Not much has changed for Nagoya Grampus ahead of the new J. League campaign, but after a troubled winter away from soccer, manager Dragan Stojkovic is thankful to return to a stable environment.
Grampus finished as runnerup behind surprise champions Kashiwa Reysol last season despite winning their final six games, and after such a valiant effort it came as little surprise to see the manager make only minor adjustments to his squad.
Away from the pitch, however, things have not been so peaceful. A grenade was thrown into the garden of Stojkovic’s family home in Nis, Serbia, last month, exploding on the lawn while his mother, Desanka, was in the house.
The incident came after a run-in with fans of his former club, Red Star Belgrade, in a cafe in the Serbian capital, and the 47-year-old is now understandably keen to channel his thoughts toward the start of the new season.
“I know that I am clean and that many crazy and stupid things happen, so I will try to keep my concentration on my job,” Stojkovic said ahead of Nagoya’s season-opener against Shimizu S-Pulse on Saturday. “Let’s let the police do their job. I hope that whoever did this and whoever ordered this is arrested.
“What I can say is what I received from the authorities there, that it is 99 percent hooligans. The hooligans of Red Star is the information that I received. So now let’s wait for the investigation and then see the result. It’s absolutely crazy. If it’s true, of course they send some message to me and they choose my hometown, far away from Belgrade. We will see what the investigation says.”
In the meantime, Stojkovic has much to occupy his thoughts as he attempts to take back the title Grampus won for the first time in 2010. The manager still smarts at the memory of Kashiwa’s surprise championship success last season, but he has nothing but praise for his own players’ efforts.
“Honestly I am very satisfied and happy,” he said of his team’s perfect end-of-season run. “Not happy, because we are not champions, but I am very satisfied with the performance of the team, with the spirit, with the fight, with everything that we did. So really we did everything we could, but a miracle happened and the other team became champion. It was a really great performance from my players, but sometimes it is like that.”
Transfer activity has been quiet over the winter, with fringe players Daniel, Yosuke Ishibitsu and Yuki Maki arriving to fill out a squad that was already stocked with experience, quality and title-winning knowhow.
“I believe in my team,” Stojkovic said. “This group of players always stays with me, and this is the fifth year we have been working together. There is always a small change but nothing big, and we have created a good stability. Good stability of results, of our style of play and we continue from there.”
With many of their rivals in a state of flux, preventing Grampus from reclaiming the title will not be an easy task. Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers both begin the season under new managers, but Stojkovic insists his players are focusing only on their own preparations.
“This year the challenge remains the same,” he said. “Every game you have to win, every game you have to try your best. What is important for us is that we keep our pace and we keep our style — we don’t change our ideas. We know each other very well so everything is practically the same.
“It’s also important to keep a high level of motivation. What I saw during the camp over the last month is that my players really want revenge.”