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Nakamura – The Weekend Long Read

6 March 2021


The Celtic fans in their thousands at Rugby Park and in their millions beside television screens throughout the world were getting impatient. It had been a frustrating afternoon. “Not easy watching” was the phrase which sprung to mind, and often supporters would wonder why it was that they put themselves through the exhilarating but excruciating torture that loving Celtic often is. Why couldn’t we have taken up gardening, or played cricket or golf, or chess?

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Or even supported someone like Stirling Albion or Forfar or Partick Thistle where the agonies were a lot less acute? Not for the first time did we appreciate the truth of the dictum that one does not support Celtic as any kind of casual hobby. If we do decide to go down that path of life – and very seldom does anyone decide to support Celtic, for usually that green-and-white seductress has us ensnared from a very early stage – then it is a commitment for life. It is also an endogenous, irreversible and, indeed, terminal condition. Such philosophical thoughts were whirling their eddying way round our psyche . . . but the bottom line was that we wanted, we needed, we craved a goal.

A win was required to win the Scottish Premier League that fateful day of 22 April 2007. The team had played well in the early part of the season, but after the New Year a few dramatic late victories had perhaps disguised some deficiencies in the team. After an unlucky defeat in Europe to AC Milan, the team had stumbled and were crawling towards the finishing line rather than striding purposefully towards it. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister in 1918, had described the last few months of the Great War as “a bloodstained stagger to victory”. Celtic supporters in 2007 knew what he meant.

On this day at Kilmarnock it was all about anxiety and nerves. The team had gone ahead in the first half when Vennegoor of Hesselink scored from a Nakamura corner, but then Kilmarnock had equalised at the start of the second period. The second half had crawled agonisingly, with Celtic clearly on top but unable to convert their outfield supremacy into the one goal that would guarantee delirium. Seconds before the 90 minutes were up, Derek Riordan put an easy one over the bar, and the feeling grew that it was not to be. A few of the weaker brethren went home, and those watching on the TV began to think that they could vent their frustration outside on the grass by giving it a fierce going over with the rusty lawn mower.

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But then a ray of hope appeared, almost like the rising sun does in Orient, as it were. A free-kick was awarded just outside the box, to the right of the centre. This was Nakamura territory. We were well within the three minutes of stoppage time, so it did not take a genius to work out that this was the last chance saloon. Naka had saved our bacon many times this season. Could he do it once more? The Setanta commentator drew our attention to the fact, as if we didn’t know it, that millions worldwide would now be watching. The thought passed through my mind that it would be about 11 o’clock on Sunday in the United States and Canada (and that people would be going to church), the middle of the night in Australia . . . very early on a Monday morning in Japan

Naka nodded to someone and after a wee bit of pushing and jostling between Celtic attackers and Killie defenders in what passed for a wall, he ran up to take it. It was absolutely perfect, curling in at the far post and hitting the line as it crossed, so that even if the goalkeeper had been able to get across to the ball, he would have had a job getting down to it.

Cliches like “the terracing erupted” or “the crowd unleashed a tidal wave of appreciation” were somehow inadequate to describe the reaction of the fans. But the joy released behind that goal bore ample testimony to the support’s appreciation of what had been achieved. It was simply so fitting, so appropriate, that the man who had saved Celtic so many times over the past two seasons with his brilliant free-kicks should do it again today, on the day that the League was won.

“Nakamura Na Na Na Na

Nakamura Na Na Na Na” etc, ad infinitum

Consisting of by no means the hardest lyrics to learn, this ditty was chanted by the deliriously happy Celtic fans who now knew, if they hadn’t known it before, that a new immortal was entering the ranks of the Celtic greats. As he was interviewed that afternoon, his interpreter had to be employed, as Nakamura’s English was limited to phrases like “Thank You”. That interpreter, a gentleman of Oriental appearance, had a fairly broad Glasgow accent. Shunsuke was very definitely one of ours.

