Phil Hay Column: Leeds United and Yosuke Ideguchi - can this relationship work out?

Leeds United midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi, on international duty with Japan.
Leeds United midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi, on international duty with Japan.
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Yosuke Ideguchi was a poster boy in Japan this time last year. JSoccer Magazine, an English-language periodical published in Kobe, had his face on its front cover after his goal against Australia beat a path to the World Cup. Staff there are asking now where on earth Ideguchi is at.

This calendar year took him off the radar and farther again after the ailment which has kiboshed his loan in Germany. Ideguchi will not need surgery on an injured knee – just rest, patience and plenty of both – but Greuther Furth have no expectation of seeing him again this season. A 12-month period which should have given him a European profile and a taste of international football in its most elite form has provided a pair of crutches and little over 300 minutes of competitive sport.

Yosuke Ideguchi on the day of his transfer from Gamba Osaka to Leeds United.

Yosuke Ideguchi on the day of his transfer from Gamba Osaka to Leeds United.

Victor Orta, Leeds United’s director of football whose popularity – true to the world of football – seems to peak and trough with results, liked Ideguchi enough to set up a £500,000 transfer from Gamba Osaka four months before it went through in January. Andrea Radrizzani was in Tokyo on the night of Japan’s qualification for the World Cup. They were going with the grain of many European scouts by agreeing that Ideguchi had pedigree but the midfielder has been lost in a mist of inactivity, cultural shocks and bad luck.

Last month, Orta was quoted in an interview with SciSports, a company which supplies recruitment teams with performance analysis of almost any player a club could name, on the critical part which “transition” plays in the success of a signing. Technical ability was usually clear to the trained eye, Orta said. Mental strength was more of an estimate. But the biggest variable, the aspect of a footballer which required most consideration, was his ability to “reach the same level of performance in a new environment”.

Ideguchi would call England a new environment, a country where his compatriots are represented thinly. The Premier League saw its first Japanese player in 2001, Junichi Inamoto at Arsenal, and has seen only seven others since. The EFL has accommodated just three. There is an explanation of sorts in the fact that Japan were late to the international party and did not even figure in the qualification stages for the 1966 World Cup, but their first appearance at the finals came 20 years ago and they qualify now with a regularity which must make Scotland sob. The exposure is there but the rate of migration suggests English clubs do not attract or go actively looking for deals from the Far East.

Statistics say that fewer than one in 100 people in Japan speak English (although credit where credit is due when the number in England who speak Japanese would probably fit into a small kitchen). Ideguchi has no grasp of it and between a loan in Spain before the summer, where the cold of Leonesa got to him, and a brief time in Germany after it, he has made no inroads. He had a translator at Cultural Leonesa last season but on his return to Thorp Arch, analysis of his work under Marcelo Bielsa relied on a Japanese speaker at the other end of a Skype call. It was, Bielsa admitted, a “language barrier”.

There are others at Leeds with that hurdle in front of them but most of them better placed to cope. Samuel Saiz came to Leeds without the lingo last year but was met by a fellow Spaniard in Pablo Hernandez. Bielsa has a French translator who can speak English and Spanish and is capable of bridging different cultural gaps. There is a Japanese employee in Leeds’ recruitment department, Toshiya Fujita, but Fujita is assigned to the Asian market and has never been a day-to-day presence at Thorp Arch. Which leaves Ideguchi in a state of harsh transition: a 22-year-old 6,000 miles from home, without a recognisable voice around him.

A loan in Germany’s Bundesliga 2, a move agreed in August, was not a bad idea. Leeds achieved nothing by sending him to Cultural Leonesa in January and it was telling that in a close season of more than 20 departures from Elland Road, Cultural’s name failed to rear its head once but Japanese players have a stronger track record in Germany, one which goes back to the 1970s. German football appeals and so, they say, does German life. Cultural Leonesa refused to gamble on Ideguchi, so grave was the threat of relegation from Spain’s second division, but Greuther Furth were playing him. He was on for a full season in Bavaria. That, presumably, is the difference between a club approaching Leeds to sign him and Leeds using Cultural Leonesa as some sort of preordained development centre.

In the end, Ideguchi played four times for Greuther Furth before his knee gave way away at Dynamo Dresden last month. He scored once and, if nothing else, was at least reminded what that sensation feels like. The injury which ended Eunan O’Kane’s loan at Luton Town a month ago, a double leg fracture, was spelled out explicitly by Leeds but little has been said about Ideguchi’s condition or the timescale of his return. Surgery to a posterior cruciate ligament was avoided but, like Patrick Bamford, he has long, uneventful weeks ahead of him.

And so to the questions which must be in Ideguchi’s head: can he find a way back at Leeds, who have not used him at first-team level, and can a year of disillusionment fade into insignificance over time? They might already have been answered by the fact that his loan in Germany included an option to buy and even Greuther Furth would be investing on a wing and a prayer next summer. It is far from over for Ideguchi in terms of a contract which runs for three more seasons but it will take a gallon of inner belief to think that this is meant to be.