Saturday, 08 August 2020

 

For most of its history, Shimizu S-Pulse haw been known as "the perpetual bridesmaid of the J.League". The team has managed to finish second in a host of championships, but tasted only fleetingly of victory. Indeed, S-Pulse's greatest accomplishment to date has been its victory in the 1999 Asian Cup-Winner's Cup -- a title they won despite the fact that at the time, they had never actually won a domestic competition (Shimizu qualified for Asian competition in 1999 when the actual cup winners, Yokohama Flugels, were disbanded). Interestingly enough, they qualified for Asian competition again in 2001 by finishing second in the Emperor's Cup to Kashima Antlers, who had too busy a schedule to try to compete for both the Asian club championships and the CWC.

Being second best was surely an annoyance to the thousands of loyal S-Pulse supporters, since Shimizu, and Shizuoka prefecture in general, can make a strong claim to being the heartland of football in Japan. Shimizu-area high schools have dominated the sport at the youth level for decades, and have produced a large share of the top talent in the J.League. In fact, at the annual alumni match of Shimizu Shogyo High School, the school can frequently field two entire teams of alumni made up entirely of J.League players.

Unlike most of the other founding members of the J.League, S-Pulse does not have a long history as a corporate club team. S-Pulse was founded in 1989, when the J.League idea was first mooted, so that the area could prepare to host one of the teams in the new league. The team name supposedly refers to the "Pulse of Shizuoka Prefecture", and the name is certainly fitting. Shizuoka has been a vibrant source of support for football even before the J.League was founded, and is home to some of the top high school teams in the country.

S-Pulse has been led by a number of well-known coaches, from Emerson Leao to Ossie Ardilles and Steve Perryman. Many national team members have been drawn from the team's ranks, including midfielders Teruyoshi Ito and Masasaki Sawanobori, and defenders Toshihide Saito and Ryuzo Morioka. The team has finished second in the league three times, and second in the Emperor's Cup three times; however, despite the abundance of talent S-Pulse has only won a J.League stage one time, in 1999, and they subsequently fell to their cross-town rivals Jubilo Iwata in the league championship series.

The "Wingheads" (so named as a result of their very odd-looking mascot, who has "wings" where his ears should be) finally managed to cast off their "bridesmaid" label in 2001, bringing home the Emperor's Cup trophy at the end of that season thanks to strong contributions from veteran midfielder Sawanobori, defender Morioka, "attack-dog" volante Kazuyuki Toda and naturalized Japanese-Brazilian Alessandro Santos. However, this success would be short-lived.

In 2002, S-Pulse started the season as one of the favourites to finish high in the league table, or perhaps even win a league championship at long last. This status certainly appeared justified, as almost the entire team was made up of current or former national team members. But as happens so often with star-studded groupings, S-Pulse turned out to be another "Blind Faith" -- or in their case, a football version of "Power Station". There seemed to be too many large egos to fit onto a single football field. Following the World Cup, the team's messy internal disputes spilled out into the press, with Morioka, Toda and Santos all throwing public tantrums when coach Zemunovic benched them. The disputes ultimately cost Zemunovic his job, though the players were probably more to blame than the coach for the disarray that marked the team. The acquisition of Korean star Ahn Jung-Hwan simply made matters worse, and the team finished the season in a discouraging eighth place.

By 2003, the clash of egos had reached a crisis point, and in addition to their atrocious results on the pitch, most of the top players were asking to be traded, or trying to attract offers from overseas clubs. The team lost Kazuyuki Toda to the Premier League, and even after he failed to make it in England, he repeatedly refused offers to return -- eventually settling for a rental deal ad denHaag, in the Netherlands. Alex Santos, who had repeatedly requested a trade, was the next out the door. At the end of 2003 he laid down an ultimatum, demanding to be traded to another team (he eventually ended up at Urawa Reds). Ahn Jung-Hwan was close behind, arranging a move to the Yokohama Marinos. The team seemed to be on the verge of utter collapse, and possible relegation.

Perhaps the only thing that saved S-Pulse from relegation was the magnificent coaching the team received in two crucial seasons -- 2004 and 2005 -- from two very different individuals. In 2004, when the team was in complete disarray, Brazilian legend Antoninho Angelli came in to try to salvage the team. Taking over a group of young, relatively unheralded players, along with the collection of remaining veterans who still had some "ego problems", Antoninho managed keep the foundering ship afloat, and eventually steered them to a mid-table finish. Unfortunately, the effort was all that the aging coach could handle, and at the end of the season he stepped down. The good efforts that Antoninho made in bringing the team back together as a coherent unit was not wasted, however. The Wingheads may not have been the team that they were in the late 1990s, and the few former national team players who remained were nearing the end of their careers. But at least their team spirit and effectiveness as a unit had been restored.

