According to the signpost at junction eight on the M61, the A6027 is the road to Wigan Pier. For Kieron Dyer on Wednesday night, it was the start of the road he hopes will lead to Saitama.
The turning for Horwich and Bolton North might have seemed a long way from Japan and the venue for England's opening match of the 2002 World Cup finals but there was a sign of Far Eastern promise on the slip road leading to the Reebok Stadium. "Welcome to Bolton," it proclaimed, "sponsored by Hitachi."
And so, 205 days before England's Group F match against Sweden in the Saitama Stadium, home of the Red Diamonds, the player Bobby Robson calls his "little gem" set off on his comeback from injury. The FA Barclaycard Premiership Reserve League fixture between Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United was Dyer's first match since 24 February, a 1-0 Premiership defeat for Newcastle against Manchester City, witnessed by 51,981 at St James' Park.
There were barely 500 souls in the Reebok on Wednesday night as the 22-year-old midfielder lined up for Newcastle's second team. Among them, in the back row of the West Stand, were two reporters eagerly scribbling into their notebooks as kick-off approached. "Hi," one of them said, "I'm Yohei Kasuga from the Nikkan Sports newspaper. This is Masa Mori from the Houchi newspaper." Suddenly, Japan and South Korea seemed a lot closer.
Not that the two had come to report on the long-awaited return of the injury-prone, accident-prone player Sven Goran Eriksson is eager to consider for inclusion in his World Cup plans. "No," Kasuga said. "We both cover Akinori Nishizawa and his progress in the Premier League." His progress in the Premiership Reserve League, that is. Nishizawa, the Japanese striker Sam Allardyce signed on loan from Cerezo Osaka at the start of the season, has yet to play in the actual Premiership. He has played in the Worthington Cup, against Walsall and Southampton. But, for five months the Wanderer from Shizuoka has been taking the English back-road route to the World Cup finals back home.
"He has been a bit unlucky," Kasuga said. "He scored a hat-trick on his debut in a pre-season match and was due to start the first Premiership match against Leicester but suffered a rib injury. Michael Ricketts came in and hasn't stopped scoring. I interviewed Sam Allardyce last week and he said Nishi still needs to adapt to English football. He said he's looking at Nishi long-term, though, and that Nishi's starting to talk to the players and the staff a lot more."
Communication has clearly been a problem for Nishizawa. At times on Wednesday he seemed to be on a different continent, let alone pitch, to Dean Holdsworth, his nominal striking partner. He did, however, show flashes of international quality, not least the back-heeled flick that set up the second goal in Bolton's 2-0 win. "He has played in six of the last 10 internationals for Japan," Kasuga said, "but he has had some harsh words from Philippe Troussier, the national coach. He says Nishi has to shape up."
Kieron Dyer has had similar words from Bobby Robson, though with regard to his life away from the football field. On the pitch, Bobby's little gem of a dazzler would appear to be in as sparkling shape as ever. He cruised through his comeback match with the maximum effect from the minimum of effort, his touch and movement unaffected by the shin problem that sidelined him for so long.
Starting wide on the right of midfield, drifting to the left- side berth he feels he could fill for England and settling into a central attacking midfield role, Dyer drew only one tackle before he was replaced by Diego Gavillan in the 62nd minute – with a view to a first-team return on the bench at Ipswich today. "That takes some doing," Yohei Kasuga observed. "You've got to be a clever player to put your body on the line for so long and receive just one tackle."
Dyer declared himself "reasonably happy" before boarding the bus back to Newcastle. The men from the Japanese press expect to catch up with him again next summer. "If he does get chosen, he will be one of the most popular players in Japan," Kasuga said. "One, because he's got a very creative style. Two, because he's very, very nippy. Japanese love speedy players. And three, because he's quite an original character. He's been labelled as a bad boy, but the Japanese crowd like that sort of player."Reuse content