Friday, 04 December 2020

 


Nagoya Grampus Eight got its start in the mid 1950s, as the company team of Toyota Motors. However, the ties to its former parent have been greatly reduced, and it is difficult to find any information about the Toyota Motor club in Grampus' official literature. Perhaps that is partly due to the relatively meagre financial support that the automaker provides to Grampus, relative to other "corporate sponsors". Whatever the case, today's Grampus is a very different animal from the corporate team that proceeded it. Toyota was a reasonably successful JSL franchise, and the team was a top candidate for inclusion as one of the founding members of the J.League in 1993. The team adopted the name "Grampus", which is an archaic British word for the gargoyle-like characters found on old castles -- specifically, the "lion-fish" gargoyles on the top of Nagoya Castle,the city's most distinctive landmark.

For years, the official team name was "Nagoya Grampus Eight", and a variety of reasons were given over the years for using the word "Eight". Some suggested that it referred to the eight arms of an octopus, but since Nagoya adopted a killer whale as its mascot, this explanation makes little sense. Years ago the team website claimed that it referred to the "eight principles of citizenship in Nagoya City", but since few Nagoya residents have ever heard of these principles, much less knowing what those principles are, the explanation sounds like another exercise in creating explanations for a name long after it has been selected. In general, the public and the press have always simply referred to the team as "Nagoya Grampus", and by the mid-00s the team finally seemed to accept that "Eight" was an unnecessary distraction. Ironically enough, the team chose 2008 as the year to abandon the word Eight, and become "Nagoya Grampus".

Much like the source of their name, Nagoya are a rather mysterious team. Grampus started out as one of the weaker participants, and though many fans in the UK are aware of the team's association with Gary Lineker, he made only a handful of appearances for Nagoya Grampus and left Nagoya before the first J.League season was fully over. It was not until Arsene Wenger took over as head coach in 1995 and 1996, and Lineker was replaced in the line-up by Dragan Stojkovic, that the team began to enjoy a period of relative success. Nagoya fell just short of a league title under Wenger, but captured the Emperor's Cup at the close of the 1995 season. Nagoya fans hoped that their team might be on the verge of establishing itself as a league power, but the year following Wenger's departure saw a sharp drop in performance. Despite the success that Toyota had enjoyed in the old JSL, Grampus was destined to be a mid-table struggler for the League's first decade.

When the Yokohama Flugels disbanded in 1998, Nagoya inherited many of their stars, and on paper at least, they looked like a tremendously competitive club. Many tipped them to win the League title in 1999. However, despite the abundance of talent they were unable to gel as a team, and the only reward they managed to collect was another Emperor's Cup trophy at the end of the 1999 season. For the next three years, the team was repeatedly selected as one of the pre-season favourites to win the title. And every year they promptly dashed the hopes of their fans and the reputations of their supporters in the sports press. Clearly Grampus had a great many talented players, including national team 'keeper Seigo Narazaki, national team volante Motohiro Yamaguchi, veteran Yugoslav playmaker Stojkovic, and a string of potent strikers starting with the naturalised Japanese-Brazilian Wagner Lopes and then followed by Brazilian national team star Ueslei Perreira da Silva and the tragically short-careered Japanese Olympic star Takafumi Oguro. However, the team always seemed to be less than the sum of its parts.

In 2001, Grampus made a start in reforming their image as perennial under-performers. Dragan Stojkovic retired during the season, with the addition of dependable, "blue-collar" players such as defender Keiji Kaimoto and volante Tomoyuki Sakai, marking a break from the team's past reliance on "star" players. Although Nagoya finished third in the overall standings for the 2001 season, for the first time they seemed to play up to their ability, or perhaps even surpass it. Having established themselves as one of the J.League's legitimate contenders, Grampus were hoping to take it one step further, and capture the title that had eluded them for so long. But after a strong start in 2002, the team suffered yet another collapse during the 2nd Stage, and once again failed to live up to expectations of its fans, finishing a disappointing sixth over the course of the season. With the pressure building, both within the team and from the long-suffering fans, Grampus was ripe for the sort of explosive incident that can change a team completely, whether for good or for ill.

The conflagration erupted in the middle of the 2005 season, when a clash of wills in the locker room shattered a team structure that had been built up over more than a decade. Apparently the incident was triggered when coach Nelsinho Baptista Junior walked in on some post-match griping by the players. Demanding to know what was going on, he received a sharply worded "explanation" from the two players who were able to communicate the mood to him most "concisely" - the Brazilian strike team of Ueslei and Marques. Taking this as a personal insult and a challenge to his authority, Nelsinho exploded, and demanded harsh punishments for the two Brazilians, but far from being chastened, they simply walked away from the club, daring management to take legal action. Fortunately for both club and players, there were cooler heads in the Nagoya front office. Both Ueslei and Marques were dealt to other J.League clubs, and, although the club was reluctant to undercut their coach publicly, Nelsinho was gone before the end of the season. With only a bunch of rookies and second year players to fill many of the starting spots, Grampus finished well down the table.

