Forgotten Gunners – Junichi Inamoto


Earlier this week I brought you the story of Amaury Bischoff’s lone season at Arsenal in 2008/09.

Following on in the series of ‘Forgotten Gunners’ we have the story of Arsenal’s first ever Japanese player. Junichi Inamoto arrived at Highbury in the summer of 2001 for a reported fee of £3.5m from Japanese side Gamba Osaka. There were very few fans who had heard of Inamoto when he arrived in London, but Arsene Wenger had worked in Japan before so many trusted his judgement.

There were also some sceptical fans that suggested Inamoto was signed purely to boost merchandise and ticketing sales. On reflection, it would appear they were right.

The 2001/02 campaign was probably the season I have attended Arsenal the most in my life. Me and my father would go up regularly that year so I remember a lot about it. I recall in the summer of 2001 when we would go into the Arsenal World of Sport shop outside Finsbury Park tube station, the catalogues had plenty of pictures of this Japanese man with bright blonde hair and my young self thought he must have been a superstar, the amount of pictures that were being taken.

I also noticed that there were a lot of Japanese people attending games at Highbury that season, hoping to catch a glimpse of the player from their homeland. A glimpse is pretty well all they would get, as Inamoto was often on the bench, but hardly ever on the pitch.

The final thing that I would say I noticed was that those fans attending all bought Inamoto shirts that summer too. The gold Arsenal away shirt of the 2001/02 season matched his golden hair and were appropriate for such a golden season in Arsenal’s history.

I would say I saw four common shirts that summer. One was Sol Campbell, recently signed on a free from Tottenham – instant fan favourite. Thierry Henry was the main scorer at the club at the time so his shirt sold often. David Rocastle died earlier that year so many chose to pay their respects to him by getting his name on the back of their shirt. The other common shirt was Inamoto. As mentioned above, the Japanese fans all bought shirts with his name on it and the club must have made a lot of money from it.

Inamoto made 4 appearances for Arsenal in his only season at the club. 2 of them unsurprisingly came in the League Cup and another two came in the Champions League. Junichi never got onto the pitch in either the Premier League or FA Cup for Arsenal that season.

Inamoto making a rare appearance for Arsenal.

One of the games that Inamoto did play in was Grimsby at home in the League Cup. I remember my Dad went that night and he said how it was very empty, so empty that he could have an entire row to himself. However, the fact Inamoto was playing drew the interest of the many Japanese fans that attended Highbury that season in hope that he would play.

My Dad told me that tickets could be bought from about £5-10 that day at the turnstiles, so pretty cheap. However, the Japanese fans struggled with English so didn’t understand that you could buy a ticket for as cheap as £5 at the turnstile. So they found a tout on the streets outside of Highbury and were paying ridiculous prices of about £50 a ticket, not realising how unimportant the fixture was and cheap it would be to get in at the turnstiles. My Dad could only watch on and laugh, but admitted he did feel sorry for them as the touts had an unexpected field day!.

At the end of the 2001/02 campaign, Arsenal released Inamoto. Despite not playing much at all, being an Arsenal player was enough for Inamoto to star in the 2002 World Cup for the joint host nation of Japan. And star he did, with Inamoto scoring twice in the group stages of the tournament against Belgium and Russia respectively. I remember watching that World Cup and wondering how Inamoto hadn’t played much at Arsenal. On reflection, breaking into that Double winning side would have been difficult for anyone really.

After impressing at the 2002 World Cup, Inamoto stayed in London, signing with Fulham. He had a relatively successful time there before moving on to another Premier League club at West Brom in the summer of 2004. Inamoto was loaned out to Championship club Cardiff in the 2004/05 campaign before being recalled to play a part in West Brom’s ‘great escape’ as they managed to beat the drop.

Inamoto had better luck at Fulham and then West Brom (pictured).

The following season saw West Brom get relegated and after playing for Japan in the 2006 World Cup, Inamoto signed for Turkish club Galatasaray. After 1 year in Turkey, he moved to Germany with Frankfurt on a free transfer. Following 2 seasons in Germany, Inamoto was released.

Inamoto signed with French club Rennes for the 2009/10 season and after being limited to 5 appearances for them, he decided to return to Japan in 2010 with Kawasaki Frontale where he is still playing.

Why wasn’t Inamoto given a chance? – I think the answer is pretty simple. Arsenal had a double winning team in 2001/02 and Inamoto joined at the start of a really good period for the club. Whilst he was clearly a Premier League footballer given that he played for Fulham and West Brom (two teams that struggled to stay in the division at that time), he probably wasn’t up to Arsenal’s standards. I’d have liked to of seen him given more of a chance and when Arsenal were winning some games comfortably, he could have been brought on, even for 10 minutes or so. It would have made the journey from Japan worth it for many of the fans who came to Highbury that season. They remained loyal to Inamoto and were seen at Fulham and West Brom on Match of the Day (or ‘The Premiership’ on ITV back in those days).

Was Inamoto a flop? – I wouldn’t describe him as a flop. A flop is somebody that comes in with a big reputation and often a big fee and then fails to live up to expectations (Fernando Torres’ £50m move from Liverpool to Chelsea the best example at the moment). Inamoto was neither. He wasn’t a superstar and he didn’t cost a lot. Per appearance he probably did. I do believe that Arsenal got what they really wanted from him though. That’s money. The amount of merchandise sold and tickets sold because he was an Arsenal player, made the move worthwhile for the club. It’s sad when that is done in football though. The most recent example at Arsenal being Park Chu-Young.

I think Inamoto had a good career. He had a great European tour for nearly a decade and got to play in the Premier League as well as some of the other top leagues in Europe. It’s a shame it didn’t work out for him with us, but being at Arsenal helped bring more attention to him and his performances at the 2002 World Cup attracted Fulham’s interest, so he got to stay in London at least!.