Sunday, 25 August 2019

 

Formed in 1965, Yamaga Club was one of the founding members of the Hokushinetsu League when it was established, ten years later. However, the team has struggled to advance beyond a certain level; for two decades they remained a squarely mid-table club, and won the title only once, in 1985. The team's prospects took a downward turn in 1999, and after finishing in the bottom three for five years in a row, they were finally relegated to the second division at the end of 2002

However, the shock of demotion may have been the best thing to happen to the club in its entire history, and in a strange twist of fate, they may owe their subsequent success to one of the biggest financial mistakes (or perhaps "boondoggle" is a better word) in Nagano history. At a time when Japan was still assuming that its bid for the 2002 World Cup would be approved even without co-hosting support from Korea, Nagano politicians poured millions into construction efforts which were aimed not only at the World Cup, but also the Nagano Olympics.

Once a building boom got started in the prefecture it was like a boulder breaking loose from a peak in the Northern Alps -- there was just no stopping it. Matsumoto did not benefit quite as much as the neighboring city of Nagano, but it did get a simply spectacular football-only stadium named Matsumoto "Alwin" Stadium. But due to the co-hosting, Japan had to eliminate several stadia from the hosting plan, and in the end Alwin Stadium was used only for one week, as a training facility for Paraguay's national team.

In 2003, the city was startiing to panic, wondering what they were going to do with a huge, state-of-the-art football only stadium and no football team to play in it. So when Yamaga Club was relegated in 2003, Matsumoto's city fathers decided they had to take action. An ambitions plan centering on the stadium -- known as the "Alwin Project" -- was established, and Yamaga Club became a central element of the plan. The team got a makeover, changing its name to Matsumoto Yamaga FC, adopting the Rock Ptarmigan (a bird that lives high in the mountains of Nagano) as its mascot, and beginning a modest programme of player acquisitions.

The Ptarmigans have been slowly building their base ever since. In 2006 they rebounded to the Hokushinetsu League's top division, and they claimed their second-ever league title the following year. Several former J.Leaguers have been lured in to serve as veteran "guides" for a relatively young core team, and based on their recent performance, they may be on the verge of reaching the JFL at last. In 2009, the team made a very dramatic public announcement that it was ready to step up to the next level, when Yamaga overturned the Urawa Reds 2-0 in an Emperor's Cup match, at a sold-out Alwin Stadium.

Unfortunately, several other teams in the region had also become keen on reaching the J.League, so competition for a berth in the Nationwide Regional League Championship Tournament was fierce. After narrowly missing out on promotion to the JFL in 2007, the team stumbled down-table a bit and finished a disappointing fourth in 2008, as Nagano Parceiro and Zweigen Kanazawa made their big bid for promotion.

But despite the team's weak performances on the regional level, it was Matsumoto Yamaga who ended up winning the race for promotion to the JFL. In 2009, thanks to an influx of talent from the J2 ranks, Nagano and Kanazawa again outperformed Matsumoto in the Hokushinetsu League campaign. But a late season charge carried them into the Nationwide Regional League Championship Tournament through the "back door", by winning the nationwide Shakaijin tournament, at the end of the year. As preparations were being made for the Nationwide Regional Tournament, the team got a very dramatic boost both to local support and to team confidence, when Yamaga overturned the Urawa Reds 2-0 in an Emperor's Cup match, at a sold-out Alwin Stadium. This impressive upset of a J1 team energized the Ptarmigans for a torrid run through the Nationwide Tournament, and Yamaga claimed a berth in the JFL for the 2010 season, but when all three were drawn into the Nationwide Regional League Championships, it was Matsumoto who had the last laugh. Riding a wave of euphoria and strong local support, Yamaga not only won the championship, claiming a spot in the JFL for the 2010 season - they followed that up with a defeat of the Urawa Reds, in the Emperor's Cup, at a jam-packed Alwin Stadium.

In 2010 the team finished a somewhat disappointing seventh in the JFL, but their progress on the organizational front was far more successful. Yamaga submitted an application for J.League associate membership, and though the initial filing came back with a request for improvements in average attendance and advertising budget, both of these hurdles were cleared by autumn, and Matsumoto were approved as an associate member at the end of 2010. With only a top-four finish in the JFL standing between themselves and the J2, the Ptarmigans of Shinano emptied their pockets and made a bold series of acquisitions - including former NT defender Naoki Matsuda - with the goal elevating the team into the J.League at last.

