Soccer / J. League

Goal hero Yamagishi determined to keep Montedio up

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Norihiro Yamagishi is happy to keep talking about the goal he scored to put Montedio Yamagata into last season’s J. League promotion playoff final, but the goalkeeper would rather discuss what his team can achieve in its return to the first division.

Yamagishi produced one of the moments of last season as the seconds ticked away in Montedio’s playoff semifinal against Jubilo Iwata, with the score tied at 1-1 and nothing less than a win good enough to save Yamagata from elimination.

With an injury-time corner giving Montedio one last chance, Yamagishi moved forward to join the fray. The goalkeeper met Tatsuya Ishikawa’s delivery with a glancing header, then wheeled away in disbelief as the ball whistled past his opposite number in the Jubilo goal.

A 1-0 win over JEF United Chiba in the final then secured Montedio’s return to the top flight after a three-year absence, and with the new season ready to begin, Yamagishi intends to keep making headlines.

“I’m not sick of talking about the goal just yet,” Yamagishi told The Japan Times ahead of Saturday’s season opener away to Vegalta Sendai. “That goal helped us to get promotion. That goal took us into the playoff final, but if we had lost the next game it would have been seen as just another surprise goal. I’m happy that my goal helped us get promotion, but we can’t just be satisfied with that. We’re determined to do well this season.

“We want to take confidence from what we did last year and show what we can do in J1. We’ve got new players coming in and that will make us stronger. We want to show what Yamagata is made of.”

History, however, is not on Montedio’s side. Both teams to be promoted through the playoffs since the system began in 2012 — Oita Trinita and Tokushima Vortis — finished rock bottom the following season, and the fact that Montedio ended up sixth in J2 last year does not augur well.

“The teams who have gone up through the playoffs have been jinxed with bad results the following year, but we want to be the team that creates a new history by breaking that jinx,” said Yamagishi. “In order to do that we can’t ever let our heads drop, and we have to show the kind of football that we can play.

“We have to be very switched-on in defense and be prepared to dig in, because there might be games where we only get one chance to score.”

Yamagishi did not take long to establish himself as a team leader at Montedio, having arrived on loan from Urawa Reds at the start of last season. Yamagata manager Nobuhiro Ishizaki is counting on his goalkeeper to contribute in the dressing room as well as on the pitch, but warns that every player must stand up and be counted.

“Yamagishi is the team captain and he helps in a lot of ways, on the mental side and also with his skills,” said Ishizaki. “He’s someone you can really rely on.

“We haven’t signed any outstanding players over the offseason, and the players who have come in are at the same level as those already here. The point is that the players need to raise their level this season.”

Life in the first division will be a big jump for a squad that finished a full 19 points out of the automatic promotion places in J2 last season, and Yamagishi knows the team must be prepared.

“The ideal is to become the kind of team that can play the same way regardless of which players are in the team,” said the 36-year-old. “We are on the way to doing that. Lots of things can happen over the course of a season and it’s important that we’re all on the same page.”

And if Montedio’s strikers fail to hit the target, the team can always call on its secret weapon. Ishizaki insists that Yamagishi was only following orders when he strode into the Jubilo box in search of a goal, but the manager admits he never expected to see the plan pay off.

“It was a game that we had to win, because we would have gone out of the playoffs with a draw,” said Ishizaki. “We had already agreed beforehand that he would go forward if we needed a goal late in the game, and we were in injury time. When the goal went in I just thought: ‘In football, anything can happen.’ “