Japanese cult hero Shunsuke Nakamura loved his time in Scotland so much that he stayed two years longer than he had originally planned despite seeing a decrease in the quality of player lining up alongside him at Celtic Park. For the last few years Celtic fans have been complaining about the downsizing of the team and yesterday Shunsuke Nakamura confirmed that the players themselves had concerns as they watched top class players like Sutton and Hartson leave the club without ever being replaced.
"The standard in Scotland was better when I arrived than it was when I left," said the Japanese midfielder. "Good players left Celtic, and other clubs, during those four years. The first two years, it was better, and we did well in the Champions League. Money played a part when clubs came in to buy players. John Hartson, for example, was a very big player for Celtic when I first arrived but richer clubs came in and took players away from us. That made it much harder to compete in Europe. Sometimes it was a good sign, though, that other clubs and countries wanted players from Scotland."
"I initially planned to stay a shorter time at Celtic." he said. "Peter Lawwell, the coach and the players helped persuade me to stay. There were great people and I stayed for four years eventually. I wanted to make some good results, win some titles and play in the Champions League. I am 31 now and sometimes I do feel I should have gone to Spain or somewhere else at 29 but life is life. I do not regret playing at Celtic for four years and they gave me the step to move to Spain after Italy. I had offers in my third year to leave Glasgow but I made the decision to stay, in discussion with Peter Lawwell."
"There were rumours about coming back to Japan to Marinos and so on but that fell through," said the Espanyol midfielder. "There was an offer from Celtic to carry on but I think they knew what I thought. I didn't really talk to Tony Mowbray, to be honest, but he understood my intentions. It was time to move on. The club did ask me to stay but they knew it was my decision, a Bosman situation. I let them know my wishes. I didn't know that Gordon was leaving late last season. His decision was not connected to mine. I was in my fourth year of my contract and it was running towards its end. It was time for me to try somewhere else and have a new challenge. As a player, you have a chance sometimes to move on."
"Each league has its own level. Scottish football is high level in some respects, it is physical and so on, but in Spain I can control the ball more," said Naka. "I didn't have time on the ball in Scotland. The pitches were often very wet and spongy. Sometimes that affected the way teams play. In Spain, there is more focus on passing. It is a completely different culture from Glasgow and high level soccer again for me. At this minute I am struggling to adjust to life at Espanyol rather than finding my best form or enjoying it as yet. Let me just say it is a different style of football."
The Japanese maestro took a moment to recall his favourite moments in the Hoops and, maybe surprisingly for some, the free-kick against Manchester United in the Champions League isn't his most cherished goal for the Celts. That honour goes to the injury-time strike against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park in April 2007 which clinched the League title and saw the ecstatic Japanese hero, shirt swinging above his head, diving into the rapturous away support. "I scored that goal against Manchester United in the Champions League that the fans all talk about but the one against Kilmarnock gave me more pleasure," he said. "I think you can see that in the pictures when I took my shirt off, but I don't reflect on the past. I am looking to the future now."
He has a slight thigh strain and it's unlikely that he'll play the full ninety minutes today but Naka will make an appearance and he'll also grab the chance to catch up with his old friends Heid and Hoof and he's looking forward to seeing them in Yokohama. "It will be nice to see Stephen McManus and Gary Caldwell again," he said. "I was sorry to see Scotland failed to make the World Cup play-offs in the final games but maybe this is a new start for them. Now they have another goal to aim for and I wish Scotland all the best."
Stephen McManus is also looking forward to catching up with a player he regards as one of the finest talents he's ever played with, in fact second only to the legendary Henrik Larsson in terms of quality. "Naka's a genius." said the Celtic captain. "Him and Henrik are probably the two best I've ever played with and it will be nice to see him again. Henrik for me is the best I've played with and he is untouchable. But Naka has also been one of the best I've worked alongside."