With every year that passes in his tenure as manager of Nagoya Grampus, the stakes Dragan Stojkovic has to play with just keep getting higher. But if the Serbian is feeling the pressure as he prepares to begin his third season at the helm against Gamba Osaka this weekend, his poker face is a good one.
In 2008, Stojkovic returned to the club he once graced as one of the J. League’s best-ever players, and promptly led the perennial underachievers to an unexpected third-place finish in the first season of his management career.
If that suggested “Pixie” could sprinkle the same magic dust over Grampus in the dugout as he did on the field, however, 2009 did not quite follow the same fairy tale.
A run to the semifinals of the Asian Champions League was impressive enough but Nagoya failed to ignite in the league, thrashing champions Kashima Antlers 4-1 one week and losing to rock-bottom Oita Trinita in another.
But now the gloves are off. Stojkovic has overseen an aggressive recruitment policy over the past six months, starting with a trio of internationals headed by Australian striker Josh Kennedy last summer and capped off with the latest round of signings, including the jewel in the crown, national team defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka.
It all adds up to a fairly naked statement of intent for Nagoya’s ambitions of a first-ever title, but Stojkovic insists he can handle the expectations that go with it.
“We have brought in good reinforcements, but personally I am not feeling any pressure,” he said. “Of course looking at the names we are better than last year but it is the team that plays, not the names. My job now is to create a team good enough to play good football.
“I think it’s time now to be at the top waiting for the chance to be champions. I was disappointed by the performances against the lowest-ranked teams last year. We lost nine points against the bottom three teams and beat the top teams. I think it was psychological.”
If a strong mentality is what Stojkovic is looking for, he has chosen wisely in Tulio. The Brazilian-born center back became an icon for Urawa Reds fans during his trophy-laden time in Saitama, and Stojkovic is hoping his blood-and-thunder attitude will rub off on his new teammates.
“Tulio brings leadership,” he said. “We lost Maya Yoshida to the Netherlands and my pick was Tulio. We achieved that goal. I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on him. Just let him play. He is a very good leader and I hope he can show that because we need a commander on the ground.”
Unfortunately for Stojkovic, the national team’s busy schedule has given his new commander precious little time to address the troops. Japan will have played six matches already this year by the time the league season kicks off on Saturday, and all Stojkovic can do is watch on in exasperation.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “First of all we have to respect the schedule of the national team, but I think it’s bad timing. They are playing the games almost without any preparation.
“The players have started their preparations with the national team, but it’s not the same thing. Having regular training with the national team and with your club is different, and I think that’s why the players weren’t in good condition. Logically, they should start preparation with us and then we release them. Definitely, it was the wrong time to play these games.”
Of the Grampus players he has been able to work with, however, Stojkovic is confident they are ready for the start of what he hopes will be the biggest season in the club’s history.
“Everything is fine,” he said. “The players are motivated and without injuries. I think it’s a good sign that we have controlled things very well, and I’m very satisfied with how they have responded.”