Nagoya Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic insists he never considered quitting after a traumatic 2012 season for the former J. League champions, preferring instead to concentrate on reclaiming the crown over the coming campaign.
Grampus went into last season with high expectations having missed out on the 2011 title only on the final day, but it soon became clear that whatever could go wrong for Stojkovic’s side, would go wrong in spades. Defeats to relegation strugglers Consadole Sapporo, Albirex Niigata and Gamba Osaka torpedoed Nagoya’s title challenge over a miserable summer, before an injury to star striker Josh Kennedy made matters worse as the team limped over the line in seventh.
Amid the gloom, however, Stojkovic has remained upbeat. The Serbian enters his sixth campaign at the helm of the club that he led to its first-ever championship in 2010, and with the new season wiping the slate clean, title ambitions are back on the agenda.
“Last year was not good, of course, but this year is a new year,” Stojkovic said ahead of Saturday’s season-opener at home to Jubilo Iwata. “Everything is new, we want to improve our game, we want to improve our results, we want to be much better than last year. I hope we don’t have the same situation as last year regarding injuries. I hope to have all the players fit to play, and then we will see.
“We have a group of players who are able to play good football and fight to be candidates, to be in the group of two or three teams at the top. I think we can do it.”
Stojkovic will have to cope without two important performers from recent years, however, with forward Kensuke Nagai leaving for Belgium’s Standard Liege and attacking midfielder Mu Kanazaki joining German side Nuremberg.
“Sometimes for the manager it is very difficult to control the situation about departures and arrivals,” said Stojkovic. “Of course you decide, but sometimes it is difficult to control because both of them had offers from Europe.
“So it’s very difficult to tell them to stay here. It’s a challenge for Japanese players to go there and I understood very well that this was the situation. But we have to live with the reality. This is our reality now, and our group of players should be able to get good results this year.”
Grampus will have to be more ruthless than last season if they are to regain the title, however, with 5-0 defeats to Albirex and Gamba and a 2-1 loss to rock-bottom Consadole giving Stojkovic plenty to think about over the winter. The manager admits to enduring a dark night of the soul after that last-minute defeat in Sapporo in July, but quitting, he insists, was never an option.
“I never thought about it,” he said. “I was very disappointed after the game against Sapporo. OK, one thing was the referee’s mistake canceling out our goal, and offside for another goal. This is one thing, but as a team you have to finish the game.
“It was a big disappointment for me. I didn’t sleep all night. I went out the front of the hotel. Many things went through my head, but finally I thought don’t give up and continue.”
Having spent 12 years with Grampus as both a player and manager, Stojkovic’s determination to carry on is understandable.
“I’m here,” he said. “I like this country very much, I like this football very much. I don’t know why, but this is the truth. I don’t have a dream to go to Manchester United or Juventus or Real Madrid. My dream is to do something important here.”