With fans of the Squirrels reeling from the shock dismissal of coach Robert Verbeek just days before the J1 season re-starts with an already difficult-looking match at Shimizu S-Pulse, Go! Go! Omiya Ardija here takes a look at what is undoubtedly the most controversial episode to hit the club since promotion to Japan's top flight at the end of 2004...
Verbeek arrived in Japan from employment at the FA of Singapore, confirmed as replacement for the outgoing Ardija coach Toshiya Miura in the last few days of December 2006 and accompanied by a new assistant in the shape of Jun Nakamura from the backroom staff at Kyoto. The Miura era seemed to run out of steam over the latter part of last year and, in the end, his departure for Consadole Sapporo was regarded as a positive thing for and by all concerned.
Certainly, the perspective of Ardija fans was that, much as he had achieved in taking a mid-ranking second-tier team up into the elite of Japanese club football, Miura's team was looking increasingly lacking in inspiration. After three years it was time for a change and Verbeek - a magic word in the history of Omiya Ardija, although Robert always acknowledged that he had far less experience than his older brother, the legendary Pim - was selected by management as the man to take the Squirrels on to the next level.
At the same time, however, there were strong rumours that the Dutchman was operating on a particularly restricted budget, the club having overspent twelve months previously in a vain attempt to establish themselves in the top half of J1. Striker Enilton and central defender Leandro were the main new arrivals on the playing side - but in truth, an inexperienced and comparatively unknown coach combined with a weak-looking squad scarcely suggested that 2007 was going to be a year of tremendous success.
The instinctive pre-season optimism of the fans was therefore based more on a sense of anticipation that they would no longer have to watch a dour Miura side, rather than anything more positive. Even so, it was a shock to see what a poor and incoherent-looking team the Squirrels appeared in the early stages of the new campaign, most notably in lacklustre home defeats by FC Tokyo and Saturday's opponents S-Pulse. While four straight losses in March were followed by some signs of improvement at Kashima Antlers and the first win of the season at home to Nagoya Grampus 8, nevertheless, there were fan protests following a woeful defeat to Ventforet Kofu at the end of April.
With what now appears a particularly powerful irony, these were directed at the perceived villain of the piece: not coach Verbeek, who to an extent was regarded as a victim of circumstances and someone needing time to bed in to an unfamiliar situation, but at the man who has ultimately replaced him in charge of team affairs. Then more or less the club's chief scout-cum-General Manager, Satoru Sakuma held the purse strings and was viewed by the supporters as being responsible for the Squirrels' seeming inability to compete on the field. The fact that Sakuma was an employee of sponsoring organisation NTT only served to deepen the suspicion with which he was regarded.
Robert Verbeek mulls over the draw with Marinos
The improvement began with a gutsy, deserved draw in the Saitama derby, Verbeek by this time having abandoned his preferred 4-4-2 formation in favour of a more defensive 4-5-1 which proved hard for a good number of stronger teams to break down. Even tough-looking fixtures like away games at Kawasaki Frontale, Kashiwa Reysol and Jubilo Iwata yielded a point apiece - but despite an unbeaten run of eight games, it was clear to all observers that this was an Omiya side that had simply forgotten how to score goals.
Enilton, a striker with a respectable enough scoring record at clubs such as Palmeiras and Atletico Mineiro, was reduced to the role of a bit-part player; Toshiya Miura's forgotten man Kota Yoshihara picked up more playing time under the new coach, but barely managed any more goals; the likes of Salles, Manabu Wakabayashi and Hiroshi Morita all achieved about as much as expected... almost nothing. Verbeek was without doubt hindered by the long term absence through injury of playmaker Daigo Kobayashi, but equally kept several more creative members of the squad - Hayato Hashimoto and the utterly blameless Yusuke Shimada in particular - on the sidelines, as Omiya 2007 proceeded to make Omiya 2005 look like Brazil 1982.
What now seems clear, though, is that although the events of March to June might have sowed the seeds of Robert Verbeek's downfall, the real reasons for his dismissal lie in the July training camp and its aftermath. An obviously angry and frustrated Kota Yoshihara spoke in Gunma of the "crisis atmosphere" in the squad - coincidentally or otherwise the same phrase later used by Sakuma himself - after a "first-team-against-reserves" practice game that had yielded almost no chances created or shots on target. And by this time, two aspects of Verbeek's communications strategy were grating with the players. Firstly, it was obvious to all that his up-beat positivism was simply not being reflected in results or performances; and secondly, this attitude contradicted the growing frequency of the coach's calls for new strikers to be added to the playing staff.
Combine those factors and the outcome was a group of players whose levels of motivation and of belief in the methods of their boss were getting lower and lower. Moreover, it also served almost to guarantee that the existing group of strikers would not have the confidence to find the net on the rare occasions when chances were created for them. It should be remembered at this point that, like Enilton, ex-international Yoshihara has in the past had a reasonable record in front of goal - something that Verbeek singularly failed to draw out of his player.
Sakuma and President Watanabe speak to the press
At least according to Sakuma and club president Seigo Watanabe, the friendly matches against Toyo University, Meiji University and Yokogawa Musashino - plus the satellite league match with Urawa Reds - were not just run-outs to keep the players ticking over before the re-start of the J1 schedule. They were intended instead to provide a serious yardstick with which to measure the development of the team post-Tsumagoi.
As has been reported here on GGOA, the performances and the results achieved in those fixtures were a disaster, especially the 6-0 humiliation of a more or less full-strength Ardija team by a young Reds side. The lifelessness of the Squirrels' display in that game also highlighted not only the extent to which the camp had been an ill-focused waste of effort - but also, crucially, the chasm which by that point existed between Verbeek and the squad.
So Robert Verbeek will say that he never had the players he wanted, or indeed that he was told he would have. Club management's take on the situation is that their coach had "lost the dressing room" - that the players' lack of faith in the Verbeek regime by now rendered it impossible for them to go out and get the required results and, to be fair to Sakuma and Watanabe, this perception goes a long way towards explaining the timing of their decision to fire the Dutchman.
They could have acted after the defeat to Gamba Osaka, but elected to support him; after all, it would hardly be unheard of or controversial for the coach of a club third bottom of the league to be given the sack at the start of a mid-season break. But the breakdown of a relationship between coach and players is notoriously hard to recover from and the broader economic context of the new stadium development increases still further the external pressure for results.
Of course, the question "Were the club right to sack Robert Verbeek?" is a very long way indeed from being the same as "Were they right to appoint Satoru Sakuma?" It is necessary to draw a distinction between the fans' shock caused by Verbeek's sudden departure and the full-on panic brought about by the identity of his seemingly wildly under-qualified successor. But with the sixteen most important matches in the club's short history about to get underway, staying in J1 is not now for Omiya Ardija merely a goal. It is an obligation.