Japanese Non-league Football News

Tohoku League Team Profile - Wiese Shiogama
Like FC Mi-o Biwako Kusatsu in the Kansai League, Wiese Shiogama are now a community-based club that have their roots in the footballing activities of the Sagawa Kyubin company, which has branch offices represented by teams in leagues all over Japan. While FC Mi-o incorporated Sagawa Kyubin Chukyo prior to the 2006 season, Wiese can be traced back to a Sagawa Kyubin Sendai side that began competitive life in 1996 in the distinctly unglamorous surroundings of the Sendai Industrial League Division 4.

Quickly moving up to the Miyagi Prefectural League, the name was modified to a more inclusive-sounding Sagawa Kyubin Tohoku, who continued making rapid progress not only in league competition, but also via a series of shock wins in the All-Japan Shakaijin. NTT Kumamoto, Central Kobe and a then-powerful Hiroshima FC were all strong Regional League teams who fell foul of the improving outfit from Miyagi.

In 2002, Sagawa Tohoku themselves arrived at Regional level, in the Tohoku League Division 2 (South), whereupon they brushed aside the challenge of established teams such as Furukawa Battery and near neighbours Shichigahama SC to gain immediate promotion to Division 1. After such a breathtaking rise, the club were unable to sustain their development - but even so, Sagawa performed well in the top flight, causing a minor sensation by winning away at reigning champions TDK early in the year and going on to claim an impressive third place finish.

Prior to the start of the 2004 season, Sagawa Kyubin approved a change in status for the team. They adopted the name Wiese Shiogama and became the senior side of an existing Shiogama FC kids / youth club with the nominal aim of achieving a J-League spot, despite being based in a suburb of the home city of the extraordinarily well-supported Vegalta Sendai. The modification all seemed to be having a positive effect in the first few weeks of the season, as TDK were once again defeated, but although Wiese managed to end up in second position, it was TDK who accelerated out of sight to become worthy champions.

The wheels have rather come off the Wiese Shiogama bandwagon since that high point and 2006 even saw them dally with the lower reaches of the table. They were never in any genuine danger of relegation, but have clearly slipped behind both Grulla Morioka and FC Primeiro in the race to get out of the Tohoku League in the right direction. As such, Wiese’s ambition of J-League football seems as far away now as it has ever been.

2007: A vital season for a club in apparent decline. They need to be competitive with FC Primeiro, but in 2006 could only just match Morioka Zebra.

Tohoku League Team Profile - Sendai Nakata Club
Based in the Nakata suburb of Taihaku-kun in Sendai itself, Sendai Nakata Club scraped and struggled through several seasons of Tohoku League membership from the late 80s through to the mid-90s without ever really managing to convince that they had what it takes to play Regional level football. In seven years, the club were never able to achieve anything better than a sixth-place finish but their number was finally up in 1995: Nakata ended up bottom of the table and were relegated, although in fairness were replaced by the equally as poor Tsuruoka TDK.

Whilst they did spend a subsequent season back in the Prefectural League, Nakata in 1997 became founder members of the Tohoku League Division 2 (South) and competing with teams like Matsushita Audio Fukushima and NEC Yonezawa seemed – on paper, at least - to have found their level. But in spite of having notched up a respectable third place, the club mysteriously withdrew from the Regional League for the following three years, only re-emerging in 2001.

For five seasons, Sendai Nakata were one of the better sides in Division 2 (South), going toe-to-toe with Furukawa Battery and Northern Peaks Koriyama as the trio all fought to gain promotion to the top flight. Having won the title in 2003 only to miss out to Ashikaga Engineering Works Store Kawabe FC in the Promotion Play-off, the club finally achieved their goal at the end of 2005.

A stunning four-game run in the middle of the season that saw them run in no fewer than 29 goals without reply had earlier set Nakata up to succeed ahead of their nearest rivals Furukawa. Division 2 (North) champions Tono Club were duly overcome 3-0 in the Play-off and the Miyagi prefecture side were promoted.

As the 2006 campaign progressed, it looked odds-on that Sendai Nakata would be heading straight back down again. Only one win in the first nine matches – and that against fellow strugglers Nippon Steel Kamaishi – had them rock bottom of the table with the season heading into its closing straight. All of a sudden, however, a 6-2 thrashing of Morioka Zebra handed them a lifeline and seven points gleaned from the final three fixtures of the year steered the club to safety and an impressive fifth spot.

