New Urawa Reds manager Volker Finke might not have been smitten with the team he saw play twice last season, but the German admits his first taste of the Saitama Stadium crowd was love at first sight.
Reds invited Finke to Japan at the end of last season with a view to replacing then-manager Gert Engels, but the first match he saw could not have been a worse advertisement for the job.
Urawa, at that point only one point off the top of the table with three games left to play, slumped to a shambolic 2-1 defeat to Shimizu S-Pulse that all but killed off its title chances.
Subsequent losses in its final two games — including a last-day 6-1 hammering by Yokohama F. Marinos — compounded the misery. But while Finke is under no illusions about the task he faces, the lure of Reds’ huge support was too great to resist.
“For me, I saw two matches in the stadium and the behavior of the supporters was the reason why I agreed to the offer,” he said.
“I didn’t see a good game but the support was unbelievable. There was no whistling, and I thought it was not possible because the games were of a very low level. I was looking for something I didn’t know.”
Finke is not the only one in the dark about his new side’s prospects.
On the one hand, Urawa was poor for much of last season and eventually finished in seventh place. On the other, the club still retains the bulk of the squad that won the J. League in 2006 and became Japan’s first Asian Champions League-winner a year later.
Coming to the job without the baggage of past glories, however, Finke soon identified the need for new faces. His efforts to bring players in and ship others out came to nothing, but the threat of blood-letting, he believes, has worked to his advantage.
“Football is not a game where you can have all you want,” he said. “You have to accept the contracts and you can’t wish for things.
“At the moment I have to work with this and it was a good experience. The players saw that I was looking for two or three other players, so they all looked at what was going on for their own positions.
“Now after five or six weeks I can say this squad is better than last year and I think it is positive to start with this squad.”
That squad includes striker Naohiro Takahara, who arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt to great fanfare last winter only to flop spectacularly in his debut season in Saitama.
The former national team stalwart managed only six goals having never fully won the trust of Engels, but Finke believes this could be the year when Urawa’s fans get to see the Takahara of old.
“I only saw two games last season from Takahara and that is the only impression I have,” he said.
“It is true his last season was awful, but in this preparation I saw the Takahara I knew from Germany. I think he can be a useful player. He is much better than last year.”
Finke may have been drawn to the job by Urawa’s supporters, but they can be a difficult crowd to please. Last season was marked by protests demanding a change in fortunes, and anything less than success this year is likely to be received with little patience.
The former Freiburg manager is eager to give the fans what they crave, however, and has urged his players to use their minds as well as their instincts to achieve those ends.
“For me it is important that after three, four, five months the supporters see a team that is not only fighting but is also going to win the match,” he said.
“Last year they played on individual skills and didn’t perform from a good tactical formation. For me it is important to feel that they are playing within a tactical structure and are going in the right way.”
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