Takumi Horiike laughs out loud as he recalls clashing with a headstrong Reo Hatate when he coached the Celtic transfer target during his university days.
A former defender capped for Japan 58 times, Horiike has been coach and assistant professor at Juntendo University, an hour northeast of Tokyo, since 2015. Hatate joined the following year, and soon made an impression, not only for his skills and work rate, but also for his confidence and sometimes fiery attitude.
“One time we were playing a friendly against a J League team and Hatate made a run down the wing and cut inside. One of his senior teammates was running at goal, and we were shouting at him to square it. But he didn’t pass, tried to go all the way by himself and ended up shooting into the side netting from a tight angle,” says Horiike.
Ignoring advice from a senior player let alone a coach is rare in hierarchical Japan, but Hatate went one step further.
“Next thing, while the game is still going on, he comes tearing up to the bench, howling, ‘Am I not allowed to shoot or what?’ at me, the coach, in front of everyone,” recalls Horiike, laughing at the memory of his former player’s cheek.
Horiike had to give Hatate a dressing down after the game and decided to have a private chat with him about his attitude at a restaurant near the university.
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Telling Hatate he wouldn’t be able to pick him if he didn’t show more respect, the coach was taken aback when the player told him, “If that’s the way it is, fine, don’t use me.”
The meeting was over in less than five minutes but Horiike gave his player time to cool down and sat waiting in his car outside the restaurant. It wasn’t long before his phone rang and Hatate was asking if they could talk again.
“This time we chatted for about two hours sitting in the car and straightened things out,” says Horiike. “There were a few incidents with him but he learned and grew from them. By the time he was in his final years, he used to talk to the younger players and give them advice.”
Horiike believes that one of the advantages of many Japanese players going to university for four years before turning pro is that it gives them a chance to grow up, while also getting an education in case their football career doesn’t pan out. His two sons both played football for Juntendo University and the older one is now a TV commentator.
Hatate, 24, has sporting blood in his veins and his father Koji was a professional baseball player who represented Japan and went on to be a coach. But for Hatate junior, it was always going to be football and he has dreamed of playing overseas since he was at Shizuoka Gakuen, a football powerhouse that won the national high school football championship last year.
“His high school is known for good technical players who are comfortable playing with the ball at their feet,” says Horiike. “But as well as solid technique, the physical side of his game has always been strong, plus he has decent speed and good defensive qualities.”
Versatility is his other great strength and Hatate has played as a striker, side-half, left-back and defensive midfielder at various stages for his university, Kawasaki Frontale and the Japan Olympic team.
Despite Hatate’s occasional temperamental behaviour, he always put in the effort in training, according to Horiike, who remembers having to order him off the ground when he stayed behind practicing by himself for too long.
Scouted by multiple J League clubs while at university, in Hatate’s third year in 2018 he accepted an offer from Kawasaki Frontale, attracted by the team’s attacking style of football.
That was the same year Ange Postecoglou took over at Yokohama F. Marinos, and by the time Hatate arrived at Kawasaki in 2020, the Greek-Australian manager was all too aware of the threat from the nearby rivals.
In 2017, Toru Oniki was promoted from assistant manager to the top job at Kawasaki, a team which had previously only won the second division title. He led the club to league titles in his first two seasons, then the league cup in his third season, followed by a league and Emperor’s Cup double in 2020, and the league again this year. The run of league titles was only broken in 2019 by Yokohama under Postecoglou.
Kawasaki’s record-breaking success and the attractive football played by many of its young talents, including Hatate, has attracted a great deal of interest from Europe. This summer, Kaoru Mitoma, 24, left Kawasaki for Brighton, and went straight on loan to Belgium club Union SG, while Ao Tanaka, 23, went to Dusseldorf.
Postecoglou is also reported to be looking to bring Daizen Maeda, 24, who played under him at Yokohama, to Celtic Park. Maeda has scored 23 goals this season, with two games left to play, to help Yokohama take the runner-up spot behind Kawasaki.
And with even young players often given two-year contracts and J League clubs seemingly willing to let their star players go for relatively modest fees, there may well be other Japanese players headed to Scotland and other European leagues.
Hatate - set for a move to Parkhead next month - is believed to be out of contract at the end of January 2022 and could end up leaving as a free agent. Kawasaki’s Mitoma went to Brighton for around £2.5 million, a bargain in Premier League terms, while Kyogo Furuhashi’s reported fee of under £5 million was close to the record for a J League player.
“Furuhashi doing so well in Scotland has shone a light on Japanese players so there’s more interest in them now,” suggests Horiike. “They can also be gotten for fairly cheap fees, so I’d imagine more may end up going.”