A destabilisation plot, reluctant senior players, inadequate resources. This is the real story of what went down at Vegalta Sendai.
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9 Apr 2014 - 3:08 PM  UPDATED 14 May 2014 - 1:26 PM

Rising steep into the hills behind Vegalta Sendai’s training ground in the north of the city is the rather unlikely sight of a cemetery.

As Graham Arnold arrived for training every day it would have been the first thing he saw and for much of the time it would have felt that the souls of the dead were conspiring to have him join them.

Today many of the other elderly spirits at the club got their wish as Sendai and Arnold parted ways by mutual consent.

I’ve just returned from Sendai and feel it important to give some context over what happened at the club because for many – both inside and outside Japan – it’s easy to look purely at results and form the opinion that Arnold was a 'failure.’

Many in Australia have this notion that J.League clubs are walking about tripping over yen with unlimited resources at their disposal.

Here’s the reality from Sendai.

All of the club’s domestic transfer dealings during the off-season were undertaken by their 'sporting director,’ a man who has been at the club for twenty years and who, until five years ago, was the kit man.

This was the same man who told the coaching staff during the off-season that there were no good Japanese players available. Since then several who were available have shone at their new club.

The former coach of one of those players the club did buy told me privately that he couldn’t believe Sendai had picked him up.

This was also the same 'kit-man/sporting director’ who sanctioned the transfer of the side’s former long-serving goalkeeper, the highly-regarded Takuto Hayashi, and then failed in a series of bungles to bring in a replacement keeper.

That left Arnold with two keepers with just a single J.League appearance between them until, after repeated pleas, the club allowed Danny Vukovic to be signed on loan – after the season had begun.

These were the same people also refused to allow Arnold to sign Tom Rogic – the type of creative player the squad is craving.

All of which meant that the side was, by far, the oldest in the division with a remarkable third of the squad over the age of 30 – many of them on big money.

By contrast the group contained five players under the age of 25.

There was also a ridiculous imbalance in the positional makeup of the squad with just one front-line striker, half a dozen defenders and almost 15 midfielders.

When Arnold asked one of the players the 'sporting director’ had signed as a left-back what he felt the strengths in his game were he replied that he wasn’t and had never played as a left fullback.

It’s my understanding that a proposal was put to the club to 'move-on’ four of the veterans that were taking up almost $3 million of the club’s budget and bring in a half dozen or so of the best young players in the country.

The idea was rejected outright and Arnold was constantly told he’d have to wait until June to make any moves, not that it would have helped because Vegalta doesn’t employ a domestic scout.

Arnold had resorted to having satellite TV installed at his apartment and was poring over matches from the second division trying to unearth potential recruits by himself.

He must have thought he was still on the Central Coast.

For a coach who is defined in many ways by two philosophies – working with youth and leaning heavily on man-management – the reality on the ground at Sendai was far bleaker than he could have imagined.

He’d walked into a club which, since 1997, had only had two non-Japanese managers and both of those lasted barely a year.

For the past six years the side was controlled by Makoto Teguramori, the current Olympic boss who jumped ship at the right time with the aging squad at the end of its cycle and in need of regeneration.

This was Arnold’s brief but it was always going to be a daunting task; privately several other J.League managers had told him he had the toughest job in Japanese football and that to just keep the club from relegation would be a tough ask.

It was a job made much harder by the resistance to change from several of the older players; many of whom had been plotting against him from the inside.

For starters when Arnold and his respected fitness coach, Andrew Clark, arrived at the club they were shocked to find that much of Sendai’s gym had been re-made into a games and relaxation room for the players.

In fact, before Clark’s arrival the club hadn’t had a fitness coach for the past four years. When the gym was quickly put back in place, the older players set about putting Clark and Arnold in theirs.

It’s my understanding that a majority of the 'veterans’ simply refused to alter their ways in regards to physical training and the results were evident in the training sessions and matches I observed during my time in Japan.

Sprint drills through cones or exercises over the 'ladder hurdles’ would find the older players going at half pace – either by choice or design. The sessions late in the week had to be adjusted to accommodate them and the fade out in matches was also evident and crucial.

The problems with trying to manage a group containing many set in their ways also caused confusion, right the way back to the pre-season when Arnold was confronted with this story:

At a training camp in the south of Japan he realised that one of his squad players whose wife was due to give birth had left for a few days and upon his return asked him about the delivery.

To which the player replied he hadn’t thought to go, rather he was getting treatment on an injury.

For a man such as Arnold it was an unfathomable challenge; other times when he tried to ask about a player’s family life or any issues away from football he was met by a nervous silence.

During the build-up to one of the league matches he spoke with a player he was about to recall to the starting team who refused to look him in the eye. When told of his selection simply shrugged, 'why?’

Despite the challenges and the resistance of the older players the former Mariners coach had managed to transform much of the way the side played and for long periods in most matches the side was playing a short-passing style, with crisp movement in midfield - a total contrast to the long-ball approach preferred by Teguramori.

The side was pressing quickly and sharply to win back possession and in many matches it managed to dictate the tempo for large periods. In the end though the team, through a combination of factors, was rarely able to complete a 90-minute performance of sustained quality.

Some of it had to do with injury to key players, some with copping red-cards, some with harsh penalty calls. Many of the results were down to poor defensive reads or positioning and a number of missed chances.

It would have been easy for Arnold to have continued the way the side had been playing previously; lumping it forward looking for knockdowns or second balls for the Brazilian striker Wilson to feed on.

The results may have changed but the need for a deeper, cultural and generational shift would have remained.

This is now the challenge for the man who has taken over; former player and assistant coach Susumu Watanabe.

It’s a challenge he clearly wanted. Last year he hadn’t acquired the requisite coaching licences to assume control from Teguramori.

Now he does.

It was clear from observing him at both training and in matches that he was doing as little as possible to assist Arnold and from what other sources at the club have told me he was, in concert with several senior players, actively conspiring to oust Arnold.

The same group of senior players who were laughing and joking on the team bus on their way to last weekend’s loss at Urawa – much to the surprise of those who had played abroad – now have one of their own who has vowed to build 'a new chapter in the club’s history.’

He might want to start by asking the club to employ a scout and move aside the former kit man in charge of transfer dealings and then by having a look at the work of his predecessor: slowly implementing a fundamental change to a side ingrained in an 'un-Japanese’ style of football.

Whatever the bare results tell you – and admittedly they make for average reading – it’s far, far from the complete story at a club in real need of a cultural overhaul.

If only the dead could talk.