Pompey ‘pin-up’ who is remembered for the wrong reasons

Former Pompey goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi

Former Pompey goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi

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Peter Jeffs made his way downstairs one Sunday morning and flung open the lounge curtains in his Titchfield home.

Outside he spotted four men sat against a wall at the bottom of his street.

Recognising them, Pompey’s then-press officer got changed, before venturing outside to enquire why they were loitering by his home.

‘Where is Yoshi today?’, came the reply from the quartet of Japanese journalists.

Indicative of the Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi madness which engulfed Pompey for a period and helped establish the keeper as a cult figure.

This coming Thursday marks 12 years since the keeper signed a three-year deal from Yokohama Marinos for a then club-record fee of £1.8m.

Milan Mandaric believed the signing would crowbar open the far east commercial market and allow Pompey to commercially exploit a player perceived as Japan’s version of David Beckham.

Some 22 months later, after 12 appearances, Yoshi had gone.

Mandaric’s money-spinning dream had departed long before then.

Still, in September 2001, a deal for the 26-year-old was in the pipeline.

And on the day of the Twin Towers’ destruction, he embarked on a two-day Pompey ‘acclimatisation’ programme.

Manager Graham Rix, assistant boss Jim Duffy and goalkeeping coach Alan Knight had been instructed to create a training session specifically-tailored for the keeper, centred on catching and kicking.

Taking place behind-closed-doors at Fratton Park, director of football Harry Redknapp, Milan Mandaric and director Terry Brady were all present to survey this potential money-spinning recruit.

As Duffy would remark at the time, the deal had already effectively been completed. Yoshi’s performance wouldn’t have made any difference.

Meanwhile, locked outside were around 40 Japanese journalists frustrated at the lack of an invite.

During Yoshi’s subsequent Pompey career, they would hire motorbikes to trail him, scale trees to take photos and stake out the Blues’ HMS Collingwood training base.

Meanwhile, at every press conference an increasingly-exasperated Rix would be hounded with ‘Why you no play Yoshi?’

Nonetheless, Mandaric wanted the deal to go through, resolutely ignoring the opinions of Rix, Knight and Redknapp.

Redknapp had actually scouted Yoshi in Japan’s 3-0 win over Australia in Shizuoka. His recent autobiography claims he fell asleep.

Still, ‘this guy’s made of rubber’ was the owner’s reaction, having viewed him on video earlier in the process, and on October 24, 2001, Kawaguchi joined Pompey.

Almost 150 journalists were present for his Victory Bar unveiling, where they were handed a souvenir programme and settled down to watch television’s Barry Davies hosting.

Joyce Tynan was even on hand to plant a kiss on the keeper’s cheek in the Fratton end goalmouth.

Handling his money-making potential were Essential Sport – a London and Southampton-based PR and commercial consultancy firm.

They possessed an immensely-marketable player whose face was found on merchandising in Japan such as key rings, telephone cards, video tapes and television adverts.

What could possibly go wrong? Everything.

Financially, it was a complete disaster.

Mandaric had put his faith in the wrong people.

Even before Kawaguchi signed, first-choice Dave Beasant had questioned his rival’s height in The News.

At 5ft 10in, he was the smallest keeper in division one. It was a crucial point.

Colleagues portray Yoshi as a good trainer and hard worker with superb agility and a tremendous spring.

Knight still claims Yoshi was a better player than Konstantinos Chalkias. But he was simply too small.

Incidentally, Knight was on air with Radio Solent at Hillsborough when Kawaguchi let in a goal 26 seconds into his debut on November 3, 2001.

The night before Mandaric had instructed Rix to play the Japanese international ahead of 42-year-old Beasant, but Pompey did win 3-2.

Just 64 days later and Kawaguchi made his last-ever start for the Blues in the humiliating 4-1 home FA Cup defeat to Leyton Orient.

Afterwards, stood opposite the South stand toilets, he was in tears as the press inquest was launched.

In 11 matches he had conceded 25 goals.

Regardless, Yoshi was well-liked, armed with a smile through the testing times. To this day, you won’t hear a bad word about his character.

On one occasion, a lady approached him outside Fratton Park to ask whether he could spend an evening with a Gosport cub pack – he turned up the next evening.

Yoshi, though, never quite got the hang of the English language, despite his best efforts, and as a single man living in Port Solent became an isolated figure in a foreign country.

He did befriend a Japanese family in Southsea over in the area working at the time, yet it developed into a lonely existence for the pin-up boy.

Most heartbreaking of all, his absence from the Blues team cost him his No1 spot in the 2002 World Cup held in South Korea and Japan.

Yoshi’s last outing was on May 4, 2003, as a half-time substitute in the 5-0 win at Bradford.

He then joined Danish side Nordsjaelland, before returning to Japan in January 2004.

Yoshi is now 38 and a squad player at Jubilo Iwata, living in Shizuoka – 200km south from Tokyo.

He left a legacy at Pompey – although not exactly the one Mandaric anticipated.

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