Craig McAughtrie, the editor and webmaster of the Keep The Faith website, was particularly impressed by the emotion expressed by the normally stoic Oriental. “Only once have I witnessed Naka absolutely losing the plot – after his aforementioned fantastic free-kick goal in the 93rd minute at Rugby Park in April 2007, when Naka’s sensational strike clinched a 2-1 Celtic win against Kilmarnock and with it the SPL championship. Naka went bonkers! One of the best goalscoring celebrations ever!”

This particular goal has been played many times on TV, and one gets the impression that it has a long way to go yet, rivalling perhaps Patsy Gallacher’s goal in 1925 or Dixie Deans’s effort in 1972 for the most famous Celtic goal of all time. For once, it can honestly be said that it deserved all its “A goal fit to win the League” sort of hype. Ally Begg on Celtic TV would describe it, with elegance and simplicity, as “Naka’s Cracka”.

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Like so many Celtic cult heroes, Nakamura is a small man. He is not small for reasons of malnutrition, as one could have said of some of Celtic’s earlier small men, but simply because there are very few tall Japanese gentlemen. But smallness is something that endears itself to the maternal or matronly among the Celtic support.

In the Scottish Cup final of 2007, a somewhat rash tackle on a Dunfermline player earned Shunsuke a wigging from referee Kenny Clark. Clark is a tall man, and from high up on the Celtic End, the impression was one of a man of huge size in blue rigout towering over a pathetic figure in a green-and-white jersey. A couple of elderly lady supporters were outraged. “That’s Naka getting a tellin’ aff frae the referee”. “Hey, Clark, leave him alane! Pick on someone yer ain size.” Then in a fine vignette of affection, possibly hinting at some sort of emotional deprivation, one of the senior ladies said irrelevantly but pointedly: “He’s such a lovely wee man. I want tae tak him hame wi me.”

Craig McAughtrie, whose Celtic website boasts the most hits worldwide, purrs his appreciation of Shunsuke Nakamura: “Celtic manager Gordon Strachan has described him as a genius, Celtic fans refer to him as ‘our Japanese Bhoy’, almost everyone in Scottish football (except the most myopic of Huns, i.e. Rangers supporters to the uninitiated) agrees he’s a magician and one pundit famously said: ‘He can open a tin of beans with his left foot’. I admit to having absolutely no idea if Shunsuke Nakamura can open a tin of beans with his left foot, but I dare say that if Naka practised long enough he’d manage. Because it’s all about practice, or so Naka insists, and not about genius.”

It was Willie Maley, over a century ago, who said: “It‘s not a man’s creed or his nationality that counts, it’s the man himself”. Such a statement we would like to think is self-evident today, but it wasn’t necessarily universally accepted then, notably in Glasgow where another football team found great difficulty in coming to terms with the concept of religious tolerance. Celtic, of course, had a long tradition of being able to accept anyone from Jerome Solis through Gil Herron to Johannes Edvaldsson as long as they could play the game. In recent years the hero had been a Swede by the name of Henrik Larsson, yet more proof of the inexorable spread of the Celtic family.

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But a man from Japan was different. It is probably true to say, regretfully, that because of the Second World War, feelings of equanimity and reconciliation towards the Japanese race were harder to achieve than with other previous foes. Films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and A Town Like Alice had rather emphasised the facile view that the British upper class, with their stiff upper lips, were morally superior to such “barbarians”.

Yet there were some justified grounds for bitterness as well. Just too many bad things had happened in the building of that Burma railway after the fall of Singapore for the British to feel otherwise. And the added factor was that Japan was such an unfamiliar country, with its totally different culture (where a lost wallet, for example, is invariably faithfully returned intact to its owner) and its alien language. Very few British people have ever been to Japan. Possibly no more than 100 Celtic fans had been there when Shunsuke joined us in 2005. The Celtic View added to the general air of ignorance of Oriental cultures by mixing up Nakamura with a Chinese player, Du Wei, who had joined us at the same time.

