Friday, 04 December 2020

 


Omiya Ardija takes its team name from the Spanish word for "squirrel", which is the team's mascot and a part of its official emblem. The name may strike some as a bit odd, as few opponents would cower in terror at the thought of facing "the Mighty Squirrels". Although they may always struggle in the shadow of their much bigger and wealthier cross-town cousins, Urawa Reds, Ardija have built a solid fan base and a competitive team which won promotion to J1 in 2004 and managed to stay there ever since.

Omiya Ardija traces its history to the formation of NTT Kanto Football Club, in 1969. The team was one of the more successful regional clubs in the North Kanto regional division for much of the 1970s, and finally won promotion to the Second Division of the Japan Soccer League in 1987. Thereafter, however, the team's progress stagnated, and it remained in the middle to lower ranks of the JSL Second Division and later, the JFL.

Amateur League Performances

1969 Founded as "NTT Kanto
1974 Enters the Kanto Regional League
1986 Wins National Regional League Championship
1987 Promoted to Second Division of JSL
1988 JSL Second Div. - 7th Place (9W 10D 9L)
1989 JSL Second Div. - 9th Place (13W 8D 9L)
1990 JSL Second Div. - 6th Place (16W 3D 11L)
1991 JSL Second Div. - 9th Place (9W 6D 15L)
1992 Enters the new Japan Football League
1993 JFL - 7th Place (6W 12L)
1994 JFL - 12th Place (10W 20L)
1995 JFL - 14th Place (9W 21L)
1996 JFL - 14th Place (7W 23L)
1997 JFL - 9th Place (14W 16L)
1998 JFL - 12th Place (11W 19L)

 Despite the mediocrity of its first two decades, the team got a surprising boost from the formation of the J.League's second tier. When J2 was formed, the team's sponsor, NTT, felt that the sponsorship of a successful football franchise could be a positive source of publicity. Urawa Reds, a cross-town rival, enjoyed tremendous fan support despite rather mediocre results in the J.League. With the financial support of NTT, the newly-formed Omiya Ardija was able to put together a high quality team for its first season in the J2, and finished in sixth place. It followed up this respectable result with an even better fourth place finish in 2000. The team continued to build steadily on this success, year by year, and by 2004 it finally had the competitive depth to achieve promotion to J1.

The team's history since 2004 has been one of constant struggle and frequent problems, though ultimately effective efforts to avoid relegation. Although the team is comparatively well-run (at least by J.League standards), and has avoided the self-inflicted errors that have sent other small-town clubs back into the second division, or worse, Ardija still do not have the necessary depth, either in personnel or in finances, to be a serious challenger in J1. Their local rivalry with Urawa Reds has been a positive influence on both clubs, though Ardija clearly benefits the most. The constant challenge of playing in the shadow of a much bigger team seems to energise the players, and that may be one factor in their ability to usually stay clear of the relegation zone. But simple financial realities have limited the team's squad ambitions to well-traveled veterans and the occasional promising youngster. Some may say that they have squandered some of their talent in the past, but the truth is, when a player such as Jader "Bare" Spindler or Leandro emerges from the Ardija squad, a wealthier club will eventually lure them away.

The key to Ardija's longer-term success, therefore, lies in developing more talent through its youth program and making the most of the resources at hand, while trying to steadily build a fan base that - even if it never manages to rival that of the Reds - can at least lift the team clear of its perennial struggling existence. The re-opening of an expanded home stadium at Omiya Park in late 2007 seemed to mark one step in the right direction. Crowds were still less than overwhelming, especially for matches against mediocre opposition, but recent years have seen improved results and attendances are growing. In the coaching department, Toshiya Miura, who led the team to promotion in 2004, was a very young and not particularly flashy individual. Because he was not a particularly impressive or outspoken character, he seems to have taken much of the blame when the team floundered through its first two seasons in the J1. But if fans were hoping that the selection of a foreign coach, in 2007, would allow them to become an overachiever like Oita Trinita, under Pericles Chamusca, or JEF United, under Ivica Osim, they were in for a big surprise. Robert Verbeek arrived from Holland in early 2007 to wild optimism, and promptly introduced one of the ugliest, most conservative and least effective brands of football the J.League had ever seen. After six months, the Squirrels were dangling from the end of the branch in relegation danger, and fans were being bored to death at the goalless-draw tactics.

Verbeek was sent packing in mid-2007 and replaced by Yasuhiro Higuchi, who most viewed as just an interim manager. After saving the team from relegation, Higuchi was rewarded with another year at the helm, and he remained in control during a difficult - but at least not so nerve-wracking - season in 2008. In 2009 the team installed the Japan-born Korean coach Chang Woe-Ryong, who has had modest success in the past with teams like Consadole and K League's Incheon United. If they hoped to improve results, Ardija clearly needed a more imaginative mind at the helm, but in light of the catastrophic events of 2007, and later the Verdenik debacle (read on!) Omiya management is likely to remain as cautious as coach Chang was during the 2009 season.

Sure enough, 2010 proved to be another year of struggle, merely to maintain a spot in the top-flight division. The team received some positive momentum from a growing fan base and the associated financial gains. But even that progress turned out to be a double-edged sword. In mid-2010, following a match at Saitama Stadium, an observer from the J.League noted a discrepancy in the admission figures he had seen and the ones released by Omiya Ardija, after the game. The league took a closer look at the numbers, and discovered that Omiya had inflated its crowd estimates by including all team officials, staff, and volunteers who took part in operating and cleaning up the stadium. A formal investigation was called, and it soon emerged that the team had been inflating its attendance figures on a consistent basis, for a period of about two years. The scandal was roundly condemned by the press and league officials alike, though fortunately, the resignation of Ardija's company president convinced the J.League not to deduct any points from the team, allowing the Squirrels to hold on to a J1 spot.

