Wednesday, 02 December 2020

 


 

JEF United can trace its history to the Furukawa Electric football club which was one of the dominant teams of the old Japan Soccer League. Furukawa can boast five Emperor's Cup titles and three second-place finishes, ranking it with Mitsubishi, Nissan and Yomiuri as the predominant teams in the old league. However, Furukawa Electric was not a particularly large company, and even prior to the launch of the J.League, the team was beginning to show signs of weakening for lack of financial support. Indeed, JEF United owes its name to the fact that Furukawa was unable to support a team on its own. At the inception of the J.League, Furukawa was forced to seek additional financial backing, and received it from railway operator JR East. The initials of the companies -- JR, East and Furukawa were merged to create "JEF" and since the team had been formed with the united support of two corporate sponsors, "JEF United" was deemed a suitable name.

JEF United got off to a decent start in its very first season, finishing in the middle of the table, but since the first stage of 1993, the team has never finished higher than sixth. Indeed, JEF could be viewed as the consummate "basement dweller", apart from a breif run of comparative mediocrity under the guidance of coach Ivica Osim. In the early years, the team had several players who captured national attention and raised the JEF name to a level higher than its actual performance on the pitch. These included former German international Pierre Littbarsky, who remained in Japan as a coach even after his playing career ended. Yugoslav international Nenad Maslovar also gained a very positive reputation in Japan, and also has coached in the JFL ranks after his playing days were over. These two internationals, and the young Shoji Jo, who shot to stardom as a rookie only to see his star burn out before he was 25, made JEF a popular club, at least on TV. But unfortunately, JEF never managed to develop a strong fan following. Its tiny home stadium, seating only a bit over 15,000, did not help matters. Perpetually strapped for cash, the team languished in the lower ranks of the league.

In 2001, the Yellow Dogs of Chiba finally started to break out of this mold, thanks mainly to the contributions of a few Eastern European coaches. The first to take the reins was Zdenko Veredenik. Building on JEF's central European roots, Veredenik brought in three key foreign players -- "Edo" Mujcin and Zeljko Milinovic, both from the former Yugoslavia, and striker Choi Yong-Soo, a young Korean with a keen nose for goal. Perhaps more importantly, Verdenik did a good job in developing the talented youngsters emerging from JEF's youth program. As a result, the team began to blossom, for the first time moving above mid-table, and finishing in second place in the 2001 first stage.

After Verdenik's one-year stint, another wily strategist took over the reins -- former Graz and Austrian national team coach Josef Venglos. Under his tutelage, the team continued to develop, and although they failed to match the performances of 2001, they definitely were becoming a more formidable opponent, who other teams in the league treated with caution. In 2002, they were the only team with a winning record against champions Jubilo Iwata, defeating them twice and getting one draw over two league matches and one cup match. The following year, JEF made its strongest bid ever for a league title. Ivica Osim took over the coaching duties, and in a bit of brilliant player management, the burly Bosnian was able to turn JEF's blend of energetic youngsters and key veterans into one of the top contenders in 2003. Though they failed to to take home any silverware that season, the little team from Chiba gave the league's giants a good run for their money and they ended the season in third place overall.

But at the end of the day, it was always clear that JEF would struggle to overcome the deficits of a weak fan base and poor finances. Players who emerged as J.League stars and national team prospects expected to benefit accordingly, and when JEF United was unable to increase their salary to a meaningful level, they moved on to clubs with deeper pockets. Throughout the relatively successful era of the early 00s, the main winter spectator sport in Chiba was watching to see how many key players would jump ship. In 2005 the team finally claimed its first piece of silverware, with a victory in the Nabisco Cup, but their competitiveness was clearly eroding as more and more talent walked out the door.

Club management was not oblivious to the problem, but there seemed to be little they could do. The most useful management decision came in 2005, when the team decided to move its "home town" from Ichihara to the larger neighboring city of Chiba, and take up residence in a more expansive and truly beautiful football-only stadium known as the FUKUda AREna, or in typical Japanese shorthand, "FUKUARI" Stadium. Though Ichihara was still included as part of the team's hometown area, the official club name was changed to "JEF United Chiba". But fate would deal the team a blow which made this move pointless, at least in the short term. In the middle of the 2006 season, Ivica Osim left to take up the post of Japan National Team coach, and was succeeded by his visibly less-talented son, Amar.