2007: One of the minnows of Division 1, Nakata will in all likelihood struggle – but they can take heart from their performances at the end of 2006 and should stay up.
Tohoku League Team Profile - Nippon Steel Kamaishi
The Nippon Steel Corporation is another example of a company brought about by a corporate merger, in this case that of Yawata Steel and Fuji Steel in 1970. The latter had a history of supporting the playing of football by employees and by the time the merger took place, two different Fuji Steel teams had already participated in the All-Japan Shakaijin competition: Fuji Steel Muroran from Hokkaido and Fuji Steel Kamaishi, both of whom naturally changed their names in line with the new company.

When the Tohoku League commenced in 1977, the Nippon Steel Kamaishi club were well established as one of the best in the north outside of the Japan Soccer League (JSL) and academic institutions, with several further Shakaijin and Emperor’s Cup appearances under their belt. The best result achieved in this early period was when Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Kobe were defeated 4-2 in the First Round of the Shakaijin.

It was therefore no surprise when Nippon Steel Kamaishi immediately became the team to beat when their Regional League commenced - in fact, beating the Steel Men was something that no other team managed to do during the first three full seasons of the new competition’s existence, as they notched up three straight title wins.

A 6-1 thrashing in the First Round of the 1977 Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off competition by Toshiba Horikawa from Kanto appeared to set the tone for those times when Kamaishi did venture out of Tohoku, but in subsequent seasons the club achieved more respectable results – including on one occasion a fine win over company rivals Nippon Steel Muroran – without ever qualifying for the Final Stage.

In 1983, however, financial problems caused Nippon Steel Kamaishi to withdraw from the Tohoku League and they were not to make a re-appearance until the commencement fourteen years later of the Division 2 (North). After three good seasons in the second tier, the club gained promotion back to what had become Division 1 for the 2000 campaign, but the days of success were long gone and since that time Nippon Steel have struggled to hold on to their status.

Relegation was avoided by the narrowest possible margin in 2006, as TDK’s elevation to the JFL meant a change in the rules to ensure that an appropriate number of teams remained in the Tohoku League. The Steel Men - who had finished bottom of the table – therefore avoided automatic relegation and instead faced a Play-off against ambitious Division 2 side FC Akita Cambiare, which they scraped through by the narrowest of margins to remain in the top flight.

2007: One of these seasons, Nippon Steel Kamaishi have either to improve or go down to Division 2. There’s no obvious sign that they can do the former, so does relegation beckon this year?
Tohoku League Team Profile - NEC Tokin
It was on 1st April 2002 that the Tokin Corporation joined forces with the Nippon Electric Company (NEC) and as a by-product of another Japanese corporate merger, the NEC Tokin football team were born. At that time Tokin were well-established members of the Tohoku League Division 1, although in fact their competitive history can be traced back as far as 1955, when they began participating in the Sendai Industrial League.

Tokin first became known on a wider stage with their promotion to the Tohoku League in 1994. This was a period when virtually all the teams in the region were trailing in the wake of Sony Sendai, but after an initial struggle to acclimatise, the newcomers began making gradual season-on-season improvements.

When Sony were promoted to the JFL at the end of 1997, there were a good number of clubs ready and waiting to step into the void left by their departure. TDK, Matsushima Club and Morioka Zebra undoubtedly felt that they were in a position to become the top side in Tohoku, but to the surprise of most it was Tokin – ironically, another company team from Sendai – who pipped Zebra to take the 1998 title.

Appearing for the first time in the Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off, Tokin were scarcely a match for First Round opponents Yokogawa Electric and Blaze Kumamoto, and were immediately knocked out. Back at Regional level the following year, however, they proved that their 1998 championship was no fluke by winning the Tohoku League again in dramatic style, the victory being confirmed with defeats of TDK and Zebra in the final two fixtures.

The 1999 Championship Winners’ Play-offs were a further small illustration of how much lower the standard was of football in Tohoku than in certain other areas of Japan. Tokin again ended up bottom of their First Round group, out of which Alo’s Hokuriku from the Hokushinetsu region went on to win a place in the JFL. Even so, having also taken part in the All-Japan Shakaijin for what was only the second occasion, 1999 goes down as the high point in the club’s history to date.

Following on from the 2002 merger, NEC Tokin have been a team of mid-table stability, only really struggling in 2005, when the whole focus of the Tohoku League was on the battle at the top between TDK and Grulla Morioka. 2006 saw the club get the better of FC Primeiro and Wiese Shiogama to emerge as one of the stronger members of the division.

