How the devilishly talented Shunsuke Nakamura became a Celtic legend

How the devilishly talented Shunsuke Nakamura became a Celtic legend

Despite its relative success, it’s fair to say that Celtic fans don’t look back as fondly on Gordon Strachan’s stint as manager as they do on Martin O’Neill’s five-year tenure. O’Neill put Celtic back on top in Scottish football, breaking over a decade of dominance from Rangers. He also earned respect in Europe as the likes of Juventus, Lyon and Porto all suffered defeats at Celtic Park in the Champions League, while the Bhoys reached the UEFA Cup final in 2003.

Strachan took the job in 2005, a year after Henrik Larsson’s departure and at a time when the backbone of O’Neill’s side were retiring or past their best. If Larsson was the talisman of the O’Neill era, Strachan would have to find someone to lift the side at a time when costs were being cut and Rangers had just won their second title in three years.

His reign got off to the worst possible start with an unimaginable capitulation in Slovakia, the Hoops losing 5-0 to Artmedia Bratislava in the Champions League qualifying round. Despite almost turning things around in the return leg, a 4-0 win in Glasgow saw Celtic out of Europe just days after the domestic campaign had started.

It was always going to be a season of transition but things had looked ominous in the chaotic 4-4 draw at Motherwell on Matchday One. Strachan’s new full-backs Paul Telfer and Mo Camara were unconvincing and Chris Sutton was injured. But the following week, Celtic fans would get their first look at the man who would become the talisman of the Strachan years. 

Japanese playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura had been signed from Reggina for around £2.5m and a quick Google search would have indicated that this was quite the coup for the Bhoys. J League Player of the Year in 2000 and MVP in Japan’s Asian Cup triumph in 2004, Nakamura was a player of some pedigree. Playing with Serie A strugglers Reggina wasn’t the best platform for his creative talent, but Celtic were a club with strong attacking traditions and always challenging for honours.

Nakamura made an eye-catching debut in the 2-0 victory at home to Dundee United, almost opening his scoring account with a free-kick that swerved narrowly wide. Any fans who had doubted the wisdom of such a signing would have been more convinced that this was a player brought to Glasgow for his talent and not to give Celtic more exposure in the Japanese market. 

But it wasn’t long before the dinosaurs in the Scottish media started to make patronising references to Nakamura’s physical stature. On matchday four, Celtic were beaten 3-1 by Rangers at Ibrox and Nakamura was substituted in the 54th minute after an ineffective performance. This was evidence for some that the Japanese star might be too “lightweight” for the physical demands of the Scottish game. The fact that Celtic midfielder Alan Thompson had been sent off in the 23rd minute of the match hardly helped. 

But Nakamura quickly set about proving any doubters wrong, netting his first Celtic goal in the 4-0 win at Dunfermline the following week and putting in consistently impressive performances as the Bhoys’ slow start to the season was put firmly behind them. Rangers were beaten in the League Cup and twice in the league, with Hearts offering the biggest challenge at the top of the table.

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Nakamura picked up his first winners medal as Dunfermline were beaten 3-0 in the League Cup final. Celtic ultimately romped to the title, a 1-0 victory at home to Hearts making them Scottish champions with six games to spare. 

The following weekend, Nakamura put the icing on the cake as fans basked in the celebrations. A 4-1 win at Kilmarnock featured two glorious strikes from the Samurai Blue star, the first a free-kick and the second a great finish after a wonderful piece of skill put a defender on his backside.

In his first year in Glasgow, Nakamura had made himself a regular and picked up two pieces of silverware But it was the 2006/07 season that really etched the midfielder into Celtic folklore. The Bhoys began the league campaign expecting a renewed challenge from Rangers, who had appointed Paul Le Guen as manager. 

Thomas Gravesen had arrived at Celtic from Real Madrid, while one of Scotland’s most promising talents, Scott Brown, joined from Hibs. But it was destined to be Nakamura’s season.

He netted yet another free-kick as Strachan’s men won 4-1 at home to Kilmarnock on the opening day of the season. It was notable that the team that started the game featured just three players from the O’Neill era. Neil Lennon, John Hartson, and Chris Sutton had all moved on, while Stilyan Petrov, one of the three, would soon join Aston Villa.

Alan Thompson and Bobo Baldé were out of favour, meaning Strachan had effectively got rid of or sidelined all of the  characters who had contributed so much to Celtic’s success in the first half of the decade. It had taken him just over a year. It was apparent that Strachan struggled to manage some of these players and some exits also cut costs again. 

But there was little impact on the pitch as Rangers’ challenge failed to materialise and Celtic defeated them decisively in their first league meeting. 

It was in the Champions League that Nakamura really made his mark in the autumn. Celtic lost the first match of the group stage, going down 3-2 to Manchester United at Old Trafford. Nakamura had curled in a free-kick to level the score at 2-2 before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hit the winner in the second half. At the time there was disappointment, but Nakamura’s contribution would prove decisive.

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After home wins over Copenhagen and Benfica, Celtic hosted Manchester United on a famous night at Parkhead. With nine minutes of the match remaining and the score at 0-0, Nakamura lined up a free-kick from fully 30 yards. Edwin van der Sar was in the United goal and it looked ambitious even for Celtic’s number 25. 

But Nakamura’s connection was perfect as he got the right height, power and swerve on the ball to plant it into top right hand corner beyond the Dutchman’s despairing dive. The drama was not over as Artur Boruc had to save a Louis Saha penalty to secure a 1-0 victory for Celtic. 