However, hope springs eternal in the hearts of football fans, and the one positive thing about this collapse is that it cleared the rubble away and allowed the team to start looking at their basic foundation of their team. Prior to the Nelsinho fiasco, Grampus had always relied on a very "Brazilian" structure to both the coaching staff and the foreign players. But as the incident in 2005 demonstrated, the team had become heavily dependent on the performance of its foreign contingent, while failing to properly develop the many promising youngsters who were coming up through the ranks.

In 2006 the team conducted a thorough house-cleaning, setting its sights firmly on building a competitive squad based on youngsters developed in-house, rather than high-priced veterans acquired from other teams. Dutch coach Sef Vergoosen was placed in charge of the effort, and the veteran did a fine job of laying the groundwork for a new, younger team. The results that Grampus achieved in 2006 and 2007 were not only founded on a core of homegrown talent, but also were a far better expression of the team's true competitiveness than ever before. The Red Whales were finally escaping from their old reputation for underperformance. The future was looking bright indeed, until coach Vergoosen returned to Holland at the end of 2007 and took the team's star player - Under 23 midfielder Keisuke Honda - with him.

At first, Grampus fans were crushed. Just when it seemed that the club might finally be on the road to success, they were hit with a huge blow to confidence and morale. But fortunately, the front office had learned some important lessons about team management, and they responded by bringing in a head coach who could restore the team's confidence, pride, and competitive fire - the legendary former Yugoslavia captain and Grampus midfield general, Dragan "Piksi" Stojkovic. Under Piksi's emotional leadership, Grampus got off to a flying start in 2008, and led the league at the mid-point of the campaign. Unfortunately, enthusiasm alone was not enough to overcome the team's still-young and still-undermanned squad. Grampus slipped off the pace in the final three months of the season, and failed to claim any silverware in 2008. But despite the rather disappointing final results, the team was on the road to recovery, and not far away from its first J.League title.

In 2009, Grampus were hindered in their domestic campaign by the challenge of ACL competition. Although they progressed farther in the ACL during 2009 than any other J.League club, there was a clear and unmistakable impact on their domestic performance and the team finished in a disappointing ninth place. But the Red Whales learned some lessons from this experience, and took the final steps necessary to secure their first league title. In 2010 the team made some important investments, bringing in NT member Marcus Tulio Tanaka to anchor the defence, Brazilian midfielder Danilson to add some steel to the deep midfield, and playmaker Mu Kanazaki to beef up the attack. With a tall target man up front, in the form of Australian international Joshua Kennedy, Grampus was widely viewed as one of the top challengers for a title in 2010.

The personnel moves, however, were only part of the story. While the team's poor run at the end of the 2009 season was disappointing to fans, it conversely gave Grampus a crucial advantage over its main rivals in 2010. Of all the top contenders, only Grampus was absent from the ACL competition. This allowed the players to focus solely on the domestic campaign in 2010. Sure enough, the team roared out to an early lead and solidified that advantage by the time the J.League broke for the 2010 World Cup. When the 2010 league campaign resumed, in July, many players on the main opposing teams (Kashima, Kawasaki, Hiroshima and Osaka) were fatigued from playing two matches a week for over four months. Grampus raced away from the field, and secured their first J.League title with two weeks remaining in the season - the first time a team has been crowned this early since the J.League adopted a single-stage format, in 2005.

Unfortunately, the 2010 accomplishment was a one-off experience, and after they finally claimed their trophy, Grampus had hit their peak and the subsequent decline was rapid. Since there was very little player turnover to speak of (indeed, Grampus added some talented players in 2011 and 2012), there was a lot of debate about the reasons for this unpleasant turnaround. Naturally issues such as ACL participation had an impact, but the main reason may simply be the style of football Grampus played under Stojkovic. The team already had a number of tall, physically imposing players on the roster, and their manager focused on packing the squad with even more. The team adopted a very simplistic, "Route One Football" strategy that sought to keep a clean sheet and score a goal or two on set plays. This worked quite well in 2010, when opponents were not consciously preparing to defeat such a strategy, but as soon as opposing coaches started preparing game plans with the specific goal of countering Nagoya's defensive-minded, physical strategy, the pay-offs quickly diminished. Grampus did manage a solid second place finish in 2011, but thereafter the decline was rapid.

