Sometimes we have a logical (or even an illogical) gravitation towards someone. In terms of sport we we all root for teams but there are also players that we root for even harder whether they be on our team or that of another. For me there are many that fit this bill but none more so than a 5ft 10″ Japanese goalkeeper who was Japan’s answer to David Beckham.
I hadn’t thought about that man for years until Neil Allen wrote a column about him last week, which was published online last night, . You see that goalkeeper came and played in England. He signed for £1.8million in the autumn before the 2002 World Cup, which was to be played in Japan and South Korea. He didn’t sign for Manchester United. He didn’t sign for Arsenal. Not even Liverpool but for the big boys – Portsmouth.
He arrived to much fanfare. If I recall correctly the club even got Barry Davies in to MC his press conference. There was little doubt Kawaguchi was a good goalkeeper but there was a huge question mark surrounding whether he could survive the harshness of English league football and why Portsmouth were really signing a Japanese goalkeeper, when manager Graham Rix seemed happy enough with a 42 year-old who went down in stages.
The whole deal was about one thing – money. The affable 26 year-old was a pawn in a plan devised by Milan Mandaric to make money. Harry Redknapp, who was Director of Football at the time was sent to scout him and obviously came back with a decent enough report on the player. However in his recent autobiography as Neil Allen points out, he now claims that he fell asleep. Due to the fact that it is in his autobiography, I question the truthfulness of this statement as we already know giant swathes of it is made up.
So anyway he signs, for all the wrong reasons, but he’s here. He has a manager who doesn’t want him and is in a foreign country without anyone looking out for him, either on or off the pitch. This is a recipe for disaster. As many of you will know I am a huge baseball fan and when teams bring in Japanese players they will also hire a full-time interpreter to help them adjust both in the dressing rooms but also to the area, someone they can communicate with and spend some time socially with. None of this happened for Kawaguchi at Portsmouth.
His debut didn’t start well, a goal conceded after just 26 seconds but a win. The next game was a draw but his third game in Portsmouth blue was to this day still the finest I had ever seen by a Portsmouth goalkeeper. It was a Saturday lunchtime kick-off against Manchester City. City would go on to win the league at a canter and I’m pretty sure they were top when they visited Fratton Park. It was 2-1 to the good guys at the half but the second half it was all one way traffic and turned into the Manchester City attack (and primarily Darren Huckerby) v Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi. I would say attack Vs. defence but that would be overstating the role Pompey’s defence played in the game. The back-line was just dreadful but Yoshi was unbeatable, saving everything and putting in a performance for the ages.
I have no idea how many Pompey fans remember that game but it is still etched in my memory. That was a pretty forgettable season for one reason or another, the sad loss of the clubs incumbent goalkeeper on the eve of the season being probably the one that most remember clearest. There were highs, like the Prosinecki inspired 4-2 Bank Holiday Grimsby game and the 3-3 comeback at Wimbledon when down 3-0 with 20 minutes left. The lows though also stick in the mind, that Leyton Orient cup defeat and the 4-4 Barnsley game are the two games that spring to mind.
Neil Allen writes about 25 goals in 11 games conceded for Yoshi in his Portsmouth spell but people forget just how shit of a defence he was playing behind. In the subsequent seven games after being kicked to the curb, in came the saviour Dave Beasant and he promptly conceded 22 goals in those seven games, that is averaging over three goals a game, that is worse than Yoshi’s record. So either Yoshi was just so awful he battered down the confidence of the defence to a point where they couldn’t recover or they just weren’t very good in the first place.
We know Linvoy went on to be a Pompey legend but his career took off when Arjen De Zeeuw got his teeth into him and he helped mold Linvoy. The other names of central defenders in that team include the likes of Carl Tiler, Scott Hiley, a young Lewis Buxton and another foreign import who’d go on to star in Italy’s third tier before being suspended as part maath fixing, Allesandro Zamperini. The full-backs were Jason Crowe, an old and crocked Justin Edinburgh and a full-back whose confidence plummeted to depths usually reserved for me when I talk to pretty girls in Jamie Vincent. To cut a long story short, had Pompey signed Iker Casillas that autumn, fresh of his Champions League Final heroics, he’d have struggled behind that defence and lets not beat around the bush here, the midfielder was full of attacking flair but no defensive steal to protect that leaky back-line either.
Also remember the clubs goalkeeper at the time had already rubbished his new team mate in the local paper, not exactly the best quality team mate huh? I know no-one likes when someone comes in to take their job, certainly if you think you are better than them, but in a dressing room environment this already ensured that Yoshi was an outsider.
The odds were stacked against him from the start. Brought to the club because Milan Mandaric thought he’d make a lot of money. Brought to a club where the manager had no interest in him. Brought into a dressing room that didn’t seem to welcome him and brought into a team where the defence was as leaky as an England dressing room so it would seem.
He may have been short for a goalkeeper but last I heard Fabien Barthez had a pretty darn good career, he only won the European Championships and World Cup as the French national goalkeeper. He also won the Champions League with Marseilles. Height helps but it isn’t the be all and end all. He still has the use of his arms that attackers don’t and I’m pretty sure most goalkeepers arms are longer than a few inches, so therefore he still would have been able to leap over attacking players to catch and punch a ball, in fact this is one thing no-one disputes, the fact that Yoshi was ‘rubber like’ and had excellent spring.
Was he a natural fit for English league football? No. No he wasn’t, but was he given the opportunity to succeed at Portsmouth? No. No he sure as hell wasn’t. His signing was ill thought out and instead of putting him in a position to thrive and flourish, the club made bad decision after bad decision to erode the lads confidence and there is plenty of blame to go around from the chairman, to Harry Redknapp, to Graham Rix, to Dave Beasant and others. Had this been a coherent signing with plans in place to help Yoshi settle in a foreign country and playing behind at least a league average defence then he could have been a Pompey great. Now instead he is derided for being a goalkeeper that let in four to Leyton Orient.
This makes me sad. Pompey ruined his career all in the name of making a quick buck and whilst in the list of things Pompey owners have done to the club in the past two decades this doesn’t rank in the top tier, it is probably from a human standpoint the worst thing they did. They turned a national hero into an afterthought on the eve of a World Cup in his homeland, all because one man saw dollar signs light up in his eyes and thought all he had to do was sign him to make those dollar signs turn into cold hard cash and a lucrative revenue stream.
Sadly for Milan Mandaric unless you give the person whom you think is a great financial asset the best opportunity to succeed, then the investment will go up the swanny and that is exactly what happened. The club invested in Yoshi to sign him but never invested in either him as a person or him as a goalkeeper that that was their greatest fault.
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