SINGAPORE – It could be the language barrier, or his introverted nature, but Keiji Shigetomi is a man not prone to overstatements.
Even then, the normally reticent Albirex Niigata coach admitted being in charge of the Japanese club comes with high expectations.
Through a translator, he told The Straits Times: “Albirex have been successful in recent year, and so the pressure to win the league is there. It was the same in 2019 and this year, and I am thankful to the club management for their support.”
The stress is real because Albirex had claimed a hat-trick of Singapore Premier League (SPL) titles from 2016 to 2018 – the White Swans even went unbeaten in the last season – but after Shigetomi took over from Kazuaki Yoshinaga in 2019, the club slipped to fourth that campaign.
However, Shigetomi, 41, has a chance to emulate his predecessor and become an SPL champion himself if his side win at Hougang United on Saturday (Dec 5) in the season finale.
Albirex lead the table on 29 points, one ahead of Tampines Rovers who host Geylang International on the same evening.
Albirex manager Koh Mui Tee explained why the club kept faith with Shigetomi despite the dip in results.
He said: “There were mitigating factors, such as the rule change for us to play two local players in the first half. We have known Shigetomi for many years, and we wanted to give a rookie head coach more time to develop.”
Shigetomi played high school football but it was the tactical aspect of the game that appealed to him and he went on to coach at Oshu Soccer Club as a 20-year-old.
He then coached the Sanfrecce Hiroshima youth teams before being invited by Albirex chairman Daisuke Korenaga to join the Albirex Niigata Soccer School in Singapore in 2014.
In 2018, the Shimane native expressed his interest to be involved with the senior team and was appointed Yoshinaga’s assistant.
He said: “I learnt many things from coach Yoshinaga in terms of tactics and man-management. When I took over, I applied what I learnt and added my own philosophy of pressing and attacking football.”
He places a premium on fitness in his six-day morning training sessions as well, and in an SPL season cut short and truncated by the coronavirus pandemic, that ability to outrun and outlast their opponents has been decisive for Albirex, who have scored 10 of their 31 goals this season in the last 15 minutes of their matches.
Since the competition’s restart on Oct 18, they have compiled the best record in the eight-team league and won eight of their 10 games even with two losses to Tampines.
The Stags however, have been more inconsistent, losing once and drawing four times in that same period.
While Albirex are poised to claim their fourth championship in five years, they have had their detractors. Geylang coach Noor Ali, after a 1-0 defeat last month, was critical of the Japanese club and said they were one dimensional and unlike the free-flowing, attacking version of past Albirex team’s.
Shigetomi responded: “The winning teams from 2016 and 2018 had their own unique qualities. And in 2018, we had SPL Player of the Year Wataru Murofushi, Golden Boot winner Shuhei Hoshino and Young Player of the Year Adam Swandi, to carry the team.
“This year, my team are balanced, and every Japanese and local player have been key. They have been brave and showed their strong will to win by giving their all even deep into added time.
“We will do the same at Hougang. They may be without their imports but they still have many good players such as Shawal Anuar, Shahfiq Ghani and Anders Aplin, and we will not underestimate them.
“It will be an honour to win the SPL with this group, but first we must focus on securing the three points.”
Five questions with Shigetomi
Q: Which team or personality has been an inspiration in your football journey?
A: I started to like football when J.League began in 1993. Recently, I’m also impressed with the football Yokohama F. Marinos play under Ange Postecoglu when they won the league last season.
Q: If you could coach any footballer, who would it be?
A: My current team has given me a lot of joy in coaching, so I don’t think about coaching anyone else outside my team in particular.
Q: What’s the weirdest fan request you have received?
A: Most fans ask for autographs or wefies, thankfully I have had no weird requests so far.
Q: If you could go anywhere in the universe, where would you go and why?
A: If I am not doing football, I would be reading a novel in my room. I don’t think about going anywhere else.
Q: If you could have only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
A: I’m not fussy about food. Anything with kopi-o-kosong peng (iced black coffee without sugar) will do.