2007: Will be one of the teams who feel that a good season may result in them being able to grab second position and a place in the Championship Winners’ Play-off competition.
Tohoku League Team Profile - Morioka Zebra
Success may in the main have eluded Morioka Zebra, but in these days of cut-throat ambition and the increasing impact of money on the Japanese non-league game, the fact that the club celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2007 still as members of the Tohoku League Division 1 can be regarded as a small triumph for the spirit of amateur football in Japan.

The single most striking aspect of their lengthy history is probably the fact that Zebra have participated in every season since the league’s inception in 1977. Indeed, for the first decade, Zebra were consistently one of the strongest teams on offer, almost on a par with tough corporate outfits Nippon Steel Kamaishi and TDK.

Their proudest moment came in 1980 - actually the sole occasion upon which the club have managed to take the league title. Finishing comfortably ahead of Nippon Steel and Matsushima Club, their triumph secured Zebra a place in the recently-established Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off tournament, but a 1-0 defeat from Saitama Teachers meant that they were eliminated at the First Round stage.

By the late 1980s, Morioka Zebra’s days as a powerhouse of the game at Regional level were more or less over. For several seasons they survived on mere handfuls of points, lucky that whipping boys such as Ishinomaki City Hall were around – however briefly - to keep them off the very bottom of the table.

A revival under coach Takashi Takahashi secured the club another brief period in the sun in the latter part of the 90s and in 1998, Zebra were just two points off what would have been a second Tohoku title victory. That same year, they also managed a rare All-Japan Shakaijin appearance and even squeezed their way into the Championship Winners’ Play-off for a stab at a JFL spot, but Nippon Steel Oita did for them in the former and the Black-and-Whites were out of their depth in the latter against NTT Kyushu and Mazda SC.

In recent seasons, they have been reliant on Play-off victories and the like to maintain their presence in the region’s top division, as at the end of 2005 when Zebra won 4-0 on aggregate against Tono Club from Iwate. Twelve months later, they were saved from having to participate in another Play-off only by the shock promotion to the JFL of TDK, who dished out an 8-1 hammering as the low point in a campaign that included only three wins.

2007: Hard to see anything but another season of struggle ahead for Morioka Zebra. The matches against Furukawa Battery and Nippon Steel Kamaishi are likely to prove crucial to their chances of survival.
Tohoku League Team Profile - Grulla Morioka
Grulla Morioka have crammed into their history more drama, excitement, gut-wrenching disappointment, on-the-pitch success and off-the-pitch catastrophe than most teams do in many decades. The pivotal point in the Grulla story so far came at the end of 2005, when the team were drawn with Fagiano Okayama and Rosso Kumamoto in the First Round of the Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off.

Desperate to achieve their aim of promotion to the JFL, the Tohoku League joint champions beat Fagiano - but a disastrous defeat to Rosso condemned Grulla to elimination. All the hopes and expectations that had been built up since the decision had been made in 2003 to go for the J-League collapsed with that single loss, and Grulla seemed to come out of the competition a club totally lacking in direction.

The story had begun, however, with Villanova Morioka, who were formed in 2000 as an Old Boys club for ex-students of Morioka Commercial and Morioka Central High Schools. In 2003, they finished mid-table in what was their first season at Regional level, but then - no doubt with an eye on the tremendous popularity of J-League teams based in other northern cities - Villanova officials decided that an audience for professional football could be developed in their home town. They changed the name to Grulla Morioka and drafted in former JEF United and Oita Trinita midfielder Shinichi Muto as player-coach, together with a number of other ex-J2 professionals.

2004 saw the new team dominate the Tohoku League Division 2 (North), and after promotion the momentum continued into 2005. Muto’s men matched Division 1 big guns TDK point for point as the season went on, 2-1 away wins in the fixtures between the pair serving to cancel each other out. A final day win over NEC Tokin confirmed a remarkable outcome: that Grulla and TDK had ended absolutely dead level at the top of the table. Muto and his players were through to the Championship Winners’ Play-off.

Subsequently losing to Rosso and failing to reach the JFL, though, Grulla fell apart. With debts to creditors and unpaid salaries reported to amount to 10 million yen, the squad disintegrated, while Muto and some of the club management jumped ship - only to emerge a short time later with a newly-formed club, FC Ganju Iwate.

But a number of officials and fans remained loyal to Grulla, who re-grouped for 2006. Inevitably, it proved difficult to sustain the level that had been reached the previous year and although the team were a cut above most of the rest of the division, they were unable to recover from a 4-0 drubbing in July at the hands of their rivals TDK; under the circumstances, a second place finish was a very respectable result, as well as providing a signal that their dreams of a J-League place are still alive.

