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Friday, October 25, 2013

Taxi for Popovic

I had planned to write about our ultimately convincing 2-0 home win over Niigata on Saturday evening, secured through second half goals from Kosuke Ota (a superb free kick up and over the wall from inside the D), and Lucas (the big fella's 10th of the year). And I guess I just did. But I'd planned to write about it in more detail until the club made the announcement on Wednesday morning that Ranko Popovic would not be retained as manager for 2014.

I'll go on the record here and say I'd heard strong rumours on more than one occasion (three, to be exact) that Popo's job was in jeopardy. The first time was before the final game of last season, incidentally, just two days after I had visited Kodaira to interview him, with whispers that the club were lining up Kenta Hasegawa to take over. Of course we destroyed Sendai 6-2 at home on the first Saturday in December last year, making it impossible for the front office to not bring him back.

And there have been two seperate times this season when the word on the street was that his number would be up. Despite all those rumours, I felt that there was a strong chance he would stay on for a third season in charge, but that hope was quashed with yesterday's press release from the club, coming five games before the end of the J1 season - they clearly wanted to get in early and avoid the possibility of another job-saving 6-2 when we again play Sendai at home in the final game of this year!

I called for his head of course after the loss to Tosu at Kokuritsu in late August, and have written several times before on here that I've disagreed with some of the decisions he's made from time to time, so I can't claim I've always been fully behind him, but I'm still finding the decision, especially the timing (my joke above aside), difficult to understand.

Apples & Oranges

It's impossible to compare the Popo era to those of our two most recent managers Hiroshi Jofuku and Kiyoshi Okuma: the former took us to our highest-ever league finish in a single-stage season (5th in 2009), but then was unable to arrest our alarming decline the following year and had to go; and the latter couldn't keep us up and then brought us back to J1 in a 2011 season in which we did the job but never dominated the second tier to the extent we probably should have.

Popovic came in at the start of 2012 (again, I didn't think he was a 'big enough name' at first) with an ACL campaign to worry about on top of settling us back into the top division, and he got us comfortably out of the group and up to fifth in J1 by the half way mark. We were unlucky in the ACL Round of 16 loss to Guangzhou (and look at them now, in this year's final), and were screwed over by the AFC's experiment with one-legged R.o.16 ties last year, and though our league season petered out and we ultimately finished 10th I don't think anyone was too despondent as we reestablished ourselves in J1.

Why Now?

Whether the 6-2 win on the final day of last season did save his job or not, Popovic returned for this season with a player he wanted to build around (Keigo Higashi) and an aim to take us back into the top half, and though there have been some horror shows throughout the year, we sit 7th in the league six points behind third with five games to go, through to the fourth round of The Emperor's Cup and yet the decision has already been made.

I have to ask: What were the front office's expectations for this season? Everyone says they want to win the league, to qualify for the ACL etc., but did they really think that was a realistic expectation in our second year back in J1? There's nothing wrong with aiming high of course, but I don't think they've given the manager the chance to let his project bear fruit before pruning back any progress and consigning it to the compost heap (ie. starting again, sorry that was a pretty horrible analogy). And everything the club says about wanting to become a 'big club' on the pitch is completely contradicted by the way we are run off it.

The point is there has been significant progress, we've played some excellent stuff at times, and Popo has clearly made his mark on the squad. I would've taken sixth at the start of the season, and there's still a decent chance we will finish higher than that, yet we'll begin next season with a new manager and uncertainty as to which direction he'll take us in. For me its almost always better the devil you know, and now we'll never know how far Ranko Popovic would've taken us.

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