More than 700 matches as a head coach in the Japanese professional football. More than 300 wins guiding his teams. Almost 20 years as a manager between different places. It’s tough to find such a prestigious and solid curriculum for a 64 years-old coach, who’s still running the show. A manager who values the athletic aspect of football – Kengo Nakamura told once that he had him as a coach in his rookie year and that was one of the best pre-season camps he ever had.

A defensive coach, who likes the 3-CBs formation. A warm-hearted character, who has been gaining traction and a following among players – Kazunari Okayama followed him in Sapporo after the adventure at Reysol, while Iwao Yamane said himself: “Where the head coach is, I’ll be there”. There’s 20+ players who worked with the head coach in more than one team. Some of them – like Gakuto Shiokawa, Junpei Takagi and Yuya Himeno – did that in three different clubs.

It’s not an accident if others felt the mark of this cult hero. Makoto Teguramori became a coach because he was encouraged while still playing at the former NEC Yamagata – today’s Montedio –, with the head coach telling him, “It’s difficult as a player, but if you become a coach, you can live forever in the soccer world“. A story that could have never even started, if Kazuaki Nagasawa – picked to be the NEC Yamagata manager in 1995 – would have said “yes”. Instead, he refused because he didn’t want to leave Shizuoka due to family reasons.

And that’s where our cult hero began his journey. A journey that brought all over the country, from Sapporo to Miyazaki – although the North has been the preferred destination. And the North seemed to have taken away from him the last gig of his career, when he was sacked by Kataller Toyama just a handful of months ago. Instead, Vanraure Hachinohe called him up to lead the team in 2023: Nobuhiro Ishizaki is here to stay.

The Beginnings

Class ’58, Ishizaki was born in Hiroshima, and his youth career took place basically there, in a Japan of the 70s where football wasn’t the main merch. Nevertheless, he went to Tokyo for his university stint and then joined Toshiba from 1980 to 1993, in a period where the team was still in the capital city (he even suggested the “AC Milan” style for the jerseys). Back then, he was a defender, and actually quit football in 1991, but came out of retirement for a small season and even worked as a Toshiba employee to produce LCD screens.

After retiring, Yamagata was the first place to start as a coach. Yes, not a head one: like we told before, he was supposed to join the staff in 1995, and then found himself being the leading coach because of Nagasawa’s refusal. Back then, he was coaching in the former Japan Football League – from 1995 to 1998, just before the J2 League was about to be delivered. Once the second division became part of the pro-world, he had his first taste of J.League.

Ishizaki coached Oita Trinita for three years. It was a marvellous ride, but with painful aspects. He missed promotion twice for a few points: actually in 1999, Oita drew at home against… Montedio Yamagata, and lost the advantage to get J1. When he was dismissed in May 2001, he found his way into Kawasaki Frontale, who were not the behemoth we know today. Back then, they were playing in J2 and actually Ishizaki coached rookie Kengo Nakamura in his first season. It was just the appetizer for J1.

The Rise

After waiting and waiting, Ishizaki had two major shots at the top tier. First, he joined Shimizu S-Pulse as part of the technical staff, but took over from Antoninho mid-season. S-Pulse avoided relegation, but the season wasn’t a success. Nevertheless, the board decided to confirm Ishizaki, until the news came out on local papers: supporters were so dissatisfied that the board needed to change their minds, appointing Kenta Hasegawa (that’s another major sliding door right there).

Another intermediate step was Tokyo Verdy 1969, back then still in J1. Between the dismissal of Osvaldo Ardiles and the hiring of Vadão – with the 2005 season ending up with a relegation to J2 –, Ishizaki actually took over for 10 days and oversaw the incredible 3-0 home win against Real Madrid. But the head coach – now 47 years-old needed a proper breakthrough. And that happened with Kashiwa Reysol, where he coached for three years.

Sure, the stint ended up with another relegation in 2008, but the three years were positive. Let’s not forget that Reysol got relegated in 2005 by losing the infamous relegation/promotion playoffs against Ventforet Kofu in a stunning way. Ishizaki rebuilt the team, he brought back them back to J1 immediately, and then led them to a safe eighth place in 2007. 2008 was a bit of a strange year – at a certain point, Reysol were third –, but it didn’t work out to avoid relegation.

The Legend

That’s the point where Ishizaki probably needed the most a new beginning, a restart close to the heart. And that happened with Consadole Sapporo, who hired him as the new head coach. Stuck in J2, the club and the city needed a beloved figure to restart. Ishizaki slowly built the team, and the conquered promotion in 2011 back to J1. Even there, though, the coach probably showed J1 wasn’t his best gig: he got relegated with seven games still to play, an infamous record staying for now.

After four years in Sapporo, then Ishizaki left Japan actually. He flew to China to coach the Hangzhou Greentown U-18 team, in a time when Takeshi Okada was managing the first team. Once Okada left in November 2013, Ishizaki came back to Japan to a well-known environment. Montedio Yamagata were looking for a new coach and Ishizaki delivered a unique season. In 2014, Montedio reached the playoffs, and then defeated both Jubilo Iwata and JEF United Chiba to win promotion to J1.

It was an unexpected result, as reaching the 2014 Emperor’s Cup final, lost to Gamba Osaka. 2015 J1 League wasn’t unforgettable – Ishizaki faced a third relegation in a row –, but it was a nice time for Yamagata to live through. When in 2016 it was clear that his cycle was over, Ishizaki left and actually opted for a huge drop to the Kyushu Soccer League, being hired as the head coach of Tegevajaro Miyazaki. In 18 months, he brought them to JFL and then was dismissed. It could have been the end, but…

Memory Lane time: a younger Nobuhiro Ishizaki in 1998, leading NEC Yamagata to J2. And we’d love to see those kits bang *wink wink*

The J3 Tour

Incredibly, in fact, Ishizaki didn’t stay too long without a job. He left Kyushu to reach Shizuoka, where Fujieda MYFC were waiting for him. They closed the year terribly, but 2019 was a success: we indeed talked about their season, and highlighted how Fujieda were really good offensively to be a team led by Ishizaki. They reached third place, lingering at the possibility of getting promoted. And Ishizaki took for once an award, winning “Best Manager” at the J.League Awards of 2019 for J3.

After staying in 2020, Ishizaki left and moved again North, this time directed to Kataller Toyama. They have been in J3 for a long time, and they wanted to steer into the J2 route again. 2021 was indeed a success, because Toyama got the best result in their J3 history, coming fourth (although seven points shy of promotion). And in 2022, when it became clear that Kataller were not improving, Ishizaki himself pulled the plug, handing out his resignation with a club’s press release stating “the content of football hasn’t improved”.

Now it’s up for 2023, where Ishizaki is still running the show. Vanraure Hachinohe seems the right place to have a fresh start, since the main goal for the club is avoiding relegation, and his tactics could help doing that. And while he still trains by running six kilometres per day before the training, you can see how Ishizaki became such a solid figure for the league. He never won a title, but Nobuhiro surely won our hearts. Actually, Nobu-hero.


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