2007: Grulla will start the Tohoku League season as clear favourites.
Tohoku League Team Profile - Furukawa Battery
Furukawa Battery were for many years the nearly men of Tohoku football. The club was originally formed in 1985 and participated initially at the less-than-dizzy heights of the Iwaki City League Division 3, although they quickly moved up through the Fukushima Prefectural League.

Ever since the League established its own regionalised second tiers in 1997, the Fukushima-based side have been close to making the step up to Division 1, winning the Division 2 (South) title twice and finishing runners-up on no fewer than five occasions. But they always just missed out on promotion, either pipped to the title by teams like Sendai Nakata Club and Northern Peaks Koriyama, or losing to the Division 2 (North) champions in the Promotion Play-off – as in 2001, when they went down 2-1 to Akita City Hall.

2006 again saw Furukawa challenge at the top of Division 2 (South) table, as the battle for the championship crown quickly became a two-horse race involving themselves and Marysol Matsushima. But the Elephants moved into the lead with a 4-2 defeat of their rivals, later confirming their superiority over the other teams by scoring seven home-and-away against Kanai Club and twice putting eight past the hapless Kureha.

The title was finally confirmed in mid-October with another 4-2 victory, this time against late challengers Northern Peaks. Even then, though, the hurdle of the Play-off with Division 2 (North) runaway winners FC Akita Cambiare had to be overcome – but this time, Furukawa finally triumphed and a place in Division 1 for 2007 was theirs.

Having reached the top level of Regional football, in contrast with other teams in Fukushima’s competitive environment, Furukawa seem content to consolidate and have no stated desire to seek a place in the JFL or higher in the Japanese footballing pyramid. Indeed, their ambition seems to be directed equally towards league status as it does towards achieving success in the various cup competitions, as the club have never yet participated in the final stages of either the Emperor’s Cup or the All-Japan Shakaijin. So far, in seeking to qualify they have been unable to cope with better-placed clubs from their home prefecture, such as FC Primeiro and Fukushima University – and this seems to be just as much a preoccupation as achieving success in the league.

2007: Having taken a decade to reach Division 1, Furukawa Battery’s first target will be stay up – so a mid-table finish will constitute a good season’s work for the Elephants.
Tohoku League Team Profile - FC Primeiro
Football in Fukushima prefecture since the mid-90s has had something of an abortive history in terms of the development of a team with J-League potential. The demise of FC Fukushima at the end of the 1997 JFL season – when most of the other clubs in that division were focused on turning professional and populating the forthcoming J2 – was a disaster from which it could be argued that the sport locally has yet to emerge.

The highest-ranking team in the area currently are FC Primeiro, although even they haven’t indicated that they wish to be promoted beyond the JFL, in contrast with their neighbours at Viancone Fukushima and FC Perada Fukushima. Formed at the beginning of 1996 by amateur players who departed FC Fukushima while they were still a going concern, Primeiro immediately took their place in the Prefectural League and by 1998, as well as running a strong Consadole Sapporo side close in the Emperor’s Cup Second Round, were winning Division 2 (South) of the Tohoku League with a record of ten victories in ten matches.

The club have since been fixtures in the Tohoku League Division 1, their most successful season being in 2001 when Primeiro finished five points clear of TDK to take the title and so gain a place in the Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off competition: remarkably, in the space of just a few years, this new team had come within an ace of achieving the same JFL status as FC Fukushima. In a weak First Round group, Tohoku’s representatives were nevertheless squeezed out by Ueda Gentian from Hokushinetsu and the chance for promotion out of the Regional Leagues was gone.

TDK tightened their grip on the Tohoku League in subsequent seasons, taking the championship for five consecutive years before themselves moving up to the JFL. A combination of TDK’s consistency and the emergence in 2005 of Grulla Morioka has made life more difficult for smaller clubs such as Primeiro, who lack the infrastructure and a pool of players with which to piece together a strong challenge.

The club’s best season since winning the title was a second place in 2003, a campaign which saw an exciting three-way race between Primeiro, TDK and Sagawa Kyubin Tohoku. Now, however, the club are seemingly in a rut where they are unable to find a place among the stronger teams in the division but are in no danger of stumbling into a relegation battle.

2007: TDK’s promotion may unwittingly have provided a way forward for FC Primeiro – can they take advantage of the fact that Tohoku will be allocated two places in the Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off?
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