Amar Osim may have been closely involved in the day-to-day activities of JEF United for two years, as an assistant coach, but when he took over the reins from Osim Senior, it became clear that he lacked either the strategic skill or the easy rapport with his players that made his father such a successful coach. At the end of 2007, after narrowly averting relegation, the team broke its final ties to the Osim legacy by firing Amar and allowing many of Osim's former favourites to leave the team.

Despite the move to new home town and a new stadium, and the dramatically improved attendance numbers after the team moved to Fukuari Stadium, the team was not able to improve its team finances enough to prevent the steady outflow of talented players. The exodus continued in 2007, leaving JEF more depleted than at any time since the early 2000s. To make matters worse, incoming coach Josip Kuze had a much more rigid "European" perspective on football than his immediate predecessors, and tried to force JEF to adopt the slow, deliberate and excessively defensive tactics that are often seen at minor clubs in European leagues. As past experience has shown, time and time again, this strategy does not work well in Japan. Despite claiming a few 0-0 draws, coach Kuze could not accumulate enough points to get JEF off the basement floor, and by June it looked like the Yellow Dogs were doomed to a spell in the J2.

But in the middle of the 2008 season, a grizzled Scotsman who had never coached outside of the UK rode in like a heroic cavalry contingent to rescue the embattled club. In June, Alex Miller had just completed a season as the assistant coach at Liverpool, and was trying to decide what step to take next in his coaching career. With Rafa Benitez firmly installed as head coach it was appparent that he would have to move on if he wanted a head coaching opportunity. But Miller probably did not expect the call to come from distant Japan to take over a club that seemed doomed to relegation. Fortunately for JEF United and its fans, the Scotsman took the offer as a challenge, and quickly set about retooling the squad for a last-gasp bid for survival.

The results were extremely impressive. JEF began to play with a level of confidence they had not shown since Ivica Osim's departure, and the home crowds -- who had never paid much attention to a mediocre mid-table team -- began packing the stands in vast numbers and displaying huge banners urging the team to fight for survival. JEF ran off several big upset wins, including defeats of league leaders Nagoya Grampus, Kashima Antlers and Urawa Reds. Yet their play was still spotty, and on the final week of the season JEF still needed a win to avoid relegation.

The final match of 2008 was a drama for the ages. After falling behind 0-2 at half time, JEF rallied heroically to score four times in the final 20 minutes, winning the contest 4-2 and preserving a spot in the top-flight division. Naturally, these heroics energised a previously blase fan base, and the team attracted some of the largest crowds in its history during the 2009 season. Unfortunately, the fans were "rewarded" with the worst performance in JEF United history.  Coach Alex Miller provided the emotional boost needed to salvage the club in 2008, but he proved entirely incapable of designing a plan that could carry the team to consistent success in the J.League. After a horrendous start to the campaign, Miller was sent packing and his replacement was unable to keep the team afloat. At the end of the 2009 season JEF ware relegated to the J2, for the first time in their history. They were joined by local rivals, Kashiwa Reysol, who also were relegated in 2009.

The task of rebuilding and trying to climb back into the J1 seemed to receive a big boost in early 2010, when many team veterans decided to stick around and several former players agreed to rejoin their old club, to help battle for promotion. But as is so often the case, JEF United's ineffective management and team supervision hobbled the team's performance on the pitch. The biggest problem that faced coach Atsuhiko Ejiri, as the 2010 season began, was not of his own making. The front office staff had been so eager to attract quality players and bolster the team's competitiveness that they promised more than a dozen veteran players a regular spot in the starting team if they would agree to sign on. Even under the most ideal of conditions, there was no way coach Ejiri could possibly have kept all of those promises, or made everyone on the team happy.