In 2011, the Mighty Squirrels of Saitama focused mainly on the task of regaining fan loyalty and dispelling the negative publicity caused by the "Attendance-Padding" scandal. They had some struggles over the course of the season, but were able to comfortably avoid relegation and even boost attendances to an encouraging level. Following that accomplishment, Ardija seems to have raised its ambitious, picking up some good players in the off-season, like Cho Young-Cheol and Yu Hasegawa. The early results were not that impressive, but Ardija started to show signs of perhaps breaking out of their rut as the most (frustratingly) consistent team in J1. But the biggest and most influential change - for both good and bad - was the appointment of Zdenko Verdenik as head coach, in July, after a brief tailspin in early summer cost Jun Suzuki his job.

Verdenik was a fairly well-known quantity in the J.League, having served for two seasons at three separate teams - JEF United, Nagoya Grampus and Vegalta Sendai. He had a reputation for getting good results from his players, while also alienating and infuriating many of them with his demanding training regimen and prickly personality. Perhaps a harsh taskmaster was just what Ardija needed, and on the basis of their performance over the first six months of the season, he certainly did get the team to produce results on the pitch. Bursting out of the gate, the Mighty Squirrels charged straight to the head of the pack, and by June they were six points clear, in first place. To the amazement of all - particularly those in the orange half of Saitama - it seemed that Ardija might actually manage to win some silverware.

But in July, something happened among the players and assistant coaches that has never been fully explained. No doubt the subsequent events make people reluctant to admit the reasons for the revolt, but after months of playing like champions, they suddenly seemed incapable of doing anything right. In retrospect, the collapse seems to have begun after a 2-1 loss at home, to Yokohama F•Marinos. It was only the second time all season that the Squirrels had conceded more than one goal. Perhaps Verdenik delivered a particularly fierce tirade, which the players were unwilling to swallow. Rumours suggest that the players spoke with some of the Japanese coaching staff at about this time and expressed their doubts, with at least one assistant taking their side in the "revolt". The following week Ardija lost 3-2 to Frontale and the week after that, 3-0 to Cerezo. A coach of Verdenik's mindset would not have been able to accept this sort of defensive fragility, but nobody has ever determined exactly what was said in the locker room. All we do know is that by the following Wednesday, Verdenik was unemployed and the coach who supported the player revolt - Tsutomu Ogura - was installed as the new boss.

The subsequent results speak for themselves. Though Ardija was still level on points with first-place Urawa, at the time, they only managed to win one game between Verdenik's departure and the end of October. Two late wins kept them from slipping into J2, but the message was clear enough. Though Ogura was fired at the end of the season for his part in the collapse, the damage was impossible to undo. The Squirrels collapse continued through 2014, when they were relegated to J2.

Dropping down a tier had some positive results, allowing Ardija to rebuild their shattered team spirit. Most of the top players remained with the team during their stint in J2, allowing the Squirrels to bounce back in a single season, and to win the J2 title in 2015. But the damage to team cohesion, finances and self-confidence would not be easy to repair. Two years later, in 2017, the no-longer-Mighty Squirrels finished dead last, and were exiled to the Second Division once more.

For the next two consecutive seasons Ardija managed to make the post-season promotion playoffs, but failed to make the jump back to J1 The question now is whether the experience will force the team to make the organizational changes needed to become a more competitive team, or whether they simply lack the resources to change their position in the pecking order. On the positive side, experienced J2 gaffer Takuya Takagi was placed in charge of the rebuilding effort, in 2019. Takagi has demonstrated success in leading a small J2 club towards the promotion zone, both at Kumamoto and Nagasaki. But the Mighty Ducks' dead-last finish in the J1, in 2018, cost him his job. V.Varen's loss is a boon for Ardija, but only if management gives Coach Takagi time to build a cohesive squad.

Fans in the Orange half of Saitama will certainly be hoping that Takagi can lead the Squirrels back into the top-flight, but considering how many times Ardija management has squandered opportunities and resources, in the past, it is hard to be overly optimistic about their near-term prospects. 


Team Results for 1999-04

Year Rank W D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET
1999 (J2) 6 14 4 1 17 47 44 +3
2000 (J2) 4 21 2 1 16 55 49 +6
2001 (J2) 5 20 6 6 12 73 43 +30
2002 (J2) 6 14   17 13 52 42 +10
2003 (J2) 6 18   7 19 52 61 -9
2004 (J2) 2 26   9 9 63 38 +25

 

Team Results for 2005-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2005 13 41 12 5 17 39 50 -11
2006 12 44 13 5 16 43 55 -12
2007 15 35 8 11 15 24 40 -16
2008 12 43 12 7 15 36 45 -9
2009 13 39 9 12 13 40 47 -7
2010 12 42 11 9 14 39 45 -6
2011 13 42 10 12 12 38 48 -10
2012 13 44 11 11 12 38 45 -7
2013 14 45 14 3 17 45 48 -3
2014 16 35 9 8 17 44 60 -16
2015 (J2) 1 86 26 8 8 72 37 +35
2016 (1st) 5 26 7 5 5 17 18 -1
2016 (2nd) 6 30 8 6 3 24 18 +6
2017 18 25 5 10 19 28 60 -32
2018 (J2) 5 71 21 8 13 65 48 +17
2019 (J2) 3 75 20 15 7 62 40 +22