Japan remained a land of mystery, and had always been so. There was, for example, Sumo wrestling, which can entertain the eccentric as they flick through sports channels on days when there is no football. Like Spanish bullfighting, it would be hard to imagine it catching on in Scotland. Gilbert and Sullivan had produced The Mikado in 1885, portraying the “Gentlemen of Japan” saying:

Our attitude’s queer and quaint

Your wrong if you think it ain’t

– an attitude which might offend the politically correct brigade of the early 21st century, but it is certainly the case that Scotland and Japan knew very little about each other. Still, it is always said that football can transcend national barriers, as it is the common language of mankind.

Japanese football had been growing. Scotland had played in the Kirin Cup of 1995 and would do so again (winning it!) in 2006, and Japan along with Korea had done an excellent job in putting on the World Cup of 2002. It was clear that the game of football, which in worldwide terms went from strength to strength, was now developing in Japan in a big way. Global television meant that Japanese viewers could follow the progress of the Scottish Premier League and the English Premiership. But how would this Japanese gentleman cope with Scottish football, we wondered. Scottish football was, after all, quite different from anyone else’s, as indeed was Scottish climate, culture and society. And, of course, football in Glasgow is in a department of its own, different even from the rest of Scotland, let alone the rest of the world . . .

Shunsuke was born in June 1978 and had started off his footballing career for a Japanese team called Yokohama Marinos from 1997 until 2002. He won the Japanese Cup with them in 2001. With them, also, he earned many international caps and was part of the Japan side which won the Asian Cup of 2000. Rather surprisingly he was left out of the squad for the World Cup which was held in his own country and this may have motivated him to try his luck in Europe.

He has played for Japan many times since, famously scoring a somewhat controversial goal in the 2006 World Cup against Australia, which led to the sacking of the Egyptian referee, even though the Australian team won comfortably. But the 2006 World Cup was an unhappy time for both Japan and Nakamura himself, and it is probably true to say that he has done better at club level, particularly for Celtic, than he has at International level.

From 2002 until 2005 he played for the Italian side Reggina, but struggled with fitness and form in a team which waged perpetual battles against relegation. He never really settled in Italy, but it was nevertheless clear that he possessed tremendous talent which could be better displayed elsewhere. It was 25 July 2005 that he joined Celtic, very much a Gordon Strachan signing.

It would be fair to say that the Celtic support had not spent a happy summer of 2005. Still shattered by the blow of throwing away the SPL on the last day at Motherwell (albeit partially restored by the winning of the Scottish Cup a week later) and upset by the departure of Martin O’Neill, they were still coming to terms with new manager Gordon Strachan. He was a man whose previous appearances at Celtic Park had been in opposition colours, and his visits had not produced happy memories for Celtic fans. Balm was hardly poured on unhealed wounds when, in Strachan’s first game, Celtic went down 0-5 to Artmedia Bratislava in a Champions League qualifier, effectively meaning that there would be no European stage for Nakamura in his first year.

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This may have been a financial disaster for the club, but in playing terms it was not necessarily a bad thing to confine one’s attention to Scotland while the new manager was finding his feet and the team were in the throes of transition.

But how would this slightly built Japanese chap cope with the rough and tumble of Scottish football? It was a clichÈ to portray Scotland as the land of tough defenders, heavy November pitches, unremitting rain between October and March, ruthless hard men as referees and grimly unforgiving fans for whom victory was the essence. There is more than an element of truth in this stereotype and how would the balletic splendour of this small and clearly loveable man cope with it all?

It was immediately obvious that the support had taken him to their heart. Very soon the flag sellers of London Road and the Gallowgate took to selling Rising Sun flags of Japan and other Japanese insignia, such as headbands with Japanese writing on them. This was a clear sign that Shunsuke was doing well, as a few years ago such stalls had sold Swedish flags in honour of Henrik Larsson.

The editor of Keep The Faith is emphatic that there was one aspect of his character that stood him in good stead for the stern tests ahead: “Nakamura has become an icon for Celtic fans because of his craft and guile, his passing prowess and that ability to find time and space on the ball, even during the chaos of Scottish football. I admit to also being impressed by his dedication to fitness. It has been calculated that Naka runs 14 kilometres during a single game, yet he heads off to the gym post-match for half-an-hour on an exercise bike as a warm-down whilst most of his colleagues in Scottish football are in the players’ bar. He also goes swimming on his days off.”

