The A-Z of forgotten football heroes: I - Junichi Inamoto

In the latest instalment of VAVEL's A-Z list of forgotten football heroes, we look back at the nomadic career of ex-Arsenal and Fulham midfielder and Japan international Junichi Inamoto.

The A-Z of forgotten football heroes: I - Junichi Inamoto
(Picture: Getty Images - Adrian Dennis)

Footballers truly have had some both sublime and iconic nicknames down the years, some that have followed players throughout their careers and become synonymous with their real names.

From arguably the greatest German football of all time in Franz Beckenbauer and his 'Der Kaiser' nickname, to the more recent example of Javier Hernández and his 'Chicharito' moniker that translates to 'Little Pea' and relates to the green-coloured eyes of his father, memorable nicknames are not in short supply. 

Yet not all footballers are remembered by such favourable pseudonyms. One such example is Japanese midfielder Junichi Inamoto - once of Arsenal, Fulham and West Bromwich Albion and also once referred to as a short-sleeved cotton top.

Inamoto became the Premier League's first Japanese footballer when he arrived as a baby-faced 21-year-old sporting an unmistakable peroxide blonde dyed hairstyle in July 2001. 

Joining giants Arsenal in what was first thought to be a £3.5 million deal before eventually turning out to be a year-long loan from Japanese J.League side Gamba Osaka, the dynamic midfielder joked that his vivid hair was designed to help him stand out on the pitch - and the transfer, too, was billed as a particularly distinctive move.

The supposed financial motives were consistently talked up, many indicating Inamoto's signature was a mere marketing move more than it was Arsène Wenger looking to bring in a seemingly-promising and young yet under-the-radar Asian talent.

Reports upon the player's arrival even said that the Gunners hoped to pocket over £100 million in merchandise sales, though the number of fans drawn to the club and the pound sterling earned as a direct result of Inamoto's signing could never be determined, even now.

 

Big move proves an anti-climax 

Inamoto, despite clearly possessing good footballing ability, quickly became synonymous with the term 'marketing ploy', albeit very unfairly. As a result, Inamoto - or Ina - was soon known as 'T-shirt' by the supporters inside Highbury.

That said, it was undoubtedly true that Inamoto's signing generated huge interest in the Far East, something the club will obviously have been aware of before giving the deal the go-ahead.

In excess of 100 journalists and members of the media were in North London for Inamoto's official unveiling, far more than those present for the reveal of Sol Campbell's controversial switch from neighbours Tottenham Hotspur, whom he captained, three weeks earlier. 

Throughout the 2001-02 season, Inamoto's first at Arsenal - a far-greater influx of Asian fans turned out to watch the Gunners in N5. But the hype was relatively short-lived, if only in England.

Almost all those travelling fans were left disappointed as they spent such money in the hope of watching their countryman grace the pitch, with Inamoto regularly left watching games from the substitutes' bench or the stands - such was the quality of the Arsenal side he entered.

In his first season at the club, despite having already amassed 22 international caps for Japan at the time of his move to England, he was restricted to a mere four appearances, just two of which were starts. Both came in the League Cup against Grimsby Town and Blackburn Rovers respecting.

His other two outings came from the bench in the UEFA Champions League, amounting to just 20 minutes in total, with Inamoto not once taking to the pitch in the then-called FA Barclaycard Premiership as Wenger's charges wonthe league title and FA Cup in a fine campaign. 

Although Wenger previously spoke of how Inamoto - who won the Asian Cup and Kirin Cup with Japan in 2001 and also starred at the Confederations Cup - had impressed him on the international stage, he was hardly afforded an opportunity to demonstrate his talents.

 

World Cup heroics follow Arsenal release

However, his lack of influence for the Gunners had no bearing on his standing for Philippe Troussier's Japan team. Indeed, Inamoto was one of their stand-out performers as the World Cup hosts shone on home soil in the summer of 2002.

It was Inamoto who scored the historic 50th-minute winner in a 1-0 triumph over Russia in Group H, Japan's first ever World Cup group stage win, in front of a partisan crowd of 66,000 in Yokohoma.  

That added to a goal in their first group game, a 2-2 draw with Belgium in Saitama, as Samurai Blue came out on top of their group. Inamoto was named Man of the Match in both of Japan's first two games.

Rounding off the group stages with a 2-0 win over Tunisia, Inamoto lasting just 46 minutes, Japan were paired with Group C runners-up Turkey in the round of 16.

Reaching the first knockout round represented Japan's best ever performance at a World Cup and fuelled hopes that the host nation could reach the tournament's latter stages.

But despite the flair and fluency of Troussier's side's attacking play, their suspect defending ultimately led to an underwhelming elimination by Turkey.

Still while Japan's campaign ended in disappointing fashion, Inamoto's performances did plenty for his individual reputation - particularly amongst the English press.

But despite his performances on the grandest footballing stage of all, the tenacious hard-working midfielder had already been released by Arsenal - who did not want to pay to sign him permanently.

The decision was made before the World Cup, and was probably one they came to regret after it. 

Ironically, Inamoto had now become the iconic Japanese poster-boy Arsenal hoped they were signing a year earlier. How many shirt sales were lost out on we will never know.

A commentator at the World Cup, ex-Grampus Nagoya boss Wenger said of Inamoto - knowing he had already agreed to release the midfielder: "He's shown that in Europe he can play in any team. I'm confident he would play like that in the future. You can't ignore his contribution to the team. Not only has he become a very good player but someone who, like Hidetoshi Nakata, can play under pressure and take responsibility."