By the coach made things more difficult for himself than they had to be, by deliberately snubbing the players who enjoyed the greatest fan support, the most respect from teammates, and the strongest claims to have "paid their dues" to the club. Ejiri's treatment of Seiichiro Maki can be viewed as the epitome of his shortsightedness on the issue. Maki had turned down opportunities to leave Chiba on at least five or six occasions over the preceding decade, out of loyalty to the local fans. In return he was treated as a demigod, and the sight of him sitting motionless and blank-faced at the end of the JEF United bench for the first three months of the season only served to stoke fan annoyance at Ejiri's management decisions. The coach opted to use primarily young and promising players who would work hard for him, and didnt make what the coach viewed as "unreasonable demands". For a while the team managed to win matches and remain in position for promotion. But even when the J2 season broke for the 2010 World Cup, it was clear that the coach and the team alike were living on borrowed time. Many of the core players were grumbling about the situation, and you could tell that if JEF slipped out of the top three, the finger-pointing and recriminations would begin.

The tension in the JEF clubhouse all came to a head a week after the league resumed play. As observers had been warning, all year long, something had to be done to relieve the source of dissension. At some point JEF management had to do the right thing for loyal players, and help them move to a club where they can play every week. After promising J1-quality players that they would see first team action, you cant just force them to sit on the bench and expect to maintain good morale. Compounding the problem was the fact that the players who were pushed into the shadows were the very ones who had earned the respect and loyalty of the fans. And Seiichiro Maki was at the top of the list.

So it was sad, but certainly not unexpected, when Maki announced that he wanted to leave JEF and join Amkar Prem, in the Russian league. That team had approached him during the World Cup break and offered him a contract. Maki informed the club of this, and then released the news to the press. What WAS unexpected was the reaction of JEF’s front office, who told Maki that he was "fired", and was on his own in any efforts to negotiate with Amkar Prem. Nobody knew the full story prior to the game against Consadole Sapporo, On July 18, but in retrospect the 3-0 loss  that JEF suffered was pretty much what you would expect from a team in shock and emotional turmoil.

As the news began to seep out, fans rebelled. As the players as they came over for the post-match bow the fans showered them with angry comments and criticisms. The players apparently explained to the fans that they were sorry about the loss, but had been emotionally fraught because Maki had just been fired by the club, after all he had done for the team. This set the JEF faithful off on a tirade that was quite typical of fan revolts in the J.League. The main fan clubs immediately swung into action, mobilizing several groups to hit the club where it hurt the most. About 500 of them staged a sit-in at the stadium, remaining in the stands for several hours (a tactic that forces the team to pay very expensive overtime fees to the stadium) and a second group blockading all exits from the clubhouse, so the team bus couldn’t leave. The sit-in continued until after midnight, when players finally convinced the fans to let them leave, to go get some sleep, and to convene the next day for a meeting with club officials.

On Monday the fan club representatives met team management and demanded that they issue a formal written apology to Maki and formally “reinstate” him until the deal with Amkar Prem went through. “If not, we will blockade the entrances to the stadium on July 31 (JEF's next home match) and make sure the game is played in an empty stadium.” The club needed no second warning. There was already a long history of fan revolts in Japan, and even in situations less emotional than this one, the fan club organizers have carried them out with almost military discipline and precision. Later that day the club issued a formal letter of reinstatement to the press, and Maki concluded his deal with Amkar Prem on Tuesday afternoon.

While this resolved the most immediate source of tension, it could not help but have an adverse impact on team morale. Many of the other veteran players had also been promised playing time, and in the wake of the Maki incident, they were more vocal in pressing their case for inclusion. If JEF management had taken decisive action - either by firing the coach or by having some front-office staff step down to take responsibility - it might have eased tempers enough to salvage the team's season. But instead JEF dithered and delayed (they only made a formal announcement of coach Ejiri's dismissal two weeks before the season ended). Not unsurprisingly, it cost them promotion. JEF finished the season in fourth place, well behind Avispa Fukuoka who claimed the last of three promotion slots.