Just when the team's prospects seemed to be as green as a Nagano hillside in June, tragedy struck, when Matsuda - who had established himself as the team's heart and soul, as well as its most important defender -suddenly collapsed during a warm-up jog at the training ground, suffering a massive heart attack. He never regained consciousness, and two days later the doctors allowed a legend of Japanese football to drift off into the great football stadium in the sky. Yamaga players and fans alike were shattered, and it took several weeks before the team could regain enough composure to resume its chase for a promotion spot.

In retrospect, Matsuda did more for the team with his final actions on earth than he could have done while alive. After losing such a beloved player at such a young age, Matsumoto earned the support and devotion of not only the local populace, but also of football lovers up and down the Japanese archipelago. Nobody was going to sit by and let Yamaga's dream of promotion slip away, and leave smudges of disappointment on Matsuda's legacy. With a heroic effort, the team charged to the JFL crown, and earned promotion to the J2 at the end of 2011.

The fairy tale still had another chapter to run, however. Matsuda had been a very colourful character throughout his career. Though renowned for his short temper as much as for his powerful defending, everyone could see that any outbursts were simply a reflection of the burning desire and determination he displayed every time he stepped on the pitch. Whether anchoring Japan's back line at the World Cup or playing a scrimage against an amateur club in rural Nagano, Matsuda played every match from the heart. Some of his former teammates felt compelled to see out his legacy -- none more valiantly than wingback Hayuma Tanaka, who had come up through the Yokohama Marinos youth system with Matsuda. He joined Matsumoto Yamaga in 2012, on the sole condition that he could wear Matsuda's former #3 jersey. Former Olympin National Team coach Yasuharu Sorimachi also jumped on the Matsuda Legacy Express, molding a very dynamic, hard-charging team around the experience and savvy of Tanaka and a few other veterans. Matsumoto immediately began their conquest of the J2.

As the next three years sped by, the Ptarmigans made their way up the steep slope of competitive rivalry with the same directness shown by locals as they climb the Japan Alps. From 12th place in 2012 to seventh place in 2013, the team advanced relentlessly on their objective. The 2013 season unfolded amidst the sea of green that filled Alwin Stadium every weekend. Posting attendances that most J1 clubs would envy, Matsumoto dashed towards the front of the pack. Unfortunately, another green-clad team -- Shonan Bellmare -- was on their way back to J1 after a relegation in 2012, and they left Matsumoto behind in the final dash to the finish line.

But the Ptarmigans held their nerve, and in early November a late goal by Yuto Iwakami in a home clash against JEF United sent the green-clad home fans into rapturous celebrations. The team had secured second place, and automatic promotion to the J1. As Iwakami raced behind goal, he waved to the fans briefly and then -- as if remembering something -- turned back to look for Tanaka. Seizing him by the arm and pulling him toward the crowd, he and a teammate suddenly grabbed Tanaka's #3 uniform and pulled it over his head. Another #3 uniform was beneath it, and the crowd went crazy. For there . . . stenciled on the back  with the same font the team had used in 2011 . . . was the name "MATSUDA". 

Though Matsumoto's first appearance in the J1 was short-lived, and they returned to J2 in 2016, the team continues to draw huge crowds which are steadily swelling the coffers and allowing the team to attract quality players to the roster. Coach Sorimachi was allowed to remain at the helm despite the team's relegation, and there are signs that a return to the top-flight may come sooner rather than later. 


 Team Results: 2006-2011

Year Rank Pts GP W D L GF GA G.Dif
2006 (Reg.) 2 34 14 11 1 2 34 10 +24
2007 (Reg.) 1 31 14 10 1 3 47 15 +32
2008 (Reg.) 4 24 14 7 3 4 31 18 +13
2009 (Reg.) 4 29 14 9 2 3 40 14 +26
2010 (JFL) 7 52 34 15 7 12 48 41 +7
2011 (JFL) 4 58 34 17 8 8 40 14 +26

 

 Team Results: 2012-present

Year Rank Pts GP W D L GF GA G.Dif
2012 12  59  42  15  14  13  46  43  +3
2013 7  66  42  19  9  14  54  54  +0
2014 2  83  42  24  11  7  65  35  +30
2015 (J1 - 1st) 15  15  17  4  3  10  17  26 -9
2015 (J1 - 2nd) 15  13  17  3  4  10  13  28 -15
2016 3  84  42  24  12  6  62  32  +30