It is a moment that has gone down in Celtic history. Not only was it possibly the best free-kick ever struck by a player at the club, it also secured qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time since the tournament was introduced in place of the European Cup. 

Celtic’s two away goals in Manchester ensured they had the better head-to-head record between the teams and this was what secured their progress on the night.

AC Milan stood in the way of the Scottish giants and a first place in the quarter-finals of Europe’s top club competition since 1980. After a goalless first leg in Glasgow, the Italians were expected to complete the job in Milan, but Celtic battled hard and were controversially denied a penalty when Nakamura was bundled over in the area.

Kaká’s solo goal in extra-time eventually won the tie for the team that would go on to win the tournament that year. But it had been an excellent campaign for Celtic, with Nakamura pivotal to their success.

Domestically, he shone again, with notable highlights including a hat-trick against Dundee United in October, a sublime chip against the same opponents in December, and a free-kick against, yes, Kilmarnock that kick-started a comeback win.

Seven consecutive wins had Celtic cruising to another league title but they hit a wall in March. Two defeats and a draw in three games their halted progress and Rangers fine form since Walter Smith replaced the hapless Le Guen kept the Bhoys waiting.

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A tetchy 1-0 win at home to Motherwell in early April meant they could finally clinch the title with a victory at Kilmarnock two weeks later. It was another nervous afternoon for the stuttering side as they conceded after Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink’s opener, with all the signs pointing to as draw. But in added time, Nakamura was fouled about five yards outside the Killie penalty area. The distance looked fine but the angle wasn’t the most favourable.

Nakamura’s effort wrong-footed the goalkeeper as it arced low into the far corner of the net. The Japan star celebrated wildly, ripping his shirt off in a show of emotion rarely seen. Later that evening, he received the Players’ Player of the Year award, capping an extraordinary campaign. 

Celtic’s end-of-season form, however, was somewhat ominous. Having struggled to get over the line, they then seemed to down tools somewhat, losing three of the last four games. They roused themselves sufficiently to win the Scottish Cup final 1-0 against Dunfermline, thus sealing a league and cup double and the fourth medal in two years for Nakamura.

With Rangers revitalised by the return of Smith as manager, they would  offer a much stiffer test the following year. The Hoops again progressed to the last 16 of the Champions League, with wins at home to Benfica, AC Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk proving enough. But Nakamura didn’t play a significant role due to fading form and injury. 

Aiden McGeady was preferred to him for the victory over Milan and he missed the wins over Benfica and Shakhtar through injury. He returned for the round of 16 defeat to Barcelona but Celtic’s hopes of a third league title in succession looked doomed when they suffered consecutive losses to league leaders Rangers and Motherwell.

They were six points behind Rangers, who had two games in hand. Crucially, however, Celtic and Rangers still had to face each other twice. Three weeks after a damaging defeat at Ibrox, Celtic hosted Rangers knowing that anything other than a win would all but end their title hopes.

It was on this evening that Nakamura wrote yet another chapter in Celtic history with an excellent performance. He opened the scoring with what many consider the best strike of his time at the club. Midway inside the Rangers half, he controlled the ball on the stretch with one touch, moved forward and smashed in a swerving shot on the half volley from 30 yards out. The movement on the ball completely deceived goalkeeper Allan McGregor, who first moved to his left before the ball veered violently to his right. 

Celtic dominated the first half but couldn’t add to their lead and a Rangers revival saw them early in the second half. With a point very much a good result for the visitors, they sat back and invited pressure – and Nakamura almost made the decisive contribution. 

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He would have struck his second spectacular goal of the night if Carlos Cuellar hadn’t handled his shot from just inside the penalty area, stopping it from hitting the top corner. Celtic had a penalty and Cuellar was sent off but Scott McDonald missed his effort. Deep into added time, however, Vennegoor of Hesselink headed in the winner to keep Celtic’s title hopes alive.

Eleven days later, they beat Rangers 3-2 at Parkhead. The visitors’ growing frustration was summed up the dying moments as Steven Whittaker was red-carded for a nasty swipe on Nakamura as he ran down the clock.

The two victories over their rivals were part of a seven-match winning streak that saw Celtic overcome the odds to win their third title in a row – the first time the Hoops had put together such a sequence since lifting nine in a row under Jock Stein in the 1960s and 70s. 

Unfortunately for Nakamura and Strachan, the sequence would end there. The spirited run to overhaul Rangers couldn’t mask the fact that this was a team in decline. The title race was close again in 2008/09 but Rangers prevailed this time, with Celtic’s victory over their rivals in the League Cup final their consolation.

It was time for both Nakamura and Strachan to move on in what was a disappointing end to a trophy-laden four years together. Nakamura had a brief spell at Espanyol in LaLiga but it was a move that didn’t really work out and he would soon return to former club Yokohama F. Marinos at the age of 31. Now 40, he continues to play in the J League for Jubilo Iwata.

Looking back on his career, his spell at Celtic  stands out due to some of the high-profile goals and his overall impact. He was a standout player in a team that otherwise lacked some of the flair for which Celtic are renowned. 

Strachan’s pragmatic approach made the best of some of the limited players he had. The central defensive pairing of Gary Caldwell and Stephen McManus was one that never convinced but somehow it helped them achieve success domestically and in Europe. But Nakamura was the key ingredient, providing the creative genius and often producing at the vital moments. 

Celtic have had some excellent players in recent years, especially from abroad, with the likes of Victor Wanyama, Virgil van Dijk and Moussa Dembélé among those who have graced the Parkhead turf. However, there has arguably been no player with Nakamura’s skill set in the nine years since he left. 

By Paul Murphy @Paulmurphybkk

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