Burning ambition

Tuesday 27 August 2002

Junichi Inamoto may hope he has set a trend for Japanese players making it in the Premiership, but if he reckons other footballers are likely to follow him to the ballet he has another thing coming.

Fulham's recent loan signing from J-League side Gamba Osaka has been in London a little more than a year and has not yet picked up the stereotypical pastimes of his English workmates.

After a frustrating year at Arsenal he made his debut in the top flight for Jean Tigana's side last week against Bolton and today talks at length for the first time since his temporary transfer in July.

What becomes clear, apart from his joy at breaking into English football's elite, is that he loves London and much of what it has to offer. Including ballet...

One of the 22-year-old's best off-field experiences since coming to the country was watching The Nutcracker by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, a part of London he enjoys strolling around and soaking up the atmosphere.

Other Japanese players have tried and failed to break into the game here and Inamoto is grateful that while he waited to succeed he was in London.

While international team-mate Akinori Nishizawa struggled unsuccessfully in Bolton last season, Inamoto could at least take advantage of London culture before making his Premier League breakthrough.

He drives a Volkswagen Beetle, enjoys Asian and English restaurants and loves shopping for clothes in the capital where, unlike in Japan, being around six foot tall doesn't mean that his choice is restricted.

The only down side is that he has yet to perfect his English, still needing a translator.

"I had no friends in England before I arrived here but now I have quite a few and I really like it. I don't go back to Japan other than for international matches because I don't think I need to.

"London is one of the biggest cities in the world and I had no worries about moving here. Football is what I am focused on but the quality of life here is pretty similar to home.

"There is quite a big Japanese community here and it makes it easier to buy food and that sort of thing. There are good restaurants here too and I enjoy hanging out in Covent Garden and around Bond Street.

"People do recognise me in the street sometimes but it is much easier for me to go out here than it is in Japan."

He enjoys eating out although has a palate that extends way beyond sushi. He cites steak and lobster noodles as particular favourites.

Inamoto, the son of a Japanese businessman who was brought up in a suburb of Osaka, is an instantly recognisable celebrity in his homeland.

Here, female fans still hang around Fulham's training ground all day waiting to get a glimpse of the Japan international, he gets marriage proposals in the post and the club's message boards are swamped with fan mail.

But Inamoto counts himself lucky that he has got a second chance in England. At Arsenal he was granted just four appearances, none of them in the Premiership.

Manager Arsene Wenger admitted Inamoto was excellent technically but questioned whether he had the strength or determination to succeed here.

The turning point came when he starred at last summer's World Cup for hosts Japan, scoring twice and earning two man-of-the-match awards and opinions on him here changed radically.

But it was too late for Wenger to give Inamoto a second chance as he had already declined the option to sign him permanently, apparently without telling the player.

The midfielder said: "I saw the stories and heard what people were saying but Mr Wenger did not tell me that I would not be going back until Japan had been knocked out of the World Cup.

"It was frustrating at Arsenal and of course I was not happy that I was not playing in proper games but at the same time I gained experience from being at a big team with a big club.

"I think the year I spent there helped me settle in quickly at Fulham and I want to make last year the motivation for establishing myself as a player here."

Inamoto has settled quickly at his new club and Fulham fans took to him immediately.

Considering his performance against Bologna in the first-leg of the Intertoto Cup final two weeks ago it is no surprise. He came on as a second-half substitute and scored a great goal the first time he won possession as Fulham managed a useful 2-2 draw.

But Inamoto still feels he has a lot to prove. He said: "Most people see me as the player who did well at the World Cup but I want to establish myself at Fulham.

"I want to do something over here and I would love to stay here for more than a year. I think Tigana was right to say that I needed to improve physically so that I could play for the full 90 minutes but my fitness level is back now and I am ready to play.

"Being able to play in the first Premiership game of the season made me really happy and means I have achieved my initial target.

"I was not conscious of becoming the first Japanese player to do that when it happened but I guess I have a big responsibility to carry on from here and show players from Japan can make it in the Premier League."