Wednesday, 02 December 2020

 


 

Ehime FC was founded in 1970 under the name Matsuyama Football Club. However, the team was just a small, local club with little serious support or competitive ability until 1995, when it was reorganised as an independent club, with support from the prefectural government, and adopted the name "Ehime FC". The team quickly became a top competitor in its region, and won the Shikoku regional league championship several times during the 1990s. In 2001, after having won the regional championship for three years in a row, Ehime FC won promotion to the JFL.

Thereafter, the club began to attract more and more local support, and though it did not have the corporate backing required to hire top players, the tremendous local support helped carry the team to a third-place finish in the JFL, in 2003. The team began to set its sights on promotion to the J.League, in earnest. The team established a management corporation -- Ehime FC Co., Ltd. -- and included as one of its corporate goals the aim of achieving quick promotion to the J.League. For the 2004 season, the team adopted a new mascot and team colours, and the local government began to put its efforts behind the team to help it in its bid for a J.League spot. Though the team fell short in 2004, it is gaining strength financially, in terms of player skill, and most of all, in terms of local fan support. And why not? It was hard to find anything about this club NOT to like, whether it be the team mascot -- a delightfully deranged tangerine named "Oran-jay" -- or the even MORE delightful official English name for the team's home stadium -- I SWEAR, I am not making this up: "Ehime Comprehensive Movement Park". The name of the stadium was changed in 2008 to the equally bizarre "Ninjineer" Stadium (Ninjin... by the way... means "carrot").

In 2005, Ehime FC petitioned the J.League for permission to advance to the J2. The League had approved two applications in 2004, and some of those who have seen the details on team finances and facilities indicate that the application was at least as convincing as those offered by Tokushima Vortis and Thespa Kusatsu, in the previous year. However, Thespa has struggled since being admitted to the J2, and finished dead last in 2005 with one of the worst records in history. As a result, the league rejected all three applications submitted by JFL teams over the summer. The other two proposals were rejected for what seemed to be legitimate reasons. Financial and organizational standards were just borderline, and the league had good justification for telling the teams in question to wait a year. But for Ehime, the decision seemed to be unfair, given the fact that the league approved a much weaker bid from Thespa, a year earlier.

Just days after the application of Ehime FC was rejected, the J.League front office was stunned to have a large delegation of politicians and business leaders -- led by Ehime governor Moriyuki Kato -- suddenly show up on their doorstep demanding that the League reconsider its stance. The club has become wildly popular in its home region, and with their next-door neighbours Tokushima Vortis already in the J2, it seems that everyone in the prefecture has jumped on the bandwagon and is looking forward to having their own J.League team. The delegation from Ehime prefecture assured the League that Ehime FC would have whatever financial, organizational and infrastructure support it needed, and there was no excuse for the league to reject the petition. Taken aback by this forceful statement, the League began to bend, but refused to grant approval immediately. They agreed to "reconsider the application", and promised to make a final decision after the final match of the JFL season.The delegates from the club and the Ehime government returned home and set about organizing efforts to force the J.League's hand. Fan club members hit the streets with petitions for locals to sign, asking the J.League to approve Ehime FC's promotion. Within a month, the team had gathered a mountain of petitions -- with reportedly over 350,000 names! One Japanese blogger in Matsuyama City cheekily suggested that Oran-Jay (the team mascot) should run for a seat in the Diet, since Ehime FC had received more votes of confidence from people in the prefecture than ALL CANDIDATES COMBINED in the previous month's election.

This tremendous show of support by the local community, business leaders and of course, the local fans, won over the sceptical J.League brass, and they agreed that if Ehime could finish in the top two of the JFL this season, they would earn a spot in the J2. With a burst of euphoria and fan elation carrying them along, Ehime FC made a late charge and managed to win the JFL title outright, leaving no doubt in anyone's mind what the J.League's decision would be. Sure enough, a day later the League officially welcomed its newest member.

Although Ehime faced the same hurdles in 2006 that any league newcomer usually faces, the team put on an impressive run and managed to finish in ninth place. We were not surprised to see them slip down-table a bit over the subsequent three years, since this has been true of several new additions to the J.League ranks. The surge of momentum generated in the first year often allows a team to perform well, but success can be difficult to sustain unless the organizational base expands and the fan support follows suit. Ehime FC's Shikoku neighbours, Tokushima Vortis, had a more difficult time in their first few seasons but made a steady improvement as the years passed, adding young players one by one and slowly attracting broader fan support. Ehime, by contrast, made a big splash on the J.League stage but has done little since then to make themselves more competitive.

One significant watershed was reached in 2009, as coach Kazuhito Mochizuki -- the man who has been head coach ever since Ehime FC took its current form -- retired from the coaching ranks. The team began the next phase of their development by welcoming home a local boy who achieved some degree of stardom, as their new captain. Kenji Fukuda got his start as a talented young striker at Nagoya Grampus, and following a heroic performance with the Atlanta Olympic team, he managed to earn a few national team starts. He then spent seven years travelling widely and playing football in second-tier leagues such as Paraguay, Mexico, Greece, and Spain's Division II. Though he lacked the talent and the youthful legs to make any really big contributions on the pitch, he did at last give the Terrible Tangerines a high-profile "face" that commanded both respect and nationwide recognition.

The 2010 season saw Ehime recover and move upward in the league table for the first time since their debut season. Success was based largely on young players who were acquired from J1 teams on loan, and this strategy can often backfire if the loanees return immediately to their former clubs. However, a few of them have been convinced to stay around, and make full transfers to Ehime, giving the team a stronger base of "permanent" players than at any time since their advance from the JFL. The competition is also intensifying, so despite their improvement in overall talent, the Tangerines have trouble breaking above midtable. After finishing fifth in 2015 -- their highest finish ever -- the Tangerines have been moving in the wrong direction steadily.  

Part of the problem is the lack of a dedicated fan base. While Matsuyama is a reasonably large city, it has few suburbs and is surrounded by hilly and sparsely populated land. More disconcertingly, the rise of other teams in the region has been gradually weakening support for the existing clubs. Surely, fans in Shikoku are enjoying the increased competition, but Ehime risks being left behind by local rivals. Tokushima Vortis claimed the status of Top Team in Shikoku with a rare surge into the J1 in 2014, and they have remained the most competitive Shikoku club ever since. Two years later, a third Shikoku team joined the fray, in the form of Kamatamare Sanuki. The Eggy Puddings of eastern Shikoku started their J.League history well, climbing to the second division temporarily, but then suffered the setbacks that many smalller teams do once the initial battle for J.League status is over. After their relegation to J3, they were joined in 2019 by the newest of the Shikoku-area combatants, Imabari FC. 

The battle for supremacy in Shikoku may not be a spectacular goal to aim for, but at the moment, Ehime will be happy just to outdo its local rivals. Any further improvement is probably several years off, at a minimum. 


Team Results for 2006-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2006 9 53 14 11 23 51 63 -12
2007 10 45 12 9 27 39 66 -27
2008 14 37 9 10 23 39 66 -27
2009 15 47 12 11 28 54 80 -26
2010 11 48 12 12 12 34 34 +0
2011 15 44 10 14 14 44 54 -10
2012 16 51 12 14 16 47 46 +1
2013 17 47 12 11 19 43 52 -9
2014 19 48 12 12 18 54 58 -4
2015 5 65 19 8 15 47 39 +8
2016 10 56 12 20 10 41 40 +1
2017 15 51 14 9 19 54 68 -14
2018 18 48 12 12 18 34 52 -18
2019 19 42 12 6 24 46 62 -16