Only another player has achieved this goal: Masashi Oguro, the all-time top-scorer in the history of J2 League, standing on top with 108. Nakashima is just eight goals away: we’re pretty sure there will be a time where the new signings will come in place and Nakashima will be managed in his pitch time, but can he do it? Can he do it maybe already in 2021, breaking a record that seemed safe from any player?

Maybe it wasn’t. Oguro’s historical achievement can’t be out of reach for someone who has always survived, going through different challenges and now the second most present player in J2 history (458 matches under his belt: only Koji Homma has a better score than Nakashima). Who knows what the future holds for the striker: we just have to wait and see.

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