After a season spent on life support, Shimizu S-Pulse were finally put out of their misery last weekend, being relegated without a whimper after a 1-0 defeat to Vegalta Sendai.
The demotion of one of the J.League’s founding members grabbed all the headlines, but the club had been sliding ominously towards the trapdoor for some time.
Shimizu survived by the skin of its teeth last year, and despite a surprise 3-1 win over Kashima Antlers on the opening day of the 2015 season performances and results didn’t improve throughout the first stage this year.
Those in charge decided to stick with Katsumi Oenoki – a legend at the club as a player – despite the team picking up just 13 points from its first 17 games, only to replace him with newly-appointed assistant Kazuaki Tasaka just five games into the Second Stage.
Things haven’t gone any better under the former Oita Trinita boss, who hasn’t overseen a single victory in his nine-game tenure, and there was a grim sense of foreboding at Nihondaira ahead of S-Pulse’s fateful meeting with Vegalta – a side against whom Shimizu had never lost at home in J1.
Even Mount Fuji couldn’t bear to watch, hiding behind the clouds, and the inflatable orange walkway through which the team enter the stadium deflating as they arrived – leaving the players to fight their way ungracefully to the changing room – acted as a wonderful metaphor for their limp showing this season.
Things predictably didn’t go any better on the pitch and the hosts were a goal behind inside four minutes, with Ramon Lopes losing Calvin Jong-a-pin at a corner and heading home what would prove to be the only goal of the game.
The team’s relegation wasn’t mathematically certain at full-time – with Albirex Niigata not rubber-stamping it with a 2-0 victory over Matsumoto Yamaga until later in the evening – but everybody knew the game was up. The players slumped to the floor, tears were shed, and hollow apologies were offered from a club official in response to the boos and heckles from the fans gathered behind a banner reading “We have nothing but S-Pulse,” but not many seemed surprised by the outcome.
That’s because, in truth, the downward spiral had begun long before, when Oenoki’s predecessor Afshin Ghotbi was fired in July last year.
The Iranian-American may have struggled to build on the achievements of the man in charge before him – current Gamba Osaka boss Kenta Hasegawa, who made top-third finishes a reality for S-Pulse – but Ghotbi delivered steady mid-table results and was asked to clear his desk with the team in 12th on 21 points after 17 games in 2014. Fifteen months down the line, the club’s relegation has been confirmed with them on the same number of points after 31 matches.
“You don’t want to go down without a fight,” a visibly disappointed Peter Utaka told me after the loss to Sendai.
“If you’re playing at home you’re playing in front of your family, your fans and everything. A lot of people got nervous and felt too much pressure and it showed in the game.
“There’s so many factors,” he continued when asked if he could pinpoint the key reason for the team’s relegation.
“We should win more games at home. But when we play at home most of the boys get nervous. I think we should have more confidence playing at home. Most of the boys have to try and take responsibility and not try to put everything on the coach. The coach makes decisions, ok, but at the same time you’re the player and you have to take some responsibility for yourself, because where I come from that’s how it is.”
Former Shimizu midfielder Shinji Ono echoed those sentiments the next day.
“There are still games left and I think the players really have to fight with passion,” he said after his Consadole Sapporo side was defeated 3-0 by Shimizu’s Shizuoka rivals Jubilo Iwata – who look set to replace their neighbours in the top flight next year.
“When you get relegated there are many [factors], they pile up. However, of course the players on the pitch have to take the most responsibility. It is very important that those players take that responsibility and put everything in between now and the end of the season. How the players take the responsibility for the supporters’ disappointment is very important.”
Of course, even that is not enough. The actions of the past year-and-a-half have hammered the nails into Shimizu’s coffin, and while the club also experienced difficult spells under Ghotbi and Hasegawa the fans would give anything for a return to those days now.