At the start of 2005, the coaching reins were handed to Kenta Hasegawa -- a local boy who played at Shimizu Shogyo High School, as well as for S-Pulse (until 1999). Despite the fine local pedigree, Hasegawa had virtually no prior coaching experience, and took over as head coach, most pundits thought that the hard work of Antoninho would be undone and S-Pulse would plunge back to the bottom of the table. But what Hasegawa may have lacked in experience he more than made up for with personal charm and an impressive ability to choose personnel. As assistant coach, he chose Brazilian Carlos dos Santos, one of the finest gentlemen the league has ever known, who has been playing in Japan since before the J.League existed, and continued to play professionally until he was 43! Between the two of them, these former S-Pulse players restored the team's sense of pride and brought the players together into an effective and harmonious unit for the first time since the late 90s. An influx of new blood from the youth ranks also helped get the Wingheads back into level flight, and by 2006 it was clear that S-Pulse were back as a competitive J1 team.

By this time, the top stars from the team's first decade had reached their twilight years, and it was necessary for S-Pulse to begin pushing them out the door and rebuilding the team on a younger base. Once again, Hasegawa's personal charm and keen judge of talent helped the team negotiate this tricky step without too much commotion. A new core had been established with players like Jungo Fujimoto, Akihiro Hyodo, Naoaki Aoyama, Shinji Okazaki, Takuma Honda and Takuma Edamura assuming central roles as the leaders of the new S-Pulse, and with Hasegawa cleverly massaging the squad, Shimizu moved into the latter years of the 00s as a legitimate competitor. But despite some close calls, the team never managed to put all the pieces together. Somehow, the perpetual bridesmaids could not take the final step up from "challengers" to "champions". Late-season collapses became an annual tradition, with the team  finishing in fourth place in both 2006 and 2007, fifth in 2008, and seventh in 2009.

Although the Wingheads definitely had the raw material required to build a championship team, they never did manage to shed the bridesmaid label. Eventually, their continued failure to gel as a group and their habit of taking a tailspin in the final months of the season took its toll on both team morale and management patience. After watching S-Pulse collapse down the stretch again in 2010, despite a wealth of talent, the front office decided it was time to abandon the core of personnel that carried the team through most the league's second decade, and start rebuilding from the ground up. At the close of the 2010 season, coach Hasegawa was given his gold watch, and the veterans who had epitomized the team for most of the 00s were sold off in a massive garage sale. Fujimoto went to Nagoya Grampus, Hara moved to Urawa, Aoyama joined the Marinos, Honda was sold to Kashima Antlers, and veterans Ito and Ichikawa moved to the opposite side of Mt Fuji, in Kofu, to close out their careers.

S-Pulse began into the second decade of the 21st century with a completely new look, and a very unique new coach.  Afshin Ghotbi, the long-time national team coach of Iran, took over as head coach and the team took an extended shopping excursion to replace all the players who had been sold off at the end of 2010. Naturally, with so much personnel turnover, it took time for the team to gel. Ghotbi was a very popular coach both with players and with the media, but his relentlessly positive attitude was unable to fully mask some shortcomings. There is probably some truth to the idea that he just lacked the talent needed to succeed, but many also think that his 4-4-3 philosophy was ill suited to Japanese football. S-Pulse never managed to score that many goals under Ghotbi, even when they had fairly good strikers. The highest the team finished during his tenure was 9th place, and when the team dipped towards the relegation zone in 2014, he was asked to step down.

Whatever one might think of the Iranian gaffer, there is no question that his successors were even worse. Takuma Oenoki was making his debut as head coach when he took over the team, and with no time to get his bearings, he led the team straight into the cellar. The 2015 season was nothing short of catastrophic, with S-Pulse throwing money madly out the window in an effort to stem the decline. Even the midseason purchase of Chong Tese and Makoto Kakuda failed to prevent relegation.

