By Ross Ringsell
“We have a lot of quality players, but I turned to my assistant and said ‘I think we are witnessing a genius at work’. If you are talking a pure, pure footballer, he is as good as there is.” – Gordon Strachan
On 25th July 2005, Shunsuke Nakamura arrived at Glasgow Celtic for a fee of £2.5m, after his successful spell in Italy playing for Reggina. It was a huge possibility that the move would never go through, with Gordon Strachan having to fight off competition from Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in order to gain the signature of the Japanese star. With clubs across Europe after Nakamura, the choice was left up to him – and he chose Celtic.
Fans had heard about his talent, and with excitement in their hearts, they welcomed their new hero with open arms. After a period of crisis for The Hoops, in which they had crashed out of European competition after a 0-5 home defeat to Slovak side Artmedia Bratislava, Nakamura represented a totem figure not seen by supporters since Henrik Larsson.
This was a dream for Nakamura, and he realised that all his hard work was finally paying off. From being let go from his first team for being too skinny, to making his Celtic debut – this was the beginning of something special.
Even though he wasn’t totally match fit, Gordon Strachan decided to give him his debut against Dundee United in the second league game of the season. Nakamura had been given his opportunity to go and entertain his new fans and he did just that.
His brilliant improvisation on the ball as well as his dangerous left-foot was thrilling for those in the crowd. This new fresh style of skill and confidence shocked the Dundee United players. With a fantastic debut under his belt, he was named Man of the Match. More importantly, he was given a standing ovation from the Celtic fans. They knew, as did the players, that Nakamura was a true talent.
Alongside adapting to the style of Scottish football, Nakamura was very open with his new teammates and coaches about how difficult he found acclimatising to life in Scotland. Not speaking the language, as well as the new aspects of living in a different city, proved to be very challenging for him.
With his teammates knowing how vital he could be to the team, they encouraged and helped him in any way that they could. This, combined with the success Celtic achieved in Nakamura’s first season – winning the SPL by a 17-point margin – gave him the belief that he could be a serious influencer in the Celtic side.
During the 2006 World Cup, Shunsuke Nakamura was able to experience first-hand how his transfer to Celtic had affected the fans of his own country. Celtic strips covered about a quarter of the Japanese support, as fans travelled just to see him perform. After seeing how much of an impact just one year in Scotland had, Nakamura returned from Germany more mature and ready to take the new season by storm.
In the first half of Nakamura’s second season at Celtic, he had become a fan favourite. His improved consistency was noticeable, but even more noteworthy was his ability from a dead ball. The technique he used from a free-kick to smash the ball into the top corner with such spin was mind-boggling.
With Celtic’s title defence off to a great start, it was time to take to the European stage. A tough draw in the Champions League group stages saw Celtic needing to face Copenhagen, Benfica and Manchester United.
Of course, it was the fixtures against Manchester United that got everyone excited. With great results against English sides in recent years, Celtic were optimistic as they entered the Theatre of Dreams. It was an entertaining and intense battle that provided five goals, as United narrowly clinched all the points on offer in a 3-2 victory. Equalising to make it 2-2 in the 43rd minute, Nakamura became the first Japanese player to score in the Champions League, with a characteristically stunning free kick leaving Van Der Sar motionless.
After such a close fixture at Old Trafford, pundits and fans believed that Celtic had the ability to grab the victory at home. And with such a performance by Nakamura the first-time round, many started to believe that he really did have magic in his feet.
Celtic Park has produced some magical European nights and they don’t come much bigger than 21st November 2006. With Manchester United eager to keep their outstanding form on track, they came to Glasgow to win. They certainly gave it their all, with Ronaldo, Saha and Rooney causing chaos in defence for Celtic.
But the Glasgow giants held their ground and with 10 minutes left on the clock, they had their chance. A foul by Vidic over 30 yards out may not present a legitimate opportunity for most…but for Nakamura it certainly did.
He struck the ball astonishingly hard. It wasn’t a matter of seeing it go past Van der Sar that indicated to the crowd that he’d scored, as much as the sound it made as it rippled in the top right corner of the net. It had to be a thing of beauty that managed to get Gordon Strachan screaming and jumping with joy.
When Celtic needed ‘Naka’, he delivered. And with a great team effort and an individual piece of brilliance, Celtic were through to knockout stage of the Champions League.
The knockout stages saw Celtic face AC Milan. Nakamura was extremely pleased with the draw as it was his first return to Italy since joining Celtic. With the first 90 minutes in both legs ending goalless, it took extra time to break the deadlock.
The Italian giants had the edge in the San Siro as a 1-0 defeat saw Celtic eliminated from the Champions League. And although Nakamura’s European journey had come to an end, he still had one magical moment that the Celtic fans may regard as his greatest ever.
by 22nd April 2007, Celtic had the chance to win the Scottish Premier League. A victory against Kilmarock at Rugby Park would see Celtic crowned champions. A fierce competition had the score level at 1-1, late into the game. In the last minute of the game, Nakamura won a free-kick just a few yards outside the box.
Another big moment, another free kick. With one perfect strike, Naka won the league at Rugby Park. This will remain one of the greatest individual moments in any title success that Celtic have enjoyed.
His individual achievements in the 2006/2007 season cemented him in the hearts of all Celtic fans. His success was acknowledged by everyone in Scotland, and further afield. Shunsuke Nakamura was named Scottish Player of the Year and SFWA Footballer of the Year. He made such an impact on the European stage that Nakamura was nominated for the 2007 Ballon d’Or. He was the first Celtic player to be nominated for the prestigious award since Henrik Larsson. He lost out to Kaká, who was the last player to win the prestigious award outside of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo until Luka Modrić in 2018.