This aspect of his character is also borne out by people who work at Celtic Park. They will attest to the fact that there are times when the stadium is almost deserted in the late afternoon, apart from Shunsuke and his interpreter, who are practising free-kicks, corners and penalties, with the interpreter exercising his goalkeeping and ball-fetching skills while the little genius rehearses his repertoire with all the dedication of a concert pianist or a Shakespearean actor.

Elsewhere we have extolled the virtues of practice. Glenn McGrath, arguably Australia’s best ever fast bowler, when asked what was the secret of his success, said emphatically that there was no secret. All that you had to do was bowl well, and for this you needed practice. Clearly Nakamura is of the same persuasion.

Nakamura’s first few games in season 2005/06 were ordinary but he scored his first goal against Dunfermline at the end of August. This was beamed back to Japan on TV, and very soon after that we saw Japanese tourists appearing at Celtic Park with green-and-white scarves. They were a welcome addition to the Celtic family, something that will very soon be the greatest institution of its kind in the world, if it is not already.

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Shunsuke’s first great goal was against Motherwell at Parkhead on a Wednesday night in late October. It was a free-kick on the edge of the penalty box at the Jock Stein Stand end of the ground. More than 56,000 people rose of one accord out of their seats to applaud a great goal and to welcome into the Celtic pantheon a new hero.

From then on, free-kick goals came reasonably regularly, but there was more to him than that. He was industrious, a tricky football player, a good passer of the ball, a great taker of corner-kicks, and those who felt that he would suffer because of the difficult Scottish conditions were proved wrong. In addition, the rapport with the fans was there, and it was no coincidence that the only game that Celtic lost in the League between an Old Firm defeat in August and the New Year was the one in which Nakamura wasn’t playing, an otherwise inexplicable 0-1 defeat to Dunfermline in late November.

Celtic suffered a disaster early in the New Year of 2006 when they went down to Clyde in the Scottish Cup, but Nakamura rallied the team after that, and by March he had won his first medal in Scotland, that of the Scottish League Cup. This final was played at Hampden against Dunfermline a few days after the death of Jimmy Johnstone. Naka didn’t score that day, but received a great compliment from a supporter of mature years sitting near me, who remarked that “the Jap” was the closest we had had to Jimmy Johnstone since Jinky had given up the game.

A greater prize was forthcoming in early April when the team won the SPL, defeating their closest rivals Hearts 1-0 on a Wednesday night. He clearly revelled in the adoration of the fans, who sensed the great part that he had played in the return of the crown. Such occasions were, of course, beamed back to Japan, which now had its first winner of the Scottish Premier League.

Sterner tests would be awaiting in the next year’s Champions League. The group stage saw Celtic drawn against Manchester United, Copenhagen and Benfica. This did not look easy, but Celtic delighted their fans by qualifying. The best game was the defeat of Benfica, but the most thrilling games were the clashes with Manchester United. In each of these Nakamura scored with a trademark free-kick. The one at Old Trafford was good and created a little history in that it was the first goal ever scored by a Japanese player in the European Champions’ League, but it was not enough to save Celtic from a narrow and unlucky defeat.

It was the goal that he scored at Parkhead when Alex Ferguson’s men came to Glasgow that was significant. It was a phenomenal strike. It was late in the game and decided the issue, qualifying the team for the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time since the competition became known by that name.

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At such times, Parkhead explodes. A packed Celtic crowd celebrating a decisive goal in a tense encounter remains the greatest show on earth, and it was the man from Japan who brought this about that night. The game had been close and controversial. Nine minutes remained when Celtic won a free-kick some 30 yards from goal. It was slightly to the right of the goal at the Jock Stein Stand end of the ground. It looked as if it were just a little too far out for the “Nakamura territory” description to be applied to it, but we noticed that he was going to have a go. With so little time left in the game, he was as well to do that, we felt. He took the kick and duly delivered.

