There and back again: Issey Nakajima-Farran's football journey

The 31-year-old Terengganu and Canada midfielder speaks exclusively to FourFourTwo as he reflects on his decade-long professional journey and shares his insights on the game, life and non-football passions...

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Like many modern professional footballers, Issey Morgan Nakajima-Farran has travelled the world in pursuit of first-team opportunities and new adventures throughout his career.

What sets the Canadian international apart from his peers is the international wanderlust that is inherent in the Nakajima-Farran household. Born to an English-Canadian father and a Japanese mother in Calgary, Issey and the family of four travelled to three different continents in his formative years.

His parents uprooted from Canada to Japan when he was three years old. Seven years later they were off again, this time to London, where Issey spent his teenage years training with the Crystal Palace youth teams before embarking on his professional career overseas.

“My parents are very adventurous. Once they get comfortable, they move,” the Terengganu FA midfielder told FourFourTwo as he recalled his childhood days.

“They like a challenge, they like a move. We had a good life in Tokyo but they wanted to move to England. We moved there, they did the same thing over in different cities and countries.”

Now back in Southeast Asia after a decade away in Europe, North America and Australia, he has fond memories of Singapore, the country that was the launchpad to his professional career with J-League side Albirex Niigata's satellite team.

Playing in the S.League in 2004 and 2005, Nakajima-Farran terrorised opposing defenders with his pace and mesmerised fans with his good looks at various grounds across the country. He made an immediate impression in his maiden season with 12 league goals and clinched the Young Player of the Year award the very next season.

While injury robbed the 31-year-old winger of a chance to feature against Singaporean representative side LionsXII in the Malaysia Super League in Singapore back in May, his fondness for the country is apparent.

“Singapore means a lot to me. It’s where I proved myself in professional football,” he said. “It’s a place I hold dearly to and I have always wanted to come back and play in Singapore.

“Over the last couple of years, I have shown interest in coming back to Singapore but the opportunity never came up until Malaysia showed interest in the beginning of the year.

“Everything came through in April (when he made the move to Terengganu in Malaysia as a free agent). When I heard that we had a cup game against [the LionsXII] – and I didn’t know about that, it was great to hear.”

It's not Nakajima-Farran's first time back in Singapore though, as he returned to the Lion City last December to feature in a testimonial game involving former Albirex colleagues Kenji Arai and Akihiro Nakamura, who hung up their boots professionally in 2012, at Nanyang Junior College.

“I had to come back for that,” he said. “When I came back, the city vibes (made me yearn) for a return. When Malaysia came down with the option, it was very different but it was the closest I could get to Singapore.”

Tough beginnings

Challenged by his father to show he could make it in football, Nakajima-Farran moved back to his mother’s country of birth when he was 16 and joined the Tokyo Verdy youth team.

A rude culture shock awaited him in Japan though as the coach viewed him as a foreigner despite his Japanese blood and regularly referred to him as ‘gaijin’ – a negative term which translates to ‘outsider’ in Japanese.

 “When I say different cultures, I also mean there are different ways of coaching as well,” Nakajima-Farran explained. “The Western way aims to give and build confidence, while the Japanese way is to knock you down and make you stronger.

“That comment changed my life too, because I was thinking ‘Holy, what did you say?’ and ‘Guys, you are asking me to go home when I left home at 16 and now you are telling me this kind of thing after one year of hardness’.

“I almost quit after that ‘gaijin’ comment because this guy made me feel like I was not going to make it. But my dad kept me in, kept pushing me, and gave me verbal feedback I needed to hear to focus and get that comment out of my head and overcome.”

I was the first to volunteer to join Albirex Niigata S. Most guys didn’t want to leave Japan because they were thinking, ‘Japanese football is at this level and Singapore football is at that level..

Being moved down the pecking order when he was in Verdy’s under-18 squad made Nakajima-Farran more determined to show he could carve out a decent professional career as a footballer.

“This guy never believed in me. Out of the 10 18-years-old at that time, I was last on the list,” he said. “Maybe I am not last on this list, but from what I saw in the two-to-three years while playing for him, that was how he made me feel.

“I was on the bench a lot, I saw how he talked to me and how he talked to the other players. At the time I was thinking, ‘OK, I can go back to England, go to university. If football doesn't work out, I have my diploma to fall back on'.”

After failing to make the grade at Verdy, a move to then second-tier side Albirex did not change his fortunes – until Singapore came calling in 2004. The Niigata side announced they would be sending a feeder team to compete in the S.League from that season to give the players professional playing experience in a foreign country.

At that time, Nakajima-Farran was waiting for an opportunity to play in the J-League, something that he has regrettably still been unable to fulfil, while several of his fellow reserves only had occasional cameos the previous season.

“When the Singapore option came up, the club said 'it would be good for the young players to go there and gain more experience',” he said. “I was the first to volunteer. Initially those guys didn’t want to leave Japan because they were thinking, ‘Japanese football is at this level and Singapore football is at that level...’”