“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up”. This might be a motivational catchphrase you head many, many times, but there’s a layer of truth underneath it. It’s tough to have success, but it’s way harder to get it back after you stumbled: a lesson which several football teams have learned the hard way.
Just look at J2 League: with the expansion of Japanese football and the increased success of new clubs, some realities fell out of favor and started a long period of stagnation in terms of results. Clubs who were once at the pinnacle of the football hierarchy are now stuck in this purgatory. And some of them have been there for a really long time, more than we could actually realize.
Our new column, “J. Therapy”, is about them. We picked four clubs, invited four fans to talk about them, like we’re trying to talk it out: the despairs of the past, the grim reality and the hopes for a better future. All condensed in one piece, where we go through how a club lost its magic, when all broke down and how they could or should find better ways to get back on its feet. And there isn’t probably a better club to debut in this column than JEF United Chiba.
For this first episode, we talked with one of the most distinguished fans of the club in the J. League-sphere, Miya (@say3911), and we asked him how he valued this decade spent in the second division, the hopes for the future and why the club appeared stuck in J2 for such a long time.
When they were kings
JEF United Ichihara has been a solid club for a decade. Born with the support of Furukawa Electric, they actually had another denomination from 1946 to 1991, when they hold the name of “Furukawa Electric Soccer Club”. They were in the elite of the former first division, the Japan Soccer League, even winning titles in the continental stage. Unfortunately, the music changed from 1992.
The merge with the corporate team from JR East brought JEF United Ichihara to life, becoming one of the “Original Ten” which participated to the first J. League season ever in 1993. After some struggles, the 2000s paved the way for better results: the club came third twice and resurged even more under Ivica Osim, winning two J. League Cups in a row (2005-06). This was the swan’s song, though.
Nevertheless, their contribution to J. League was solid: two players – Eisuke Nakanishi and Seiichiro Maki – featured in a FIFA World Cup squad for Japan, while many J. Leaguers had their breakthrough moment with JEF United: from Koki Mizuno to Yuto Sato, passing through Naotake Hanyu, Satoshi Yamaguchi, but mostly Yuki Abe and Hisato Sato. A World Cup winner like Pierre Littbarski featured with the club.
When we asked to Miya what those times meant for the fans, he was pretty clear:
“Seeing JEF United in J1 was a long-cherished wish. It was amazing”.
The descent and the purgatory
Once Osim left – both father and son coached the club –, now renamed JEF United Chiba started flirting with relegation. After barely avoiding the drop in ’08, it became real the year after, when JEF United Chiba stayed in the bottom part of the table for the whole season. We asked to our guest what that relegation meant and how it happened:
“I think the cause of the demotion is the pride of the club and the dissociation between the players and the front desk. I think it started all with the release of Yuki Abe, who was the main pillar of the club”.
Despite the local rival, Kashiwa Reysol, descended as well into J2, things have gone radically different for the two sides. This already started to show in 2010: both clubs were tipped to come immediately back to J1, but Reysol won the title and stayed unbeaten in both derbies. Meanwhile, JEF United got a fourth place, 19 points adrift of their local rivals and eight points shy of promotion zone.
This should have pushed JEF United to look for a new chase to promotion, but in one decade this rarely happened. In twelve years of second division, the club changed the manager ten times (with Atsuhiko Ejiri coaching twice), with just four of them – Jun Suzuki, Takashi Sekizuka, Juan Esnáider and current head coach, Yoon Jung-hwan – lasting more than one season.
The strange thing is that some of these managers had a breakthrough somewhere else. Takashi Kiyama stayed in the dugout just one year before succeeding with Ehime FC and Montedio Yamagata; Shigetoshi Hasebe was the head coach just a few games, before leaving and building his status with Mito HollyHock and Avispa Fukuoka. The same Yoon Jung-hwan had a solid reputation before coming to Chiba.
It’s tough to resume these twelve years in the second division, but our guest tried to sum them with the best and worst memory from these times in J2:
“The best memory? Probably when we reached the playoffs final, almost coming back to J1. The worst? It’s still mesmerizing how we’re a club of this size and we’re still playing football in the second division”.
Yes, because JEF United Chiba have been more than once involved in the playoffs. The first time happened in 2012, when this appendix was introduced to J2: the club reached the final only to lose against Oita Trinita. The same happened two years later, when JEF got a bye to skip the semifinals and featured in the playoffs final, this time losing to Montedio Yamagata. Both Oita and Montedio got immediately relegated.
To these two finals, you have to add two further participations to the playoffs, in 2013 and in 2017, when JEF United lost in the semifinals. After that 4-2 defeat against Nagoya Grampus four years ago, JEF have been pretty far away from any chance of lingering towards the promotion zone. Actually, the danger coming from behind looks greater of any possible dream of J1.
Despite the first year under Argentinian head coach Juan Esnáider went pretty well, further development deteriorated quickly. Both 2018 and 2019 were dreadful campaigns, with JEF struggling to follow the belief of their head coach. The arrival of Yoon Jung-hwan was supposed to turn it around, but neither him nor his expertise were enough to produce this change.
Right now, JEF United Chiba are probably in the worst moment of their history as a club. With just five points clinched from their first six games in J2, the club had one of the worst starts in recent years. There’s a further problem, though, because the second division features four relegations in 2021 and JEF struggled a lot in the last three seasons: fourteenth in 2018 and 2020, seventeenth in 2019.
All of this happened while Kashiwa Reysol have won everything throughout these decade, changing radically the balance of forces in the region. Even in 2019 – when Kashiwa got relegated and had to win the championship to pull themselves out of that purgatory –, derbies showed the difference in ambitions and timelines:
We asked our guest a final question about this strange balance and how things changed in the span of just a decade, wondering of how JEF United Chiba could actually hope for a better future and an eventual return to J1:
“Reysol have become increasingly popular in Chiba Prefecture. I wish you could show me the way go back to how things were more than a decade ago”.
In fact, while Reysol don’t look solid in 2021, the same concern could be shared for JEF United in J2. Their slow start, the fragile roster and a sort of blackhole-morale surrounding this squad could be really dangerous as the season goes on. Only time will tell if these worries were real or out of the blue.
So this was the first episode of our new column. We’ll have at least three new episodes about J2 teams in this situation, with fans talking with us about the struggles of their teams and how they could go back to their winning ways. This is “J. Therapy”: see you soon with another club.