It was, perhaps, a very significant goal in the history of the Celtic psyche. There has existed for many years an inferiority complex about teams like Manchester United and Liverpool. Scottish slave mentality tends to underplay Scottish achievements and to encourage the belief that if we ever were to defeat an English team, it would be a fluke and that we are not allowed to beat them. In the same way that John Hartson did against Liverpool in 2003, Nakamura knocked that one on its head as far as Manchester United were concerned and showed the world what Celtic could do.

Then in the game against AC Milan (the eventual winners) in Italy, Celtic pressed hard and Milan themselves would admit afterwards that the Celts gave them more bother than anyone else. But how different it might have been if Gordon Strachan had not taken off Nakamura at the beginning of the second half of extra time. To be fair, Nakamura was not having the best of games and was visibly tiring, and Gordon may well have felt that the fast running Kenny Miller might have swung the game.

But just at the death with Celtic trailing to a Kaka goal, the hard-working Scottish team were awarded a free-kick in Nakamura territory. But sadly, Naka was now on the bench and could do nothing other than watch the honest Lee Naylor take the free-kick. Naka might well have scored, and that would have been enough to earn a 1-1 draw and an away-goals victory.

Celtic endured a form slump after this result, but even then, there was still Nakamura about whom it was believed that, as long as he was on the field, anything was possible. Celtic had lost to Rangers, Falkirk and drawn with Dundee United, and now at Parkhead, Motherwell were proving a tough nut to crack. Well into the second half, the score was still 0-0, with Celtic unable to turn their outfield superiority into goals and break down the stuffy Motherwell defence. The ball came to Nakamura from a throw-in. With a piece of sublime footwork, he passed the ball from one foot to another to deceive an opponent, then having made some space, he sent over a great high ball for Vennegoor of Hesselink to knock down for Derek Riordan to score what turned out to be the only goal of the game.

Free-kicks are, of course, his trademark – shortly before the AC Milan game, he had scored another fine one at Pittodrie against Aberdeen – but it would be wrong to think that was all he could do. He takes a brilliant corner as well, and no doubt appreciates the Japanese-style bowing that takes place among the support as he trots over to take the kick. He is also a fine passer of a ball, a crafty player and the nearest that we are likely to meet in the modern game to an old-fashioned dribbler. He possesses a fine temperament. He is able to take a certain amount of fouling – inevitable in Scotland if you are a ball player – without reacting badly.

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Craig McAughtrie is particularly impressed with the phlegmatic nature of the man from Japan. “Nakamura should also be admired for another quality he undoubtedly possesses – bravery. In the madness of Scottish football, the hammer-throwers have lined up in a disorderly queue to boot our Japanese Bhoy up in the air. And yet invariably Naka courageously shrugs his shoulders, gets up, dusts himself down and returns for more. The similarities with Jimmy Johnstone are patently obvious. Only once have I witnessed Naka almost losing the plot and almost retaliating after a series of brutal attacks. That was against Dundee United at Tannadice when, after one bludgeoning too many, Naka appeared ready to administer the death grip to Arabs captain Barry Robson”.

In fact, he had a particularly good season in 2006/07 against Dundee United. There was a free-kick against them in March at Tannadice, a delightful chip to salvage a point on Boxing Day at Parkhead and a stunning hat-trick on the previous visit to Tannadice in October as the Celtic fans began to sing:

It’s so Japanesy

to the tune of Cuanta la mera and as a welcome replacement to a more lurid and insulting version which went:

It’s so f***ing easy 

This tune is, indeed, a favourite of the Celtic fans, and it has been used in the past as a reminder to Rangers supporters that they will not be contesting this year’s Scottish Cup final, going along the lines of:

There’s no Huns at Hampden

It was because of performances like these that Shunsuke won both Player of the Year awards in Scotland at the end of season 2006/07. One was voted for by the writers, and the other, which arguably carries more prestige, by his fellow professionals. This one is perhaps the best indication of how good a player is. After all, the men who have played against you on the field know how difficult an opponent you are, and have, perhaps, a keener insight into the problems and stresses of a modern professional football player. Both awards were won by Nakamura without any great competition.

Craig McAughtrie, like all other Celtic supporters and, indeed, most Scottish football supporters, is in no doubt that the awards were totally justified. “Undoubtedly, Shunsuke Nakamura’s talent, like his wiry and athletic physique, is God-given, but our Japanese Bhoy has practised this inherent talent to make perfect, thereby explaining how, with one flash of his artistry, creativity, skill and vision, Naka can fashion a goal for Celtic. Be it from a precision perfect set-piece to a team-mate, a fantastic free-kick into the back of the net or a defence-dissecting pass to match a striker’s run, Nakamura’s worth to Celtic has become incalculable during the considerable successes of Gordon Strachan’s managerial tenure.”

Craig has just one reservation about Strachan’s employment of Naka. “It is . . . undeniable that the Celtic manager has yet to discover a system that fully exploits the genius of Shunsuke Nakamura by providing him with the absolute freedom of the pitch – the ‘number-ten role’ to which Naka is eminently suited.”

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One could at this time recall what Jock Stein once said to Jimmy Johnstone. Jinky listened to a team talk in which everyone’s role was laid down, but without any mention about what he (Jimmy ) was expected to do. Plaintively he asked: “Whit aboot me, Boss?” Back came the growl: “You? Just get the ball and do what the f***in’ hell ye want!” Nakamura is like that, one feels. He can do the unorthodox, the unusual, the bizarre – and quite a few Celtic fans feel that Naka (and the team) could benefit from him being given an even freer hand than he has at the moment to express his genius.

He remains a very inscrutable character. This merely adds to the mystery of him. Rightly he is concerned that over-exposure by the media will harm himself and his immediate family. He has seen in his home country how much has been made of wealthy and successful westerners like David Beckham. Yet we did see a small Naka appearing at Parkhead on the day that the SPL trophy was presented in April 2007.

Culturally, Nakamura represents an important part in the global development of the concept of Celtic. In the early days of the club, the support would have all lived within a few miles of Celtic Park, would have been first, second or third generation Irish immigrants and would have been of the Roman Catholic faith. Early in the 20thcentury, the play of Jimmy Quinn and the mighty half-back line of Young, Loney and Hay broadened the base to include a wider spectrum of Scottish society, particularly in the East of Scotland. Jock Stein drove a horse and cart through any lingering desire to return to any prejudiced or insular stance; Henrik Larsson and others introduced a European dimension to Celtic, and now Nakamura has linked East and West. Celtic are now big in Asia.

By the summer of 2007 Shunsuke had won four major honours with Celtic. But he has done more than that. He has won the hearts of the fans, and has given the support the belief that the best is yet to come. He and Celtic suit each other. He is the personality player that Celtic have been awaiting for so long. Messianic qualities appear embodied in him. He has been rightly compared to Jimmy Johnstone. There is also a touch of the Charlie Tully and the Patsy Gallacher about him. Success in Europe beckoned, and with Nakamura on board, everything was possible.

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Born in 1948, David Potter first saw Celtic at Dens Park, Dundee in March 29. It was a 3-5 defeat, which equipped him admirably for the horrors of the early 1960’s. He had “followed” Celtic for a few years before that and recalls having been called upon to impersonate Jock Stein and receive the family silver teapot which had to do for the Scottish Cup as it was presented on April 24 1954, after he and his father had spent a nerve wracking afternoon listening to the radio!  Since then, he has “followed” every Celtic game with bated breath, and has written extensively about the club in magazines and books. His favorite team was that of 1969 (which he rates marginally better than 1967) and his favorite player was Henrik Larsson.

His ambition for Celtic is for them to keep on winning silver in Scotland and to be something in Europe once again. His other interests are cricket and drama. He is 70, a retired teacher of Classical Languages, married with three children and five grandchildren. He now travels on the Joseph Rafferty bus from Kirkcaldy. He also loves Forfar Athletic.

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