Great to see Shunsuke Nakamura back at Celtic Park for the St. Mirren game and what a host of fantastic memories it brought back.
A Gordon Strachan midfield stalwart for four seasons, Naka was the scorer of some of the most thrilling goals we’ve see at Paradise in recent times and the man who gave the Parkhead DJ the chance to dust off his Vapors single (it could have been worse had he been a fan of that cringingly naff ‘Aneka’ – real name Bella McGlumpher or some such – record)
This was the transfer that we were all assured by the likes of the Rectumsport staff was not going to happen. Following the Artmedia nightmare it became very clear that Celtic wouldn’t be taking any part in the 2005-06 Champions League, therefore the logic of the Darylls dictated that without the lure of European football the man from Japan wouldn’t be interested in coming to Scotland in order to go mano y mano with Ross Tokely and the rest of Hammer Throwers Inc.
With clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid sniffing about we were led to believe that the aforementioned DJ might be spinning ‘Jilted John’ for us over the tannoy. Yet, without indulging in too much of a crude national stereotype, the Japanese are nothing if not honourable, not to mention inscrutable. Promises had been made, and so it was that Naka came to Glasgow and made his Celtic debut against Dundee United on August 5th 2005.
First impressions were favourable, to say the least. His first touch was immaculate, he could find a team mate with a pass virtually every time he got the ball, he was able to keep possession and he played with his head up – and not up his arse either. By the standards of 90% of the SPL this put him on a par with Zico. Unlucky not to score on more than one occasion, his manager was quick to praise his Man of the Match performance. Naka himself, speaking inscrutably through his interpreter, declared himself to be reasonably happy with his contribution to Celtic’s afternoon, pledging to work on his cardiovascular regime in order to catch up with his team mates, some of whom were just finishing their second slice of pizza and wondering what he was on about.
Deployed mainly wide on the right of midfield by Gordon Strachan, despite having a left foot that stood favourable comparison with Lubo, Naka went on to become a regular starter and one was one of Celtic’s main creative threats throughout a season that he finished by picking up a Championship medal to go with the League Cup badge won the previous month.
The following season Naka became the first Japanese player to play in the Champions League when he turned out against Manchester United at Old Trafford. His growing reputation as a free-kick specialist was cemented that night when he scored a Naka cracker to bring us level at 2:2. It might have been enough to earn us a creditable away point had Giggs not conned the ref with an outrageous dying swan routine to win the home side a penalty.
Revenge was sweet in the return at Celtic Park, though. Once again Naka flighted home an amazing strike past van der Sar which seems to get further out each time you watch it. This time the Holy Goalie saved the mandatory United penalty and we qualified from the group stage for the first time.
Apparently, apart from endlessly practising inscrutable free-kicks at training in a manner best described as inscrutable, Nakamura also practised Qigong to help his concentration and delivery at dead balls, a set of breathing and movement exercises often taught in association with Chinese martial arts. It seems that Qigong’s slow external movements help stimulate the internal organs by promoting the flow of the body’s internal energy or qi.
Certainly different from Kris Boyd’s ten pints of lager and a crate of Monster Munch training regime.
In between the games against United Naka had scored his first Celtic hat-trick in a 4-1 defeat of Dundee United at Tannadice – and not a free kick among them.
He won Goal of the Season that year as well for yet another memorable effort, this time chipping the ball over United’s Derek Stillie from somewhere near the touchline to secure a comeback point at Celtic Park.
His second league medal was secured when he won the game at Kilmarnock with yet another brilliant free-kick. The emotion he showed as he ran into the crowd swinging his jersey hinted that the mask of inscrutability might be in danger of slipping were he to hang around CP much longer. Later the same evening he won the SPFA Player of the Year award, followed in May by the Hacks award and the Celtic Fans’ award.
A knee injury picked up in the Champs League qualifier against Spartak kept him out for the first three months of the following season, but he was back by January to play his part in the run-in, most notably with arguably his best goal in the Hoops, a vicious swerving drive that left Allan McGregor looking as if he’d just had a night out in Loch Lomond with Bazza.
In his final season in the Hoops he was definitely not the player of old, caught up in the general malaise and looking as if he had half an eye on his exit route. Before the January transfer window there was already speculation that he wanted to return to Japan in order to let his wee boy start school in his homeland and play out his final years for his first club, Yokohama. The fact that he ended up at Espanyol just proves what I was saying about him being inscrutable.
In his four seasons at Celtic he gave us some fantastic memories, some wonderful goals and provided the club with an exposure in Japan that must have been worth millions in terms of commercial spin-offs. According to David Thompson, Celtic’s former commercial director, “Celtic are now the third most popular Scottish brand in Japan, behind whisky and Sean Connery. Their popularity has even led to the creation of a word for Scot – “Scoto-rando-jin” – whereas in the past Scots were referred to as being English.”
It’s easy to see why Peter Lawwell and the bhoys in the boardroom were eager to get Naka’s successor, Koki Mizuno, signed in order to keep the profile up in the far east. 140,000 Nike Hoops tops a year wasn’t to be sniffed at. I wonder if there is still any interest in Celtic in Japan now that Naka is part of the club’s history?
Nakamura left as still something of an elusive (nay, inscrutable) character, but he did come across as someone who enjoyed his experience at Celtic, even though it didn’t always show in his persona. As his biographer Martin Greig noted, “there are clear parallels with Henrik Larsson, even if Nakamura isn’t, yet, as revered. The Swede appeared cool and aloof when he arrived, but as the public admiration grew, so Larsson’s inscrutable veneer began to peel away and his charisma shone through – and so it is with Nakamura”.
If only he’d had an extra yard of space!