Inamoto was perhaps unfortunate of the quality of the Arsenal squad that he joined, with many midfielders likely to have found it difficult to break into a double-winning team that included the likes of Patrick Vieira, Ray Parlour, Edu and Giovanni van Bronckhorst in his position.

He returned to Gamba Osaka in his homeland but was promptly on his way back to England, joining Arsenal's fellow top-flight outfit Fulham on a season-long loan.

 

A better spell at Fulham 

Inamoto made over eight times as many appearances for the Cottagers than he did for Arsenal in a largely successful spell, establishing himself as somewhat of a cult hero at Craven Cottage.

Four goals in two games against Bologna in the two-legged final of the Intertoto Cup - a summer competition for 50 European clubs who had not qualified for the Champions League or UEFA Cup - including a hat-trick in the second tie, represented a fine start to his Fulham career.

Inamoto went on to make 33 appearances in total that season, with 19 coming in the league, as Chris Coleman's side went on to finish 14th - six points clear of the top-flight relegation zone. 

Inamoto re-joined Fulham the following season on another loan and while he didn't quite ever hit the heights of his early days for the club, he enjoyed another stint of steady displays.

He picked up more yellow cards (eight) than goals in just 22 league games, though he scored the third goal in a famous 3-1 win at Old Trafford against Manchester United in October 2003. 

Unfortunately, an injury sustained for Japan against England hampered the final days of a relatively successful two-year spell at Fulham and worries about his recovery from a broken ankle scuppered a potential permanent move, with terms close to being agreed at the time.

 

Mixed bag for the Baggies

Yet in more positive news he was soon back on his way to England - this time in a full-time capacity - when Gary Megson and West Brom paid £200,000 for him in August 2004.

Although unfit until October as he continued to recover from his severe ankle issue, Megson pinned his hopes on the Japanese international replicating his international form at club level once back to full fitness.

But having been instrumental in the deal, Megson was gone by late October - sacked for the Baggies' dire start to the season, winning just one of 10 league games, with Inamoto failing to play a single game under him.

In came ex-United midfielder and Middlesbrough boss Bryan Robson, who opted to send Inamoto out on loan to Cardiff City in the Championship in order for him to regain his match fitness.

He played regularly for the Bluebirds and his consistent displays earned him a recall to the Hawthorns by late March, finally making his West Brom bow on 20 April - some 233 days after joining the club.

Inamoto would make only three league appearances for the West Midlands club as they pulled off what remains one of the greatest ever escapes - surviving the drop on a dramatic final day, having been bottom of the league at Christmas.

But he stayed around and enjoyed a greater squad role in 2005-06, making 22 total appearances, although West Brom were relegated under Robson after just seven wins from 38 games.

Before his second spell in the second division the next year truly got going, Inamoto left the Baggies permanently on deadline day of the 2006 summer transfer window.

He was sadly rarely able to demonstrate his qualities, his best West Brom performance coming against former club Fulham in the League Cup - when he scored his only goal for the club and snapped into tackles, playing the ball about diligently in the centre and dictating play.

 

Nomadic European tour brought to an end 

Inamoto would leave England having played 82 games in six years and went on to embark on a hipster's dream European tour, taking in spells with Galatasaray in Turkey, Germany's Eintracht Frankfurt and Stade Rennais in France - all of mixed fortunes. 

Then, after representing five European clubs in just three years, the time finally came to return to Japan in 2010 at the age of 30.

After an unproductive time with Rennes, Inamoto joined Kawasaki Frontale - where he would spend the following five seasons, his longest spell with a single club in over a decade. 

He now plays for Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, a team on the island of Hokkaido, at the age of 37 helping them to win the J2 League last term and earn promotion to the country's top division.

That is just his second honour at club level, after his Intertoto Cup success with Fulham in 2002, and his stock remains high back in Japan. He could yet play several more seasons before calling quits on his career.

Yet when he eventually does decide to end his playing days, there will still be a nagging regret that Inamoto never enjoyed more success at Arsenal - one for which he somewhat blames himself.

"There were times when I looked at the other players and thought there was no way I would be able to get in the team, but that's probably the reason why I wasn’t playing," he admitted to the Japan Times back in 2010.

"If I had been mentally stronger and really tried to force my way in there, I think I would have been able to play more."

He continued: "When Hidetoshi Nakata went to Italy a lot of shirts were sold in Japan and it made a lot of money for sponsors. When a big club like Arsenal signs a player like me then of course that [merchandising] plays a part, but it was never something that I thought about. Anything other than football was not my problem.

"I didn’t really know too much about what people were saying because I didn't speak English and I didn't read the papers. I knew that I did have to change that image that people had of me, but I also knew that the only way I would be able to do that was to show what I could do on the pitch. It’s a shame I didn’t get more of a chance to do that."

A 'what could have been' type tale

To this day, only Southampton's Maya Yoshida and Leicester City's Shinji Okazaki have made more Premier League appearances than Inamoto, with 69 - though none of which came with Arsenal.

Yet despite how he will be remembered for Japan, and for being the Premier League's first Japanese player, his story remains one of unfulfilled potential - those two World Cup goals remaining his only competitive international strikes alongside a journeyman club career.

Perhaps he didn't get a fair crack at the whip at several clubs where he was on the periphery but there can be no doubt that Junichi Inamoto's star shone brightest on the international stage - it is merely a shame it burned out so quickly.

This article is part of a regular feature series on VAVEL UK called 'The A-Z of Forgotten Football Heroes'. Check out last week's entry, on the ex-Arsenal and Barcelona man known as 'the Sorcerers' Apprentice'.