Now S-Pulse faced a brand-new challenge. As one of the ten founding members of the J.League, the Wingheads had traversed 23 seasons in the top-flight division. Although their first J2 campaign was a brief humiliation, S-Pulse wasted no time bouncing back. Taking charge in 2016 was veteran coach Shinji Kobayashi, who has now led five separate teams into the J1 (Oita Trinita, Cerezo Osaka, Montedio Yamagata and Tokushima Vortis, prior to S-Pulse). His defensive tactics may not please the fans at Nihondaira much, but at least this type of football got them back into the J1. Fortunately, S-Pulse convinced most of its players to remain with the team for a year of J2 participation, and carry them to a second-place finish. 

Once back in the top-flight, however, it was hard to ignore the negative aspects of coach Kobayashi's philosophy. After a 14th-place finish in 2017, Kobayashi stepped down, to be replaced by Jan Jonsson. The Swedish gaffer has plenty of prior experience in Japan, with both Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vissel Kobe. Jonsson is an ideal choice to supervise a young team that has yet to develop a consistent game plan. Unfortunately it was a bit too late for him to have much impact on the Ghotbi generation -- players like Hideki Ishige, Mitsunari Musaka, who showed such promise in their first few years in the league, but failed to really live u to the early promise.

But another group of players are already battling their way into the starting lineup, including defenders Yugo Tatsuta and Ko Matsubara -- both potential NT candidates. The Wingheads acquired Brazilian veteran Douglas Chagas Matos in 2018 to provide the scoring punch, and added wingback Elsinho from reigning champions Kawasaki Frontale. An eighth place finish confirmed that the team was back on stable ground, and despite slipping to 12th in 2019, the overall prospects are good. Most of the starters are in their early to mid-20s, and there are several promising teenagers coming up from the youth ranks.

While the Wingheads still lack the depth or experience to vie for league success, their semifinal run in the 2019 Emperor's Cup shows that they are still a dangerous challenger in Cup play. Perhaps 2020 is a bit too early for Shimizu fans to start talking about titles, but it looks like the long decline of the 20'teens is finally at an end. The key question now will be whether the team has enough financial support to keep its younger players in the S-Pulse fold. So long as the core of this young team remains intact, the prospects for the 2020s are bright.


Team Results for 1993-2004

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1993 (1st) 4 10       8 28 25 3
1993 (2nd) 2 14       4 26 9 17
1994 (1st) 2 16       6 41 25 16
1994 (2nd) 6 11       11 28 31 -3
1995 (1st) 12 10   0   16 35 63 -28
1995 (2nd) 4 15   0   11 42 34 8
1996 10 12   1   17 50 60 -10
1997 (1st) 7 7 2 0   7 25 24 1
1997 (2nd) 6 9 1 0   6 27 16 11
1998 (1st) 2 13 0 0   4 32 14 18
1998 (2nd) 5 8 3 1   5 39 21 18
1999 (1st) 3 9 1   1 4 28 23 5
1999 (2nd) 1 11 1   0 3 28 13 15
2000 (1st) 3 8 2   0 5 21 17 4
2000 (2nd) 13 2 3   2 8 13 19 -6
2001 (1st) 4 6 4   0 5 28 18 +10
2001 (2nd) 4 5 4   0 6 34 27 +7
2002 (1st) 7 5 3   3 4 17 19 -2
2002 (2nd) 12 5 1   0 9 16 24 -8

 Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 11 18 5 3 7 20 18 +2
2003 (2nd) 10 21 6 3 6 19 26 -7
2004 (1st) 11 16 3 7 5 20 27 -7
2004 (2nd) 14 13 4 1 10 17 26 -9
2005 15 39 9 12 13 40 49 -9
2006 4 60 18 6 10 60 41 +19
2007 4 61 18 7 9 53 36 +17
2008 5 55 16 7 11 50 42 +8
2009 7 51 13 12 9 44 41 +3
2010 6 54 15 9 10 60 49 +11
2011 10 45 11 12 11 42 51 -9
2012 9 49 14 7 13 39 40 -1
2013 9 50 15 5 14 48 57 -9
2014 15  36 10 6 18 42 60 -18
2015 (1st) 18 13 3 4 10 22 32 -10
2015 (2nd) 17  12 2 6 9 15 33 -18
2016 (J2) 2 84 25 9 8 85 37 +48
2017 14 34 8 10 16 36 54 -18
2018 8 49 14 7 13 56 48 +8
2019 12 39 11 6 17 45 69 -24

*Note: Data for pre-2005 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime.