The Feast from the East
In these difficult times, as we are being subjected to a pandemic that is believed to have originated in East Asia. What started as a virus mainly limited to that region of the world has now become a truly global pandemic. I hope pray and trust that everyone keep safe and we are all fine and well, once it is brought under control.
Leaving the pandemic aside for a few moments. I would like to talk about another explosive item that came from that region, from Yokohama in Japan infact, and it arrived in 2005 in the form of…Shunsuke Nakamura.
When Shunsuke Nakamura joined Celtic, it was a benefit to the club in more ways than just as a footballer, as he was regarded in Japan as something of their David Beckham equivalent. Celtic also secured the player’s image rights, as a multitude of Asian fans took an interest in what he was doing, and it opened up a newer market for the club and the media, his fans took a greater interest in Celtic. Nakamura (or) Naka had, by then earned 59 caps for Japan but would go on to win many more, he was sought after by some European and English clubs, before choosing to join Celtic.
In an earlier article i spoke of Lubo Moravcik, and i think it’s fair to say both of these players were very creative midfielders. Nakamura (or Naka) was predominantly left footed, and Lubo, well no one actually knew at the end, whether he was naturally left or right footed, and it’s probably fair to say that unlike Lubo, Naka was played a lot out of his natural midfield position, due to the SPL cloggers, and it would have been extremely hard for him to be just as successful as some thought Lubo was. He was a player that i found certain Celtic fans could be unfair to, but it did not help that he was played out on the wing more to try and protect him from thugs, and some of the criticism that Naka received, i thought was certainly unfounded, as he was a tremendous talent.
Similar to Lubo who had left Celtic in 2002, Nakamura was very capable of showing moments of sheer quality, either during in game play or his dead ball strikes, (incidentally both players wore the number 25 shirt) it’s fair to say he is probably remembered mostly for those dead ball situations, which is a shame as those were only part of his real qualities, albeit they were usually so stunning it was hard for fans not to prioritize them.
A Japanese internationalist. Who arrived at Celtic Park after being signed by then Celtic manager Gordon Strachan. Nakamura was small in stature, whose ability made up for his lack of pace, a wonderful ability to pick out a pass helped him become accustomed to the rigours of Scottish football, teams were unaccustomed to his football intelligence, he was regularly assaulted by thugs, and they just scythed him down, when they could not match his skill. Strachan once said “He will go down as the most-kicked player in the SPL by a million miles and nothing fazes him.” Naka rarely gave the ball away, and had an air of humbleness despite his talents. Spurs defender Steve Perryman said that “Nakamura could open a tin of beans with his left foot”.
In his time at Celtic Naka helped Celtic towards three premier league titles from 2006-2008, two league cups and one Scottish cup. He also picked up 3 major player of the year awards in 2007 from SPFA SPL and SFWA, as well as being voted Celtic POTY 2007, and numerous MOTM awards. Naka also appeared in the FIFA World Cup finals in 2006 and 2010 and helped Japan in winning the AFC Asian Cup in 2000 and 2004.
Nakamura was forever pushing himself, Gordon Strachan said that after home games, Nakamura did not really join in any off field celebrations, like a quick drink after a game, and instead would change into training gear and go up to the gym and train for another hour, such was his dedication to looking after his fitness. It is probably the main reason that Naka continued in a football career after leaving Celtic till the age of 40. Naka had joined a Celtic team in transition when he came to parkhead, Celtic had lost their main goal scoring hero Henrik Larsson, and were soon to lose the core of the Martin O’Neill side, including Petrov, Hartson, Sutton, Agathe, McNamara. Injury was also to shorten Naka’s time at Celtic in season 2008-2009.
If i was to pick only a few games that highlighted Nakamura’s importance to Celtic in his time with us, I would have to pick, his winner against Kilmarnock to win the league for Celtic in 2007, he also supplied the first goal in that game via a corner which was converted by Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. His Hat-Trick at Dundee Utd. His late winner at St Mirren. His two excellent Free kicks to beat Edwin Van Der Sar, in the Manchester United European games, and probably his first old firm goal.
In the first leg of the 2006 Champions League clash against Man U, at Old Trafford, it is my opinion that Celtic were cheated out of a 2-2 draw as Ryan Giggs was seemingly shot by a sniper on the edge of the penalty box, when actually what really happened was, a gust of wind from the onrushing Artur Borac brushed against Giggs hair to send him tumbling down (this is my pet hate with gifted players like Giggs who fall in the box when the wind changes course). Nakamura’s beautiful free kick in 42 minutes made it 2 each, and what a free kick it was, It curled over the wall and left Van Der Sar standing static, as it hit the right hand side of the net. Arthur Boruc incidently was very unlucky not to save both of Saha’s goals, in this game, the current Man U manager Solskjaer, scored number 3 for them, making the final score Man U 3-2 Celtic
In the return leg at Celtic park a clever Naka pass to Jarosik, who was brought down by Vidic, in 81 minutes, resulted in a free kick, there was only ever going to be one man taking this free kick, it was Naka, and it was honestly one of the best free kicks I have ever seen, again into the top right hand side corner, though this time Van der Sar did move, however not even a gale force wind at his back would have got him over quick enough to save this one. Louis Saha being unable to convert a late penalty, which was saved by Arthur Boruc, made sure Celtic would win this return leg 1-0 and progress to the next round.
For his first old firm goal, Nakamura managed to trap an awkward pass from Gary Caldwell, and somehow managed to control it just enough to let it bounce once and then smash it towards Alan McGregor in goal, with such a force and swerve that McGregor would never have a hope in hell of stopping it, it must have been a contender for goal of the season. I don’t think i’ll ever forget the commentator that day, as the shot left Naka’s foot heading for a certain goal, screaming Naaakaaamuuuraaaaa… !!. Naka should have had a second goal later that day, as his left foot shot once again beat McGregor and Carlos Cuellar standing on the goal line, used his hand to stop the ball going into the net, and was subsequently, and rightfully sent off. Scott McDonald took and bloody duffed the resulting penalty, as McGregor saved his weak effort. McDonald would later make amends for his awful penalty attempt, with his headed assist to Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, who headed in to make the score Celtic 2-1 Rangers.
Nakamura was quiet and unassuming, very much like Larsson, he was the ultimate professional, Jackie McNamara, laughed as he let slip once that Naka used to pretend not to speak any english at all to waiting Scottish media, and would only say “No Ingrish”. You can’t blame him for that as the media tend to twist words and spin them for their favoured ‘other’ team.
Nakamura left Celtic in 2009. He went on to gain 98 caps for his country, scoring 24 goals. Naka played 166 games for Celtic, scoring 34 goals (this fact from wikipedia)
I think one of the best quotes i heard about Naka was said by the Man Utd boss at the time Sir Alex Ferguson, after the 2nd leg of the Champions league game, he told his goalkeeper, Edwin Van Der Sar “I’m getting you Nakamuras DVD for yer Christmas, coz that’s twice he’d done you!”
In fairness to Edwin Van Der Sar, who was a wonderful goalkeeper, and personally speaking if i ever was unlucky enough to be facing Nakamura as a goalkeeper for one of his free kicks, I’d simply sit down on my goal line and have a sandwich or something, because there’s no way I’d actually get near enough his strike to save it, why even bother.
To me there’s not much in it between Lubo and Naka, in my mind both are Celtic legends (and yes, i know the word legend is used too freely and too often), but i loved both of them. Judge for yourself how special and important this little unassuming guy from the east, was to Club and to Country, and usually when they needed him the most.
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