Relegation is never an achievement to celebrate, but FC Tokyo winger Naohiro Ishikawa believes his side’s perfect start to the J. League season would not have been possible without spending 2011 in the second division.
Tokyo heads into Saturday’s match against Sanfrecce Hiroshima second in the top-flight table having won its opening three games, but at the same juncture last season the story was radically different. The capital city side found itself 13th in J2 after mutating from championship contender to relegation victim the year before, but after going on to win the division with room to spare, Tokyo has never looked back.
With quality players like Ishikawa in the ranks, it is little surprise. The 30-year-old scorched the league’s best defenses during a career-standout 2009 before narrowly missing out on a place in Japan’s 2010 World Cup squad, but even he was powerless to prevent the unthinkable six months later.
“I think relegation was a necessary experience,” Ishikawa said at the club’s training ground earlier this week. “We’ve just started the new season, but I think we have come back mentally stronger. Even in difficult games we have been able to play our football. I think we have all become more determined.
“We’ve won three games and people probably think that’s great, but we have also played badly at times. We didn’t play well last time out, but it’s good that even when we have been playing badly we’ve been able to pick up the win.”
Ishikawa’s form has certainly played its part. The winger’s three goals have put him joint top in the early scoring charts alongside Vegalta Sendai’s Yoshiaki Ota, but manager Ranko Popovic is constantly pushing his star player to do more.
“The manager is looking for me to score goals this season, and it’s good that I have been able to do that,” said Ishikawa. “But I have to get into a better playing rhythm. The goals are good, but it’s not all about that.
“Popovic is very strict, but I mean that in a good way. He wants us to play fast, attacking football. There are times when we lose our concentration, and when that happens he lets us know about it. He emphasizes that we have to concentrate at all times.”
It may be early days, but Tokyo’s current form is a far cry from its last season in the first division. The club began 2010 aiming for a first-ever title, but ended it in the bottom three as a squad packed with internationals confounded assumptions that they were too good to go down.
“At first I didn’t think we would be relegated, but it’s a slippery slope,” said Ishikawa. “You lose one game and then you get nervous and lose another, and when that happens again and again you go down. It was difficult to take, and it was difficult to see the fans go through it.”
But the tough times did not end there. Any hopes Tokyo had of breezing through J2 without breaking a sweat were dashed by a 3-0 defeat to JEF United Chiba on the second weekend, and the club’s supporters were so concerned by poor early form that they displayed a banner warning the players not to take promotion for granted.
“The level of teams in J2 is very good,” said Ishikawa. “But they have a different way of playing, where they defend and then hit you on the counterattack. They don’t leave you much space to attack. I don’t think it was a case of us being careless — it was more that we needed time to adapt. It was difficult.”
Relegation also took a personal toll on Ishikawa, with the callups that earned him a place in Japan’s standby squad for South Africa drying up completely until manager Alberto Zaccheroni brought him back for a friendly against Iceland earlier this year.
“Honestly, when we got relegated my aim was just to get Tokyo straight back into the first division,” said Ishikawa. “Every day in training, all I was thinking about was FC Tokyo — the national team didn’t even enter my head. Then I got injured, and I just wanted to get back on the pitch. So when I was called up this year it was a surprise.”
When it comes to surprises, however, not many could top Kashiwa Reysol becoming J. League champions last season directly after winning the second division.
Ishikawa knows all eyes are on Tokyo this year to see if lightning can strike twice, but the winger has no intention of shying away from the spotlight.
“Because Kashiwa won last year, people are expecting us to be able to do the same,” he said. “But rather than feeling the pressure, I’m glad people are paying attention to what we are doing.
“If we can keep piling up the wins game by game and raise our level a notch, I believe it is possible. Of course we’re only at the start of the season, but I would love to keep it going.”