Shunsuke Nakamura on Celtic, Strachan and still playing at 42

Shunsuke Nakamura is evergreen in more ways than one. It is 16 years since the playmaker joined Celtic for a successful four-year spell and he continues to follow goings-on in Glasgow, though given the season the club have just had this veteran of 42 could still do a job.

Nakamura is playing for Yokohama FC back home in Japan’s top flight, even if he doesn’t get many minutes for a team battling relegation. It is a world away from his time in Scotland when he was a key cog in a team that won three championships, so much so that he was named Scottish player of the year in the 2006-07 season.

“I still follow Celtic and watch the news and watch the games,” Nakamura says. It has not been as enjoyable in recent weeks and months as Rangers dominated from start to finish to prevent their Glasgow rivals winning 10 titles in a row. “I think Rangers were strong this season and deserved to win the championship. I hope Celtic will use the disappointment of Rangers’ victory to come back and win next season.”

There was some surprise in 2005 when, after something of a protracted transfer saga, he left Reggina for Celtic. There was a lot of interest elsewhere in Italy as well as in Spain, Germany and England. Some felt the rough-and-tumble of Scottish football was not right for such a cultured player but the new Celtic manager Gordon Strachan was not one of them. He had seen Nakamura in action for Japan in the 2005 Confederations Cup and, especially in the 2-2 draw with Brazil, liked what he saw.

Two months later the player was getting a standing ovation, and not just from a healthy contingent of Japanese reporters in the press box, as he was substituted near the end of his first game in Scotland against Dundee United. Strachan said it was one of the best debuts he had seen. It marked the start of a mutual love affair between club and player.

“My playing style, my life and my family’s life all fitted in well there,” Nakamura said. “My children’s kindergarten was very welcoming to us, and they tried to understand my conversation even though my English was not great. I felt the local people respected and cared for others. So, it was a fun and happy time for us.”

There were many moments that stand out, the goal of the season on Boxing Day 2006, hat-tricks against St Mirren and Dundee United and those two free-kicks against Manchester United in the 2006 Champions League, one at Old Trafford, the other at Parkhead. The latter was even more special because it gave Celtic a 1-0 win and a place in the last 16 where the 1967 European champions lost after extra time against a star-studded Milan. He was named Scottish player of the year soon after.

Nakamura’s highlight is a little different, however. “Meeting the CEO Peter Lawwell and the manager Gordon Strachan was the most memorable experience for me. Before every match, manager Strachan only said to me to ‘enjoy it’. He trusted me and left me to play the way I wanted to play. I am very grateful to him for taking good care of me and my family as well. I learnt a lot from him. Manager Strachan understood that I was the type of player who played by instinct and feeling.”

The fans did, too. It is noticeable when watching games in Japan that the organised hardcore never stop singing, waving flags and banging drums – in normal times at least. In Scotland, the support ebbs and flows with the action and there was always a special buzz when Nakamura got the ball.

“Japanese supporters cheer for us all the time and I think this is a good characteristic in the J League. On the other hand, Scottish and overseas supporters clearly react to each play, which directly affects the motivation of the players. When we played away from home, we felt timid and sometimes lost confidence. I’ve never felt that way in the J League, but when I played overseas I felt the force of the powerful supporters encouraging the players. I think that’s why even if you win 3-0 at home in the Champions League, you can lose 3-0 in the away match. It was a strange feeling, as if we couldn’t play our own football away from home.”

Now he is home and still playing as his 43rd birthday draws near but he is not the oldest player at Yokohama – far from it. Kazuyoshi Miura is 54 and also at the club. Nakamura laughs when asked whether he can last as long as “King Kazu”, who was playing in the J League alongside Gary Lineker and Zico, but he is not ready to stop just yet.

“My physical strength is obviously lower than when I was younger. On the other hand, I think I also control my mentality better than before because of my experience. And of course, I do my best to take care of my physical condition and I pay more attention to it than when I was young.”