After such a high-profile blunder in its treatment of fans and players alike, relegation was the least that JEF United management deserved, The problem they faced in 2011 was how to reclaim a spot in the top-flight division before their status as a second-tier team was confirmed. Some teams have used their spell in the lower division to rebuild and improve management practices; others have settled in as regular fixtures in the J2. Despite losing several of their veterans during the 2011 winter break, there was enough talent left to make a strong run at promotion. Unfortunately, the club never fully admitted or apologised for its incompetent behaviour in 2010, and though fans have largely stuck around, there is still a palpable feeling of "betrayal" that could only be dispelled by a thorough cleanout of the management ranks.

Unfortunately, that never happened. For a few years in the early 10s, JEF United remained among the leading candidates for promotion. But their luck in promotion playoffs has been atrocious, and they never seem strong enough to make it into the two automatic promotion slots. With a lovely stadium, a large fan base (at least potentially) and a star-studded history, the Chiba Dogs may still get their act together. There is a strong impression, however, that the key to success lies not so much on the pitch as in the boardroom. Their last appearance in the promotion-relegation playoffs was 2017, and by 2019 they had fallen all the way to 17th place!

Fans in Chiba speak of their team in the way that many fans of Newcastle, Crystal Palace or Wolverhampton do these days, in the UK. They seem to have grown accustomed to their status as whipped dogs in a low-budget neighborhood, and memories of past glory are seen as merely that -- past memories. The habit of loyalty keeps hope burning from year to year, but  most recognize that the team will have to make some major changes if they hope to ever revisit their glory years under Osim.

With a big stadium and access to a fairly stable source of capital (not only the JR group but many other Chiba-based corporations as well), they should be capable of at least returning to the playoff zone. But without major changes in the attitude of the front office, it will be hard for these whipped dogs to rise above second-tier status.

 


Team Results for 1993-2002

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1993 (1st) 5 9       9 26 23 3
1993 (2nd) 9 5       13 25 44 -19
1994 (1st) 6 10       12 34 43 -9
1994 (2nd) 9 9       13 35 42 -7
1995 (1st) 6 14   3   9 48 40 8
1995 (2nd) 7 14   1   11 49 51 -2
1996 9 13   1   16 45 47 -2
1997 (1st) 15 3 2 0   11 21 34 -13
1997 (2nd) 14 3 3 0   10 22 32 -10
1998 (1st) 11 7 0 0   10 31 31 +0
1998 (2nd) 18 1 0 1   15 18 44 -26
1999 (1st) 15 2 2   2 9 19 34 -15
1999 (2nd) 11 4 2   0 9 22 22 +0
2000 (1st) 11 6 0   1 8 22 22 +0
2000 (2nd) 16 2 1   1 11 15 27 -12
2001 (1st) 2 7 3   0 5 35 26 +9
2001 (2nd) 5 7 0   2 6 25 28 -3
2002 (1st) 8 6 1   3 5 22 23 -1
2002 (2nd) 11 6 0   0 9 16 19 -3

Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 3 27 8 3 4 33 20 +13
2003 (2nd) 2 26 7 5 3 24 18 +6
2004 (1st) 7 22 5 7 3 28 23 +5
2004 (2nd) 2 28 8 4 3 27 22 +5
2005 4 59 16 11 7 56 42 +14
2006 11 44 13 5 16 57 58 -1
2007 13 42 12 6 16 51 56 -5
2008 15 38 10 8 16 36 53 -17
2009 18 27 5 12 17 32 56 -24
2010 (J2) 4 61 18 7 11 58 37 +21
2011 (J2) 6 58 16 10 12 46 39 +7
2012 (J2) 5 72 21 9 12 61 33 +28
2013 (J2) 5 66 18 12 12 68 49 +19
2014 (J2) 3 68 18 14 10 55 44 +11
2015 (J2) 9 57 15 12 15 50 45 +5
2016 (J2) 11 53 13 14 15 52 53 -1
2017 (J2) 6 68 20 8 14 70 58 +12
2018 (J2) 14 55 16 7 19 72 72 +0
2019 (J2) 17 43 10 13 19 46 64 -18

*Note: Data for pre-2003 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime.