Letter From Tokyo: Perryman embraces team ethic

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JAPAN HAS a long tradition of inviting foreign experts to come and share their wisdom. During the 19th century, it brought over hundreds of scientists and engineers to reveal the wonders of Western military and industrial technology. Into that august tradition, Steve Perryman fits somewhat incongruously: a bulky Londoner shouting himself hoarse in this country of willowy figures and polite understatement. Yet in Shizuoka, home of Mount Fuji, hot springs and green tea fields, Perryman has helped raise the standards of Japanese football, moulding arguably the best team in Japan.

Perryman came to Shimizu S-Pulse four years ago as assistant manager to Osvaldo Ardiles, succeeding as manager last year. Since then he has taken them to the final of the Emperor's Cup - the Japanese equivalent of the FA Cup - and guided them to their first J-League "stage" win.

The J-League's byzantine system consists of a season of two halves and unless the same team wins both "stages", the two winners play home and away to decide the champions. Shimizu would have been champions if their total points had been added together. Instead, they lost the championship on penalties on Saturday, after fighting back from one game down and a goal down in the second game. With 10 men, having played the better football. Put simply, they were robbed.

Not bad for a team that has been on a shoestring budget since a brush with bankruptcy two years ago. Perryman still habitually gives most of the credit for the team's success to Ardiles, but has done well to develop the club without money to buy big players. "Ossie said if we haven't got as much money as other clubs we've got to be cleverer. And that's what we've done. We're used what we've got," Perryman says. Unable to support a big squad or afford superstar foreigners, they have concentrated on team players who could help inspire and improve the Japanese core.

It has helped that Shizuoka is Japan's footballing heartland. Here "soccer" reigns supreme in schools, breeding a slew of the country's finest players, including the erstwhile superstar Kazu. Nanami is now at Venezia and Ono was recently rumoured to have attracted the interest of Manchester United. For Perryman this has meant a steady supply of cheap young talent coming up. Even one of his foreign players, the 22-year-old Alex, is a local hire - he was brought from Brazil by a particularly keen local high school. In fact, this year's championship game was an all-Shizuoka affair, with Shimizu's nemesis, Jubilo Iwata, fielding an even more predominantly local team.

But even as they lost the championship, Shimizu have won many admirers throughout Japan, becoming the team you support when your own side is not playing. It is a vindication of the fair play Perryman has tried to teach: "You've got to show respect to the crowd. They pay their money to see the ball in play. Also, these are developing players - they should be concentrating on learning the game. I tell them, `Don't waste your energy cheating. We're going to play football'." It is ironic that it was a player dismissed for retaliation on Saturday that may have put the championship beyond Shimizu.

But Shimizu are about more than just fair play. "Our first job at this club was to develop a style. When it comes to the crunch in a game, the opposition may be better players individually, but the team with more knowledge and belief in what they do will get the result," Perryman said. "We developed this style of very quick passing - moving the ball and finding a space. It's a style that was realistic for our players and they took to it." The game plan does not always work perfectly, with passes finding the opposition rather too often. But if it is not quite the beautiful game, it is a step closer to it.

Perryman believes Japan has made him a better manager and helped him forget the disillusionment of his unhappy spell as the Tottenham assistant manager. "[Wim] Jansen went to Celtic from a not particularly successful season at Sanfrecce to win the title away from Rangers for the first time in 10 years. Arsene Wenger went to Arsenal and did the Double in his first full season. Wenger said Japan gave him back his belief in football. You've got the right equipment, the right staff, and players who listen to your every word; they suck the knowledge out of you. You're not running up and down the country scouting four days a week. Particularly in England, you get pulled in all directions. Here, you're relaxed and you get back to what you do best, teaching how to play football. You're free to focus on the game."

Perryman is relishing the challenge of facing Ardiles, who is coming back to manage Yokohama F Marinos after being dropped by Croatia Zagreb. Some speculate that these two might be the right men to lead the Japanese national team in the 2002 World Cup.

But Perryman ultimately plans to return home. "If it were just the football I would stay here as long as they want me, but I've got people I love in England and it's where I want my little girl to be educated. Eventually I will have to get a job there." When that day comes, he will be sorely missed in Japan. But if his track record here is anything to go by, it will be to the benefit of English football.