J. Therapy – Tokyo Verdy

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.

After the first two episodes – where we talked about JEF United Chiba and Omiya Ardija – it’s time to move again to the Kanto area, where Tokyo Verdy have been the shadow of the team they used to be. We talked about it with Jon Steele (@JTalkETJon), whom you all know for his valuable and precious work around the J2 and host of “J. Talk Extra Time”.

The last day of Tokyo Verdy in the topflight.

Given his following of J2, Jon knows very well which kind of situation Verdy have been through in the last decade.

Could you describe how it was and what it meant for the fans to see Verdy in J1?

This a difficult question, because so many Verdy fans at this point were newer/younger fans who had never seen the team in J1 before. Sorry to give a generic answer, but I think initial euphoria at being ‘back in the big time’ soon gave way to existential dread as people realized that the team was going to be in big trouble, and in a relegation battle for most of the season (that they ultimately lost).

Which was the key-factor which pushed Verdy to relegation back in 2008?

It’s too long ago for me to remember in too much detail, but Verdy were really sunk by a terrible collapse in the end-of-season run-in. After memorably winning the Tokyo Derby 2-1 in Round 22, they only won 1 of their last 12 matches (1-0 at home to Omiya in Round 29), so they went down with a real whimper in the final third of the season. Furthermore, they only scored 5 goals in those 12 matches – the team just ran out of steam completely.

What is the best memory of this time in J2 for a Verdy fan?

Miguel Angel Lotina’s reign was pretty much a highlight (he was the head coach from 2016 to 2018). He arrived as a question mark in Japanese football, since he was unknown and he had a reputation as a ‘relegation specialist’ in Spain. I think he has been relegated from the Primera Liga five or six times (note from JLR: four. Still a lot!).

The pinnacle of those years? The goal who decided the playoffs final of 2018, when Verdy won in injury time in Yokohama.

However, he proved to be something of a tactical genius at Verdy, squeezing way more out of a very young & raw group of players than anyone thought was possible. Getting them to the promotion/relegation showdown in 2018, after finishing sixth in the regular season table, still seems like a scarcely believable achievement three years later.

What about the worst memory of this time in J2?

Plenty to choose from, and I’m writing this about a week after Verdy were thrashed 0-7 at Niigata!

The lowlight from my personal point of view was being knocked out of the Emperor’s Cup by Hosei University in the second round in 2019. That match showed how the players didn’t care about the fate of their English manager, Gary White, putting in such a rotten performance that his sacking was made inevitable.

FC Tokyo have achieved a lot in the last decade, thus what could be the right way for Verdy to come back to J1?

I think something that Verdy have done extremely well is to build a new, more modern brand identity (although we may dislike terms like this purely as football supporters, it does make sense for a business to build a strong brand to help it to grow). For example, the club has a new badge, bespoke font, and a new mascot in the form of Reverun.

However, the marketing has been very intelligent in terms of linking the ‘old’ Verdy to the new without trying to sanitize or erase anything. For example, the eagle motif is retained in the new logo and badge, Reverun was introduced as the son of old/legacy mascot Verdy-kun and the club includes references to their relegation to J2 prominently in the ‘club history’ section of their website.

In the end, in terms of marketing/branding, I think they are more than ready for J1 and possibly have done a better job of marketing the club than quite a few J1 side in recent years.

However, the biggest obstacles to Verdy being successful are going to be more difficult (perhaps impossible) to solve: they have a small supporter base, because most fans in Tokyo already follow FC Tokyo, and many older fans in Kawasaki switched to supporting Frontale when Verdy ditched Kanagawa for Tokyo.

To make any kind of headway on this, the club desperately needs to relocate away from Ajinomoto Stadium, a huge concrete bowl which provides almost zero atmosphere with a typical Verdy home crowd of 3-4, 000 spectators inside. Even if building a super-cheap, small stadium is not an option (and financially, it’s very unlikely to happen), I would like to see Verdy try and play as many home matches as possible away from Ajinomoto.

The small national training center stadium at Nishigaoka (confusingly, also sponsored by Ajinomoto) is perfect for most Verdy-sized crowds with its 5,000-ish capacity. If any kind of deal could be struck for Verdy to rent it on a more regular basis, that would definitely attract more supporters because it’s a soccer-specific stadium in downtown Tokyo (well, more downtown than ‘big’ Ajinomoto at least).

Last year in J1 saw also Hulk playing for them.

It feels like the current situation of playing at Ajinomoto is not sustainable in the long-term (possibly even medium), so there’s definitely the need to be some movement on a creative, more Verdy-appropriate stadium solution in the near future. Even the small stadiums of J3 sides like Imabari and Miyazaki would make a huge difference to the match day experience of a potential Verdy supporter.

It could make them more likely to come back again. It seems like it’s only a pipe dream for now though! (couldn’t they just hire the Deagu Bank Stadium people to build them a 10,000-seats stadium somewhere in Greater Tokyo…?!)

And this was Episode 3 of “J. Therapy”, a column that promises to come back for at least one more team. Meanwhile, we want to thank Jon for his precious insight and wish Verdy the best for their upcoming future. See you soon with another story, another club, another tale.

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