When that full-time whistle blew last week, Kevin Muscat and his Yokohama F.Marinos could breathe.
The J1 League title went down to the final round of the season, but Muscat had followed in the footsteps of his friend and mentor – Ange Postecoglou, becoming only the second Australian to be crowned the king of Japan.
Muscat joined an exclusive club and he had his father fly over from Melbourne to be in the stands to watch it unfold in Japan. But for the A-Leagues legend, even amid the celebrations and a proud text message from Postecoglou in Glasgow, it was a bittersweet feeling.
There’s a moment with his right-hand man that will live with him forever.
Ex-Adelaide United and Newcastle Jets defender Shaun Ontong – Muscat’s highly rated and trusted assistant coach, who was initially brought to Yokohama by Postecoglou. His father died in the weeks prior to the title-clinching win away to Vissel Kobe on November 5.
As soon as Marinos were confirmed champions of Japan for the second time since 2019, Muscat went straight to Ontong in a special embrace.
“Shaun’s been through something I can’t even imagine over this last month. Something I can’t comprehend,” Muscat told KEEPUP.
The way he’s been able to conduct himself and working at a level… it really took me aback in terms of the pride to be able to share that moment. It was just before the full-time whistle, where the emotion, finally, FINALLY, I got to see the emotion come out of him. You could tell he was really emotional. He shed a tear. That will stick with me forever.
“Just a real good person. Really good at what he does. We’ve rode through many challenges this season. To see him develop and take on a challenge, it was huge.
“To share that emotion with him, I can’t pay credit enough for the way he’s worked through this. Just a little award of satisfaction. When it all happened, I spoke to him and said you do what you need to do. If you need to or want to go home, do what you need to do. He said mate, I know what my father would want me to do and I’m going to continue doing it.
“The other thing for me that was difficult was the fact my dad flew in and watched the last two games. To share that moment with him at the same time Shaun was robbed of, it was a really difficult emotional moment.
“But I’m glad my dad was here and to share it with him and maybe given him a reward for everything he’s given me over my 40 odd years in football. He’s rode every bump with me.”
Breaking down barriers in Japan
When it comes to reputations, once you have one, they are hard to shake. Just ask Muscat.
He earned a reputation as a hardman throughout his playing career in Australia and the United Kingdom. He was the ultimate villain with his combative approach. However, there has always been more to his game. A ball-playing defender, Muscat now has his teams mirroring that vision.
First it was Melbourne Victory, where he won two Isuzu UTE A-League Championships and the Australia Cup as head coach, having led the club to two as captain. Those titles were built on attacking football after replacing Postecoglou.
Now in Yokohama, where – again – he succeeded Postecoglou last year, Muscat has seen his high-octane brand of football yield more silverware.
Marinos scored the most goals (70) and conceded the least (35), while Muscat’s men led a number of different categories, including – expected goals, expected goals per game, goals per game, possession distance and possession sprints.
“The way we played. A lot has been said but we managed to score more goals,” said Muscat, who revealed Postecoglou was one of the first people to congratulate him.
Still, there’s maybe a bit of stigma in terms of my football but we only see what we know and we see what we want to see, but we played some fantastic football.
“The fact it went down to the wire and even after the two homes game and we got beaten, maybe there started to be a little of tension around the place. But for us to continue and play brave football, to play with courage. To finish it off the way we did in beating two very good teams with seven goals in the final two games [4-1 against Urawa Reds and 3-1 over Kobe], I was very proud of that.”
Muscat, who earned three Manager of the Month awards in 2022, was rewarded with a contract extension prior to the end of the season after a challenging campaign.
It was never going to be easy coming in after Postecoglou, who had taken Muscat under his wing in Melbourne. The ex-Socceroos boss transformed F.Marinos and Japanese football as he ended their 15-year wait for league glory in 2019.
But while following in Postecoglou’s footsteps and maintaining a high-pressing philosophy, this entertaining F.Marinos team had Muscat’s fingerprints all over it in 2022.
