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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2005

J. WALKING

Celtic fans pin hopes on Shunsuke, their new hero in hoops


Celtic fans have not been slow in showing their support for Shunsuke Nakamura.

Jeremy Walker

Just take a look at this correspondence, following Shunsuke's Scottish Premier League debut and a recent J. Walking commentary on the strengths -- and also the weaknesses -- of the former Yokohama F. Marinos playmaker.

The first is from Simon Taylor, of Millcroft Road, Glasgow.

Simon writes: "I read your negative piece on Nakamura's move to Celtic and doubting him.

"Well, it was negative . . . no pace and 'the occasional rapier pass'?

"I've seen many times up close such players as Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne, Paolo di Canio, Pierre van Hooijdonk, John Collins, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and, last and not least, the 'God,' Henrik Larsson.

"I have studied clips online of Shunsuke and managed to get his official dvd from amazon.jp. This guy can play and he is no slouch, maybe not a speed merchant but definitely does not lack pace.

"I showed my friends footage of this guy and we were all excited. Then, on seeing him today (Aug. 6, vs Dundee United), we have felt highly emotional that a star definitely has arrived.

"On Clyde2 radio station (available to listen online) ALL the commentary team said they had never seen a debut as fantastic and brilliant as Naka's.

"He looks better than Laudrup and the other players I've mentioned in this letter, and if he does this consistently he will be held in the same esteem as our great No. 7 Larsson (now at Barcelona).

"Nakamura will take the No. 25 shirt previously worn by Lubomir Moravcik (The Magician), who had no pace and was slight but it did not matter as he had a great gift in his magical feet.

"Shunsuke Nakamura looks the same but faster. Moravcik is held in God-like status for how he and Larsson elevated us to a team of note on the European stage (at home anyway) and provided some fantastic Euro nights.

"The press are raving about him here as I listen on the radio as I type this. We have found an icon, and the 60,500 fans rose to a man and raised the roof when he was subbed with two minutes to go.

"I await, hopefully, to read something positive next time."

Well, Simon, you haven't taken long to decide that Shunsuke is a world-beater.

But to suggest, after just one game, that he looks better than your all-star list is slightly premature and optimistic, to put it mildly.

Better than Gascoigne?

Gazza, of course, only played for Rangers, but I don't think we'll ever see Shunsuke surging past four or five players from deep inside his own half and scoring from the edge of the box.

Gazza had incredible skill and a wonderful first touch, and was faster with the ball at his feet than he was without it.

He was strong and robust and could pass and score with either foot.

Scotland fans won't like to be reminded of Gazza's wonder goal for England at Wembley during Euro '96, but that said it all. To even begin to compare Shunsuke with Gascoigne is ridiculous. In fact it's not fair to Nakamura.

Yes, Shunsuke has his qualities, but he also has his faults. This is why he was not included in Japan's 2002 World Cup squad, and why he was not picked up by a bigger Italian club, or by one in Spain, after three years with modest Reggina.

Oh . . . and as for Celtic being "a team of note on the European stage" . . . were you around in 1967, Simon?

The next letter is from John Hughes, of Campbell Drive, Bearsden, Glasgow.

John writes: "Jeremy Walker wrote that the Celtic manager Gordon Strachan was expecting too much from Nakamura at Celtic.

"Having just watched his debut, Jeremy can relax. Nakamura was superb and was easily man of the match.

"The number of Japanese flags and fans was quite astonishing, and the crowd of 60,000 were very impressed with Nakamura.

"On the basis of this, he has the potential to become a legend at Celtic."

That's the word, John, "potential" -- but don't forget he's 27.

Nakamura has skill and vision, but he will quickly become a target for the midfield hatchet men.

Shunsuke will have to use his trickery to keep out of trouble, and learn to draw a line between looking after himself and over-elaborating with fancy flicks and back-heels.

The latter would be an invitation to get clobbered by Hamish McNutcase, and Shunsuke might disappear into the Inverness turf, never to be seen again.

Judging by the attention he receives in the Japanese media, especially the TV stations, anyone would think Sota Hirayama had achieved as much in the world game as Zinedine Zidane.

Hirayama's claim to Japanese fame is that he's tall (190 cm), that he soared above opposing defenders while playing for Kunimi High School, and that he led Japan's forward line at the Athens Olympics.

And when he had the chance to join a J. League club on leaving high school in Nagasaki, he chose . . . Tsukuba University.

That always seemed a strange decision for anyone with a desire to make it into the big-time.

It was a throwback to the pre-J. League days, when the likes of Masashi Nakayama, Masami Ihara, Hiroshi Nanami, Toshiya Fujita and many other future internationals went through university before joining a J. League team -- primarily because they had no choice.

But now there is a choice -- and leaving university at 22 to turn pro is about six years too late, even more, in countries with a deep soccer culture.

Hirayama seems to have realized this, eventually, and has signed a three-year contract with newly promoted Dutch club Heracles Almelo, whose home ground has an artificial pitch.

Better late than never for Hirayama, who is still far from the finished product.

Being so young and so tall, he often looked clumsy and lacked coordination, and the decision of 2004 Olympic team coach Masakuni Yamamoto to go with Hirayama proved to be folly.

He just wasn't ready for that level of play, and Yamamoto would have been much better off filling one of his three "overage" spots with a more experienced center forward, such as Takayuki Suzuki.

At least now, in a country where soccer professors can be found under every stone, Hirayama will have the chance to develop.

If he had stayed at Tsukuba University he would have marked time, and Japan would never have known how good he could be.

Player of the Week: Teddy Sheringham.

The oldest player in the English Premier League at 39, Teddy proved there is no substitute for quality with a silky finish in West Ham United's opening day 3-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers at Upton Park.

Quote of the Week: "It was our first game back in the Premier League and we knew we could get punished, and we did get punished. Now we know it's going to be a steep learning curve for us again."

-- Sunderland manager Mick McCarthy, after his newly promoted team lost 3-1 at home to Charlton Athletic.



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