The Japanese Newcastle
Gamba Osaka 1-0 Vegalta Sendai (26:11:11)
Newcastle United fan Michael Hudson travels to Osaka to see the Japanese version of... Newcastle United...
There are two ways of getting from Nagoya to Osaka by train. The Shinkansen takes just under an hour and will set you back the best part of sixty quid each way; a combination of local and rapid trains is more than twice as long, half the price and perfectly timed to allow you to read at least halfway through the Blizzard while sitting next to a bloke in a gauze face mask whose head keeps falling against your right shoulder. Like the recent Manchester derby, there wasn’t any contest.
My meticulously planned timetable almost goes awry when I’m late leaving my flat, the ten-minute sprint to the station bringing on a sweat which at least ensures the neighbouring seat stays empty until we’re halfway to Kyoto. I go straight through the ancient capital then jump on the wrong train when I change in Osaka and end up travelling half the way back. It’s just turned half past twelve by the time I get to the Expo ’70 Commemorative Park, home of Gamba Osaka’s ageing Banpaku Stadium, and the first person I see as I get off the monorail is Ben Mabley, Blizzard contributor, Gamba ultra and my host for the day. “Welcome to Osaka,” he says, buying the first of many Suntory Premium Malts.
As we drink, we talk J.League, the Glazers, Twitter, Takashi Usami (the 19-year-old midfielder currently on loan at Bayern Munich), Gamba’s proposed new stadium – called, tentatively I hope, the Field of Smile - and Akira Nishino, whose contract the club declined to renew after a decade in charge, one J.League title, three domestic cups and an Asian Champions League. We separate at kick off when Ben goes to join the ultras in the sold-out home end and I mix in (if you can ever use that phrase when you’re the only person in five hundred not wearing a yellow shirt) with the Vegalta Sendai fans at the opposite side of the pitch. Smoke bombs explode above the blue and black Gamba flags as the Vegalta support – led by a man with a megaphone and Unity Japan t-shirt – run through a repertoire including songs to the tune of Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ by The Ramones and ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’.
Howay The ガンバ大阪
With two games left and Gamba four points behind leaders Kashiwa Reysol, the home side are unsurprisingly nervy, even after South Korean striker Lee Keun-ho heads them into a 22nd minute lead. Fortunately, most of Vegalta’s chances fall to Shingo Akimine, whose efforts at goal land as wide of the mark as an editorial in the Daily Mail. At the final whistle, with Kashiwa dropping two points at home to Cerezo Osaka, both sets of players line up to bow to the crowd, Nishino takes to the pitch, and I slip out to meet Ben back at the bar. After staying back to help the other ultras to tidy up the stand, he arrives twenty minutes later and introduces me as a Newcastle fan. “Newcastle?” an English-speaker asks excitedly, stretching the first syllable like a pair of knee-length socks. "A lot of Gamba fans think of themselves as the Japanese Newcastle," Ben explains. "As cities, they have a very similar relationship to the rest of the country and the same kind of accents." “Newcastle played here in 1996,” another of the ultras tells me. “Ferdinand, Asprilla…they were pissed off that the crowd wasn’t very big but our football culture wasn't developed at the time and most Japanese fans only knew Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Now everyone knows of Newcastle as one of the biggest clubs." I’m starting to like Gamba Osaka by this point. I really, really am.
Erm.... answers on a postcard please
Back off Napoli
I like them even more a couple of hours and a subway ride later when Ben and I are the only foreigners at the Gamba ultras’ end of season party. All-you-can-drink-and-eat for £25, and this being Japan there’s a longer queue for the buffet than the beer. “We’ll be back lots,” Ben tells the barman in Japanese as the singing kicks off in the centre of the room. I load up a paper plate with spaghetti, Vienna sausage and pizza slices, chug another Suntory beer and shake hands about twenty times with a fan whose only words of English are ‘Michael’, ‘Newcastle’ and, in what’s clearly a dig at the pink shirts of city rivals Cerezo Osaka, ‘Pig fuckers’. Or that’s what I kept telling myself, anyway. Ben winds up translating as the ultras quiz me on the “Tyne-Wear derby” and English fan culture. “English fans look very excited,” someone says. “Well, sometimes,” I reply, thinking the afternoon’s atmosphere was far louder than in most Premier League grounds, St James’ Park included. The night ends on Ben’s sofa, convenience store cans to hand, watching Newcastle United grab a draw at Old Trafford. It’s better than we managed in Osaka – in 1996 they stuffed us 3-1.
Michael is the editor of The Accidental Groundhopper