Muscat, who steered F.Marinos to a runners-up finish last term, lost joint J1 League top scorer Daizen Maeda to Postecoglou’s Celtic, as well as title-winning centre-back Thiago Martins. Not to mention the likes of Keita Endo (Union Berlin), Ado Onaiwu (Toulouse), Theerathon Bunmathan (Buriram United).
There was almost a 32-player turnover heading into Muscat’s first full season at the helm.
“I remember at the start, there was a bit of apprehension I suppose and no one really gave us a chance to do what we did. We started creating some moments – scoring four goals against Kawasaki Frontale at home. Beating Kashima away from home which hadn’t been done in 10 years,” Muscat said.
“Every time we ticked over one of these moments, we really focused and homed in on that being our journey. The next moment. How can we create the next moment and we used it all the way through to the last game. The moments are great and all the moments are part of the journey.
Then the last game, we’re at our destination now. We can create one moment and this moment will become a life-lasting memory. That kept us as a unit I think and gave us something to focus on, while not looking at the big picture to try and distract everyone from the expectation now. Because we went from not being really fancied this season, saying we lost this player and that player. We brought the average age down – one of the youngest in the competition.
“From that point, the expectation we were top of the league for a number of weeks. All of a sudden, the expectation becomes we have to win the league. I go, well what’s changed? The performances changed the perception. Everything I think about is just a great deal of pride and maybe break down some barriers as well. We created some really good moments.”
The mindset fuelling Muscat
Only four teams prior to Muscat’s 2022 squad had reigned supreme in the J1 League era, dating back to 1992.
It is a remarkable achievement and while it is not lost on Muscat, the 49-year-old’s response to where he ranks the title provides a telling insight into a coach making waves abroad.
“No one will take this moment away from us. They’re not moments anymore, it’s a memory,” he said.
“I said to the group after the game, make sure you really embrace this moment. Maybe in the excitement and emotion, you’re not fully aware of what you’ve achieved yet. I said to them to enjoy this moment.
“You and us as a group, we stand alongside only four other groups who’ve been able to achieve this for the club. Put that into perspective – it’s an unbelievable achievement. No one will ever take that away from you.”
Muscat, however, added: “I’m not underestimating the enormous achievement. It probably still hasn’t sunk it. I’ve managed to enjoy some wonderful experiences in my career.
But I always tend to look at things, well my number one achievement is yet to be achieved because that motivates me and keeps me focused. Committed to creating moments like this.
“Japanese football and the J1 League, it’s respected across Asia as possibly the toughest and best competition. To have achieved that and in the fashion we’ve one it, of course it’s a massive, massive achievement. And it’s different as well being in an environment. Going away and getting out of comfort zone. To be able to follow in the footsteps of Ange always fills me with a great deal of pride.”
So, what next?
Muscat is contracted to F.Marinos – who are part of the City Football Group – until at least the end of 2023. The former Australia international has an upcoming friendly to prepare for – the visit of Jose Mourinho’s Roma to Yokohama on November 28.
But long term, Muscat is viewed as a possible Socceroos coach. And given his Rangers links – he spent a year at Ibrox – the Marinos boss has been tipped to eventually return to the blue half of Glasgow.
Muscat, though, is in no hurry to return to Europe, where he spent a stint in charge of Belgian outfit Sint-Truiden in 2020. Nor, don’t expect him to “lobby” for the Socceroos job down the line.
“Preparations have started for next year to build a team to challenge again,” Muscat said.
Everything else is out of my control. I don’t feel I have to rush or prove anything by going to Europe or another country. I’m comfortable in where I set.
“With the national team, it goes without saying, representing your country is the best thing you can do and I felt that as a player. That national team is not something I’ll ever lobby for. It’s not my nature. What I will say the timing of this discussion is not great because there is somebody else in that job at the moment and they’re about to embark on wanting to create a slice of history for the country. For me to be throwing my name in the ring, it’s not appropriate and I’ll never do that anyway.
“But is it something I want to do one day? Without doubt.”