Still standing

The 2021 season in J2 League provides us a tasty chance of witnessing a long relegation fight: 42 games, four drops and many teams risking. If the things at the top are still to be decided, a six or seven months-struggle is already ahead for some clubs: even Ehime FC or SC Sagamihara – the least equipped to face this race – are leaving it all on the pitch to avoid regrets in the future.

What about Mito HollyHock, then? They’ve the longest streak of seasons in J2 (from 2000 until today) and they might have risked as well. Instead, they look pretty comfy, while they have also changed their reputation on the pitch. From “Mito-nachio” to an entertaining side, despite a lot changed after their best season ever in 2019. They lost their manager, Shigetoshi Hasebe, who’s making wonders with Avispa Fukuoka.

They also lost several players, who flourished in Mito and then left, or their loan period ran out. Despite this, the club has been pretty clever in their recruitment, with a squad that’s now the third youngest in the whole league (25,6 years old on average). Of course, you also need some senators to run this show. They’re Yuji Kimura, cult hero Koji Homma, Junya Hosokawa or Jun Kanakubo (currently injured).

Among those senators, there’s a striker, who has though to still turn 30. He’s seen a bit of everything, from the third division to a strange and unique season in the top-flight. Masato Nakayama wears the no. 9 and he’s one of the true strikers the league can count on: after some globetrotting around the Japanese football pyramid, he seems to have found the environment where he can become a legend of this division.

Made in J3

Born in 1992 and graduated at the Osaka Sangyo University, Nakayama was signed by Gainare Tottori just after their drop from J2. He was described as a dynamic player, but also someone who liked the challenge of a physical contact. Tottori had him on their books for two seasons and especially the sophomore year was good: after three goals in 2014, Nakayama scored 10 the year after, with two braces.

This triggered a leap: Gainare stayed in the third division, but Nakayama jumped on the bandwagon of Renofa Yamaguchi (who, by chance, won promotion at Gainare with a dramatic late equalizer, in a day where Nakayama wasn’t playing). Promoted to J2, Nakayama had to conquer his spot, since the reigning J3 top scorer – Kazuhito Kishida – just closed 2015 with a historical amount of 31 goals.

But it wasn’t a problem. In a season when Renofa showed an offensive brand of football without being too efficient in front of goal, Kishida stumbled and head coach Nobuhiro Ueno put Nakayama in. The newly arrived striker recorded 11 goals, including a hat-trick in the game against Giravanz Kitakyushu. He scored those goals in just 29 games, of which he started just 16.

It was a nice business card in his rookie year as a J2 player. Unfortunately, those performance were not meant to be repeated once he left Yamaguchi for good.

To the top and back

Nakayama signed for Montedio Yamagata in 2017. It seemed a decent move, a place where he would have a chance to succeed. It went radically different: injuries in the first season prevented him from having a certain continuity, while at the same time Nakayama faced a harsh competition to book a spot as a starter. Yuji Senuma, Toyofumi Sakano and Felipe Alves limited the striker to 37 league matches and five goals in two years.

All this happened in a side which was going through a full rebuilding phase under Takashi Kiyama. What happened next, though, was even stranger: Nakayama moved to Júbilo Iwata, getting his first taste of J1. He did it, though, in a side who was clearly moving towards relegation: Júbilo needed a change, they didn’t implement any after risking the drop in 2018 and then eventually face the long awaited faith in 2019.

In that scenario, Nakayama lived a bizarre season. He scored 10 goals in 22 matches in all competitions, with two hat-tricks in the Emperor’s Cup of that year (against Honda FC and Vanraure Hachinohe). At the end of that year, Nakayama was the only forward in the squad with double digits of goals, while Kengo Kawamata and Yoshito had scored two goals only. Combined.

And it became even stranger when the players and the head coach Hiroshi Nanami started call him “Gon”. A heavy nickname, like the one adopted by another famous Nakayama, Masashi, who honored J1 for several years and his 157 goals. After the relegation, the no. 32 could have stayed as a starter, but it wasn’t probably meant to be. So, he opted to search better fortune somewhere else. Somewhere magical, at least in the last years.

A testament of Mito’s renaissance

When Nakayama joined Mito HollyHock, he came in a year where everything changed: Hasebe was gone, a lot of players had left – Hiroyuki Mae, Takaaki Shichi, Takaki Fukumitsu, Koki Ogawa, Atsushi Kurosawa – and it wasn’t granted to witness a smooth transition. Sure, the COVID-outbreak froze relegations, but at the same time it was crucial to determine how the club would have developed.

The hire of Tadahiro Akiba – former coach within the youth representatives of Japan – worked marvelously. The players signed fitted the purpose of the new Mito-spirit, with newcomers having the run of their lives (like Kazuma Yamaguchi, but also Yota Maejima, Halef Pitbull and Kota Yamada). In this scenario, Nakayama was able to reinvent himself and stating his importance at the J2 level, scoring 13 goals in 38 matches.

In a certain way, Nakayama is the testament of how life and football can evolve. The same that happened for Mito, since they’re now a development club: a majestic step forward for a club which won’t probably see a J1 season and a good way to avoid J3, since the drop is a concrete risk for many this year. And what about Nakayama? He’s already scored six goals in 13 matches this year, including a Crespo-esque back-heel to win the game in Kanazawa.

Most of all, at the dawn of turning 30, Nakayama has found finally his spot. He’s the captain – at least on the pitch: Koji Homma is still there –, the no. 9, the main striker. With this pace he has found, he might enter the all-time Top 10 scorer list of J2 in a few seasons. He’s still standing, despite everything.

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