Taking a Hammering
Less than an hour north from downtown Tokyo on the Namboku Line and the Saitama Rapid Railway Line lies Urawa Misono station. The walk to Saitama stadium, home of one of Asia's glamour clubs Urawa Reds, is a 15-minute affair down a path lined with trucks selling all kinds of Japanese foods as well as Korean, Chinese and even Hawaiian fare. Less than thirty minutes from the centre of London, the District Line draws up right next to West Ham's stadium, though when Zeljko Petrovic left his post as assistant manager at Upton Park last November to take over at Urawa there was a storm brewing in the East London sky above the smell of burgers, hotdogs and beer.
Four months is probably not long enough to become familiar with English tabloids when you are a former Yugoslav international with a club career spent at home as well as in Spain, the Netherlands and Japan and a coaching CV that also includes Portugal and Germany. But as Petrovic passed through Heathrow airport on his way to Japan, he couldn't help but see his face plastered on the back pages. The Sun claimed that the 45-year-old had been booted out of Upton Park as players didn't like either his arrogance or training methods, or perhaps both. If that wasn't enough for a story, his reported bitter parting shot - that the Premier League was "crap" - did the rest.
"I was shocked," Petrovic tells ESPNSoccernet. "I never said any of that. I never spoke to journalists. I was assistant manager at Hamburg, Feyenoord and West Ham and I think that the assistant is not meant to talk in the newspapers but is there to support the manager and the players and not to give interviews. It is not my style."
The Montenegrin also bristles at the claim that he was fired after less than half a season in the job. According to Petrovic, who played for Urawa in the 90s and kept in regular contact with the club ever since, the Reds job was the one that he always wanted and it dropped into his lap last autumn. "We talked almost every week," he says. "When I was with Hamburg, I had in my contract that if Urawa Reds came then I had to be freed. When I joined West Ham, I talked with Avram Grant and said: 'I will come but if Urawa Reds call me I have to be free to think about that'."
The call came last October and the deal was done in London within ten minutes, though Petrovic claims that both Grant and playing staff asked him to stay until November.
"I stayed longer but, on the last day, someone put in the newspaper that I was fired. I had a fantastic relationship with the players and all the people at West Ham. Nobody fired me. Avram is my friend and he will come here next month to be my guest. He acted very correctly and never said what the problem with West Ham was. He knew from the beginning he needed four or five players but he never had the money. I think they bought and loaned some players in January but it was a little late because if you are in the relegation zone in January then it is very difficult to get out. In the Premier League, you need good material."
While West Ham were slipping out of the top tier, Petrovic was one game into his J-League coaching career. Five days after the opening game defeat at Vissel Kobe, the nation was hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami. "We had maybe more than 1,000 earthquakes in three months. It was a difficult time because we were busy training but we were thinking about people in Fukushima and Sendai. We are training but people's heads are elsewhere. We play now five games in two weeks and it is difficult. It is not an excuse because other teams play also but it is totally different."
He had to wait until April 24 to make his home debut as Urawa saw off champions Nagoya Grampus 3-0, and 42,000 fans departed happy and optimistic of a good season to come. After lifting the Asian title in 2007, Saitama Stadium had not had too much to get excited about. The team may still be the best supported in the country but is no longer number one where it really matters. It was number ten last season, leading to the departure of Volker Finke - the last in a succession of four German coaches - and the appointment of Petrovic, who stresses that he needs time to lead the team back to the top after a host of stars left the club.
"The last three seasons were very bad here. This club is a big club like Manchester United but it had a team like Bolton Wanderers, all respect to Bolton. People expect so much but you need the time to rebuild after losing players like Makoto Hasebe, Yuki Abe, Robson Ponte, Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Shinji Ono. These are all big names and fantastic players. After the big success when they won the Asian champions league and J-league, I think it was a big mistake that they didn't have a plan B.
"It is difficult to explain that to the fans and the people at the club but without a strategy you don't make progression. We have talent and now we need next year to exchange four or five players for good Japanese players who are 25 or 26 and then put them together with the good young players that we have and I am sure that that after one or two years, Urawa will be back as one of the top clubs in Asia. I have a one-year contract and I am planning for the short-term and the long-term. We have to know if I will stay longer or not. It depends on whether they are happy with the coach or not. I have a feeling that they are very happy but I am not happy with the results."
The Nagoya victory remains the team's only win and, after nine games of the season, the Reds are in the relegation zone. Petrovic is confident that the position is a false one and it wouldn't be the only such case in what has so far been a topsy-turvy season in the J-league. Newly-promoted Kashiwa Reysol are top and expected relegation battlers Vegalta Sendai and Vissel Kobe are not far behind while big guns Nagoya and Kashima Antlers struggle. "We are not playing badly. In every game we have played much better than our opponents. We are missing chances and then we make some stupid mistakes and give the ball to the striker and he scores. In three years, they lost so many games so it has become a mental question. I am starting to change this and be positive in training and focus on tactical training.
"My target is for the club to be always one of the best in Japan and to play in the Asian Champions League and be one of the best in Asia. We are improving and our young players are progressing and playing better."
Despite the poor start, he has no regrets about leaving England for Japan. "The fans are the best in the world - perhaps Boca Juniors are the other. They love football here. They are always supportive. If you are losing 5-0, they will support you for 90 minutes. After the game they can be angry but when it matters, they are fantastic.
"The West Ham fans were fantastic too. I was proud to work for a team with such a history in a league like the Premier League but I am very happy to be in Japan and especially here with Urawa. This is a great place to play football."