The natives of Celtic Park have seen their fair share of genuine brilliance over the past two decades. Paolo Di Canio, Lubomir Moravcik, Henrik Larsson, Stiliyan Petrov, Craig Bellamy and Robbie Keane to name only a few. However, if you were to ask the Celtic faithful about the players they remember most fondly over that period, the name of Shunsuke Nakamura would appear again and again.
Arriving from Reggina in July 2005 for a reputed fee of around £2.5m, it’s fair to say that Nakamura was a relative unknown to not only the Celtic supporters, but Scottish football more widely. Onlookers could even have been forgiven for initially thinking that the deal was as much of a commercial coup, to increase the club’s appeal in the Far East, as it was about adding true quality to the squad. Little did they know that the man from Japan would become a cult hero and carve his name into the club’s great history.
One of Gordon Strachan’s first acquisitions, Nakamura became a stalwart of Strachan’s era at Celtic with a string of moments of inspiration at the most important times. Joining Celtic at a tumulutous time – shortly after elimination from the Champions League by unknown Artmedia Bratislava – Nakamura was thrown straight into the team just seven days after completing his move. An impressive debut topped off with the man of the match award against Dundee United that day was only a sign of things to come.
The first thing anyone who has worked with Nakamura comments on was his work ethic. Both Strachan and his ex-teammates were struck by how hard he worked in training and on a matchday. It’s a well known fact at Celtic Park that Nakamura used to spend an hour in the gym post-match every week stretching and doing extra leg work, even after completing 90 minutes. Scott Brown’s best Celtic XI features the playmaker and the Celtic captain had high praise for him:
“He was exceptional when I was first coming into the Celtic team. He would hit free-kicks for hours on end in training.
He was fantastic, hard-working, and the first person you would see stretching in the gym. Naka was always about keeping himself stretched and lean, the ultimate professional.”
It is, of course, Nakamura’s ability from set pieces which captured the adulation of Celtic fans. He is arguably the best free-kick taker ever to wear a Celtic jersey. Over the course his career, he has found the net more than 50 times from free-kicks. The defining moment of Nakamura’s Celtic career is undoubtedly his 30-yard free-kick winner against Manchester United in 2006. Having beaten van der Sar at Old Trafford in the first Champions League group game, Nakamura curled the most majestic free-kick high over the United wall to give Celtic the lead with only 10 minutes remaining. It is an iconic goal in the club’s history and secured Celtic’s place in the last-16 for the first time in Champions League era.
Nakamura’s dead ball prowess provided a silver lining for Strachan’s Celtic on so many occasions. While nothing could top the one against United, he also won the league title in 2007 away at Kilmarnock with last gasp curler. Having led the way for the most of the season, Celtic were crawling over the finish line towards the Championship. Just as it looked like Strachan’s men would have to wait another week to secure the trophy, Nakamura bent a delightful free-kick round the wall leaving the goalkeeper rooted to the spot. Delirium ensued, Strachan was off down the touchline in Mourinho fashion and Nakamura (shirtless) was joined in the crowd by his teammates. It seemed like just another moment of devine intervention when Celtic needed it most from Nakamura.
The one criticism levelled at the Japanese international throughout his time at the club was that in some big games when the battle got physical – like Old Firm derbies – he wasn’t up to the fight. It did take him three years to open his account against Rangers, but when he did it was in typical Nakamura fashion. Trapping a pacy pass from Gary Caldwell, Nakamura struck the most vicious swerving volley from all of 40 yards past a despairing Alan McGregor. It’s one of the greatest goals in the history of the fixture.
To level any criticism of Nakamura along the lines of toughness and tackling is to misunderstand the value of this truly gifted footballer. Nakamura was the player who could take the ball under pressure in any situation, and in the words of his teammates, never lose it. He had that rare ability to find space when he looked trapped and to a find a defence-splitting pass when it looked like there was nothing on. Nakamura was the go-to man who could win the game, who got the fans off of their seats. And if you ask anyone who follows Celtic, Nakamura was a joy to behold.
Who joins Nakamura in making the combined Celtic and Rangers greatest XI…