Eiji Kawashima brings ‘great escape’ experience to Tannadice

Japan international goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima of Dundee United: Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Japan international goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima of Dundee United: Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
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From the Land of the Rising Sun to a Tayside slowly sinking beneath floodwater. Eiji Kawashima could be forgiven if he was regretting moving to Dundee United – and that is before studying a current league table.

But the Japanese international goalkeeper is convinced brighter times lie around the corner for his new club. His commitment should not be doubted despite the length of time before fans finally saw him in a United goalkeeper shirt. Kawashima even missed the birth of his son, Kensei, because of the saga involved in obtaining a work permit.

“When I decide something I never change my mind,” he said yesterday, despite the further deterioration in United’s position at the bottom of the table – and the torrential rain continuing to cause such havoc in the north-east of Scotland. “I believe I can do something here in Scotland with Dundee United.

“If I didn’t believe that then I wouldn’t be here.

“I believe that we can survive. It is difficult to keep our confidence after having these defeats for a long time but players try to be positive and do our best.”

Kawashima has cut a frustrated figure in recent weeks while United have sunk deeper into the mire. He was unable to effect a change in their fortunes on Saturday when he finally made his debut in the derby against Dundee. The 32-year-old was at fault for Dundee’s equaliser as United slid to a 2-1 defeat, their seventh loss in nine matches.

Kawashima concedes he has to toughen up in the penalty box in Scotland compared to what he became accustomed to in Belgium, where he played – or did not play, as was the case in his final months – in recent years. An impasse at Standard Liege after his refusal to sign a new contract saw him sidelined. When the goalkeeper eventually became a free agent United manager Mixu Paatelainen was alert enough to pounce for someone able to boast 73 international caps for Japan.

“You have to dig deep and use your contacts sometimes,” said the Finn yesterday as he explained how he became aware a player with such high pedigree was available.

Kawashima’s star quality was underlined by the arrangements at the belated press conference to introduce him to reporters yesterday.

The event was staged so that the goalkeeper could speak to journalists from Japan as well as Scotland.

Five reporters for Japan-based newspapers and agencies were present, three who had travelled from London. One is Chester-based, the other from Glasgow. All were present to speak to someone who remains big news in Japan despite his recent spell of inactivity.

Saturday’s match was Kawashima’s first top-team game since the previous December, when he featured in a cup game for Standard Liege. He has not played for the international side since the 4-1 defeat to Colombia at the World Cup finals in Brazil,
a result that saw Japan finish last in their group. Asked by one Japanese journalist if he had to think deeply before handing Kawashima his debut in such a rumbustious game as a Dundee derby, Paatelainen responded: “good question”. Yes, he replied, he had given it serious consideration. But the Finn felt Kawashima’s experience outweighed fears he might be targeted by Dundee after such a long absence.

The fears were borne out in that Kawashima spilled a high ball in the wet conditions when put under pressure by Dundee, although the keeper had an otherwise sound debut. He is set to make his second appearance tomorrow in a clash that has the potential to be equally tricky, with United facing an away trip to Airdrieonians in the Scottish Cup.

“I need to be stronger inside the box even more than I was in Belgium,” Kawashima said. “For a goalkeeper you are always between mistakes and being a big success. We lost the game and it was a mistake but I know I will try to make myself better and do everything for the group.”

He is excited by the continued adventure in Europe. His wife and new baby son will join him in Dundee in March, by which time he hopes to have helped spark some momentum in United’s bid to avoid the drop.

He can draw some succour from a previous success in escaping relegation after Lierse looked doomed in Belgium in the 2010/11 season. In the end, they escaped the relegation play-off round by a single point, with Kawashima keeping a clean sheet in the critical fixture.

“We needed one point and it also depended on how our rivals were getting on,” he recalled. “Eupen lost and we survived. We drew 0-0 with Club Brugge. It was a very tense game.”

“It was really a miracle that we stayed up,” he added. “It’s going to require the same here, but at least from that experience I learned something.”