SYDNEY — Former Sanfrecce Hiroshima manager Eddie Thomson is the sort of person who could sell Michael Schumacher a used Skoda.
The 54-year-old Scotsman, who coached the Australian national team from 1990 to 1996, has always had the trust and respect of his players, thanks to a hands-on approach on the training field and helped in no little part by his car salesman’s gift of the gab.
Thomson left Japan in December 2000 after four years in charge of Hiroshima but says he is ready to return to the J. League, despite having just won a four-month battle against cancer.
When I spoke to Thomson at his Sydney home on Sunday, it was clear he was itching to get back to work.
“Look at Tokyo Verdy — good players and heaps of potential — I could bring stability right away and build them into something special,” he said.
Short-term pain, he insisted, is necessary for clubs such as Verdy and Urawa Reds, who both underachieved again in 2001, to reap long-term rewards.
Thomson, who owns the rare distinction of never having been fired in more than 20 years as a coach, has never been afraid to make the kind of difficult decisions that could benefit J. League clubs trying to play catch-up with Kashima Antlers and Jubilo Iwata.
He gave Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka — now both with Leeds United — their first Australia caps when both were just teenagers and he made wholesale changes when he arrived at Hiroshima. Changes for the better.
“You can’t be successful without a nasty streak. I don’t throw teacups, but if people need a boot up the arse, I’ll do it,” said Thomson, although he hinted that Urawa could be beyond help, despite the arrival of Dutchman Hans Ooft.
“I talked with the Reds, but THEY were telling ME who the coaching staff and the physios were going to be,” he recalled. “I got bad vibes from Urawa.”
Thomson, who will work as a technical consultant to FIFA at this year’s World Cup, warned Japan coach Philippe Troussier that there would be no excuses if the co-hosts failed to reach the second round after being drawn with Russia, Belgium and Tunisia in Group H.
“Russia are always tough, but Belgium are nothing to be frightened of. They’ve not got any superstars. And Tunisia? Japan should beat them 1-0 or 2-0,” predicted Thomson.
Always the shrinking violet, Thomson rolled his eyes when I asked him about recent reports linking Troussier with the vacant Scotland job.
“Scotland are bad enough without Troussier,” he joked, adding: “If Troussier doesn’t stop touting himself for other jobs, the JFA should get rid of him.”
While recent events have naturally prevented Thomson from keeping close tabs on the Japanese national team, he remains an ardent fan of the Japanese game.
“The J. League is the best thing that has ever happened to Japanese soccer,” Thomson commented. “The standard is good. All the top J. League clubs could do well in, say, the Belgian league, or even against Dutch teams, with the exception of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV (Eindhoven).
“Yes, (Hidetoshi) Nakata and (Shinji) Ono are great players, but there are heaps of Nakatas and Onos in Japan.”
Despite having been approached by Scottish clubs Aberdeen and Hearts, Thomson admits he can’t wait to work with Japanese players again.
“I could build a team up to be champions in three or four years,” he stated. “There will be tough times at first, but you need a system and I am a believer in building the whole team.”
Thomson’s enthusiasm is contagious. It even rubbed off on Hiroshima striker Tatsuhiko Kubo, who grew so attached to his manager that Thomson had to push him screaming onto the bus to report for Japan duty.
Space cadet or not, Kubo is not the only player to respond so positively to the Thomson touch.
Thomson’s return to the J. League, whenever it happens, can only be good for Japanese soccer.
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Now I’m not one to say “I told you so,” but did I or did I not say that Robbie Fowler was magic? Six goals in five games for Leeds tells you:
a) what a bargain David O’Leary got for his $18 million;
b) how stupid Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier was;
c) how stupid Gerard Houllier was.
Persisting, instead, with Emile Heskey (one goal in 21 games) is a corking idea, Gerard. Well done.
And Jari Litmanen looks so good in his boiler suit and balaclava on the bench, don’t you think? Five minutes at the end of the game will do for Litmanen, and new signing Nicolas Anelka, right?
Anfield has officially turned into La-La Land. Goodnight, everybody. Goodnight, Gerard.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5