Stojkovic remained at the helm for two more seasons, but by the end of 2013, with the team dropping into the bottom half of the table, Grampus management thanked him for his service and started looking for a replacement. At first, the choice of Akira Nishino to take over the team in 2014 seemed like a chance to pursue new heights of success, Nishino achieved considerable success at both Kashiwa Reysol and Gamba Osaka, so naturally fans supposed that he could produce the same results in Nagoya. The problem was that Nishino inherited a team of players whose skills and tendencies were exactly the opposite of what he prefers. Even at Gamba, it took him several years to build a team to suit his tactics, and in this case the job of retooling was even greater. Asking Josh Kennedy, Tulio Tanaka and Keiji Tamada to play Nishino-style attacking football simply wasn't feasible. The new coach did make some acquisitions that brought in players more suited to his game plan, and the result was a slight improvement in 2015 over the 2014 performance. But the Grampus front office was not willing to wait two or three additional years for the coach to restructure the team in his image. Nishino stepped down at the end of 2015 and his place was taken by a former Grampus and Japan NT star striker, Takafumi Ogura.

The changes made by Nishino had some impact. Veterans like Tulio, Tamada, Kennedy, Nakamura and Danilson departed, replaced by the likes of Kensuke Nagai, Kengo Kawamata and Tomoya Koyamatsu. But despite a sleeker, faster and more attack-oriented lineup, rookie coach Ogura was unable to get results or to get his players to gel as a team. Instead, Grampus sagged into the lower reaches of the table, and succumbed to relegation for the first time ever, falling into the J2 in 2017.

Nagoya's spell in the second division was brief, and it afforded the team the opportunity to unload aging veterans. But it also prompted many of the team's younger Japanese talent to jump to other clubs. By the time the Red Whales returned to the top tier, in 2018, their reliance on a few high-priced foreigners was apparent to fans and opponents alike. Two consecutive flirtations with relegation confirm the unfortunate truth that Grampus no longer can be considered a "safe" and stable J1 member. Though team finances still rank in the top ten or so, Grampus has not been very good at keeping young talent in the Orca pack. The best illustration of this problem came when rookie wingback and budding NT prospect Yuki Soma jumped ship in mid-2019 to join Kashima Antlers. Only the presence of Brazilian ace Joao Alves ("Jo") Silva and set-up man Gabriel Xavier kept the team above the relegation zone. 

Looking ahead to 2020 and beyond, Grampus' top priority must be to build their core fan base and the underlying financial strength to keep young starlets in the ranks. Nagoya has not done enough to build grassroots support, despite their status as one of the league's founding members. If this neglect of the local base continues, Grampus could find themselves in the same straits as other J1 founders like Tokyo Verdy or JEF United. If they hope to vie effectively with new challengers such as Consadole, FC Tokyo and Vissel, the Red Whales need to reduce their dependence on high-priced foreign stars, and start cultivating young domestic talent. 2020 could be a pivotal year for the team.


Team Results for 1993-2002

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1993 (1st) 9 7       11 21 38 -17
1993 (2nd) 8 5       13 27 28 -1
1994 (1st) 8 9       13 23 28 -5
1994 (2nd) 12 6       16 33 54 -21
1995 (1st) 4 15   1   10 50 48 2
1995 (2nd) 2 17   0   9 49 34 15
1996 2 21   0   9 63 39 24
1997 (1st) 12 6 0 0   10 18 24 -6
1997 (2nd) 5 10 0 0   6 23 24 -1
1998 (1st) 3 9 3 0   5 37 21 16
1998 (2nd) 6 9 1 1   6 34 26 8
1999 (1st) 8 6 1   1 7 30 23 7
1999 (2nd) 2 10 1   1 3 32 23 9
2000 (1st) 12 4 3   1 7 17 18 -1
2000 (2nd) 7 7 0   1 7 25 27 -2
2001 (1st) 3 5 5   2 3 29 20 +9
2001 (2nd) 6 7 0   1 7 27 25 +2
2002 (1st) 3 9 1   0 5 28 18 +10
2002 (2nd) 13 5 0   1 9 21 23 -2

Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 7 23 5 8 2 19 16 +3
2003 (2nd) 8 22 6 4 5 30 26 +4
2004 (1st) 8 20 5 5 5 24 22 +2
2004 (2nd) 5 24 7 3 5 25 21 +4
2005 14 39 10 9 15 43 49 -6
2006 7 48 13 9 12 51 49 +2
2007 11 45 13 6 15 43 45 -2
2008 3 59 17 8 9 48 35 +13
2009 9 50 14 8 12 46 42 +4
2010 1 72 23 3 8 54 37 +17
2011 2 71 21 8 5 67 36 +31
2012 7 52 15 7 12 46 47 -1
2013 11 47 13 8 13 47 48 -1
2014 10 48 13 9 12 47 48 -1
2015 (1st) 9 22 6 4 7 18 18 +0
2015 (2nd) 10 24 7 3 7 26 30 -4
2016 (1st) 14 17 4 5 8 24 29 -5
2016 (2nd) 15 13 3 4 10 14 29 -15
2017 (J2) 3 75 23 6 13 85 65 +20
2018 15 41 12 5 17 52 59 -7
2019 13 37 9 10 15 45 50 -5

*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