“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.
In the first episode, we talked about JEF United Chiba and their decade in J2. Today’s club has rejoined J2 from later than 2010, but he peaked in 2016 with their best J1 season in their history and then crumbled back to J2, where they’ve been since 2018. Omiya Ardija are the protagonist of the second episode and Steven Fryer – known on Twitter as @ardija01talk– has been kind enough to answer in depth to all of our questions.
- Could you describe how it was and what it meant for you to see Omiya in J1?
My first match at Nack 5 stadium came on 12 April 2009 when Omiya Ardija played Gamba Osaka in a J1 match. It was played in glorious Spring weather and Omiya won a thrilling game 3-2. I loved the atmosphere that day in the stadium among the home fans. The setting in the local park was attractive and the game was great. The result perhaps skewed my image of where Omiya sat in the Japanese football family, but I was sold.
A year later, I moved to Omiya and started to attend home matches more regularly. I soon discovered that Omiya were a club who were punching above their weight and sat in the shadow of their city neighbors, Urawa Red Diamonds. You can imagine therefore it was great to see my team play in J1 against the big teams of Japan regularly.
Every season we would finish in the lower half of the table (usually 13th), but we appeared to be able to avoid the drop and it was wonderful to know that we could take part in the top flight of Japanese football season after season. I could enjoy cheering Omiya players on against the best players in the league. We mostly never had what I would call star players, but we fans were proud of their efforts in the orange shirts of Ardija.
- What was the key-factor which pushed Omiya to relegation firstly in 2014 and then in 2017?
In 2014 Omiya’s run in J1 came to an end after a decade. There were sevaral factors to note, but in the end the squad was simply not good enough to maintain our J1 status. A large part of the season we spent in 16th or 17th place tells its own tale. In this season Omiya had managerial difficulties. We started the season with a new coach Kiyoshi Okuma: he never got the team playing well and he was sacked and replaced by Hiroki Shibuya.
For a long time, the performances did not really improve, but towards the end of the season we suddenly found some form and pulled ourselves out of the relegation zone. Sadly, the form couldn’t last and the key game was away to Nagoya Grampus late on November 29th. The game was heading for a draw when Nagoya got a very late winner: that lost point would have kept Omiya in J1 on goal difference. It was not to be.
In 2017, the situation was very different. 2016 had been our best ever season in J1 and we had finished fifth. The problem was we lost our two most creative and effective players, Akihiro Ienaga and Jin Izumisawa. We replaced them with players of a lesser quality and the football we produced all season was poor. We spent only one week of the season out of the relegation zone, we sacked our manager and we deserved to be relegated.
This highlights the importance of producing and developing academy players to a level that can achieve and maintain J1 status and scouting players from other teams at home and abroad. In the past Omiya has done this successfully and that allowed us to perform at the J1 level regularly. I think of players like Ienaga, Zlatan Ljubijankić and Milivoje Novaković.
- The best memory of the current stint in J2?
My best memory of the current stint in J2 would be from last year. I’m thinking of our performance away against Kyoto Sanga. It was an exciting comeback from 2-0 down to eventually win 4-2. The team showed strength, character, belief, passion and teamwork. All things that were sadly lacking for most of last season under the management of Takuya Takagi. Furthermore, we did it against a team with the star quality of Peter Utaka, a wonderful J1 level stadium and a club that believes it should be in J1.
I also have some good memories of seasons 2018 and 2019, when Ardija reached the playoffs, but I think that performance last season away to Kyoto stands out for me because it was unexpected. It was thrilling and came against the backdrop of the worst performances by the club in a long time.
- What about the worst memory?
The worst memory I’m afraid is not one match in particular, but the general performances last season with Takuya Takagi as our manager. Being a fan of a club like Omiya means I do not expect to see the best players in the world play in the orange shirt of our team, but I do wish them to play positively, to go for goal and to not sit back and defend in numbers.
The negativity of the style of football we played under Takagi was terrible to watch. I don’t mind at all if we stay in J2 or lose matches. I do hope we play positively and give our loyal fans something to get behind, something to excite them and to encourage them to cheer louder for Omiya Ardija.
- I know it might sound difficult to guess, given last year, what could be the right way for Omiya to come back to J1?
I think the way back to J1 is a long road and the club and fans must be patient. The club must analyze the poor performances from last season and make as many necessary changes to the coaching staff and players to make sure we start to play the kind of football that can get us back to J1. I believe that a quick fix of traditional 4-4-2 long ball football is not good enough and even if it got us to J1, it would not keep us there.
J1 is improving every season in leaps and bounds. The quality of the football on display there is much better than in 2017 when Omiya were last there. We need to develop a playing style that is modern, attractive, and has a sound defense. And we need to do it with the players that a club of the size and standing of Omiya can attract. It’s no easy task.
However, I believe we can do it through good scouting, good leadership and a good academy. I’ll keep supporting Omiya whichever league we’re in… and keep believing. We are Orange. We are Omiya.
So this was the second episode of our new column: we can not thank enough Steven for his time and passion about Omiya. Two more episodes will come, talking about J2 teams in this situation, with fans opening their hearts over 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.