April 25, 2014 – 9:20PM
Once more from the top: Shinji Ono wants to sign off from the Wanderers with an A-League championship. Photo: Getty Images
While the muddied status of Alessandro Del Piero makes it impossible to know whether to say goodbye or hello, the Shinji Ono farewell tour is making for a story with a much happier ending.
It is also a tour that keeps getting extended, playing to sell-out houses at Parramatta Stadium where the fans delight in calling for an encore.
Three weeks ago, Ono was given a beautiful send-off against Brisbane Roar, with fireworks, face masks and an enormous banner written in Japanese.
A top-two finish meant Saturday night’s match against Central Coast would allow him a semi-final at Parramatta Stadium before the adoring throng; now the Wanderers’ progress in the Asian Champions League means they get to keep him a little longer.
Ono’s final farewell will actually be on May 14, the second leg of the round of 16 clash against, quite fittingly, the Japanese champions, Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Even though Ono is set to join a second division side, Consadole Sapporo, few could question his ability to still cut it with the continent’s very best, which he demonstrated in grand style on Tuesday, scoring a long-range bullet against Guizhou Renhe.
“It was a big goal but I think I was really lucky,” Ono says with customary Japanese modesty. “There were many players around the box, inside the box, and none of them touched it before it came to me. Then I just hit it.”
That goal sent the crowd more than a little crazy as they savour every last drop of his brilliance.
It is unsurprising to learn that, more than anything else, Ono will miss those fans most of all.
“The noise and the fans, it is something amazing,” he gestures, pointing around Parramatta Stadium. “I will miss this place so much. It has been one of the best moments of my career.”
That’s not a bad rap considering Ono’s status in Asian football is close to the summit, within touching distance of the likes of Hidetoshi Nakata, Hong Myung-bo and Ali Daei.
But Ono admits that when he came to the Wanderers, things looked grim. He’d just turned 33, had been dumped by his hometown club, Shimizu S-Pulse, and was coming to a club which had never kicked a competitive ball. He arrived barely five days before their first-ever match.
“If I didn’t come here for the Wanderers’ first season, my football career would be almost finished,” he said. “But when I came here, my career began to ‘live’ again. I learned so much. Not just about football, but about life, about culture, about friends, about teammates. I am very happy to have this.”
Now Ono wouldn’t hesitate to suggest other Japanese players make the trip to the A-League, especially if they want to use it as a stepping stone for bigger things.
“I would say to any player, yes, you should come, definitely,” he said. “There’s many Japanese players who want to play overseas and I can say this league has enough quality. Australia is a great first step for players who want to then go to another country.”
Ono’s first season in particular was littered with highlights, none better than the outrageous chip over Brisbane goalkeeper Michael Theo, a feat he’d like to repeat at the same stage of the finals this season.
“Well, I like to play in big games,” he grins, joyfully recalling the moment. “And that was a really big game. That night I wanted to show everyone my qualities, my potential, by doing something special.”
But are there any lingering scars about losing to the Mariners a week later, ones that could haunt the Wanderers this weekend?
“Actually, I forget about last season and I don’t want to think about the past,” Ono said. “We finished first last season, which was an achievement, but didn’t win. This season, we’re second, so we’ve achieved nothing. Now I want to achieve in the grand final.”
While the Wanderers are established as a domestic power, their Asian success has been achieved in spite of massive rotations from coach Tony Popovic. Ono says it was foolish of anyone to doubt his boss.
“I knew we were a good team so I’m not surprised we made it past the group stage. I’ve been here two seasons and played with these players and everyone improved so much,” Ono said. “I believe in them, every one of them. We all follow the coach and he believes in us. There is so much trust in our group.”
It’s difficult not to cast an eye to the future, however, with Ono’s next stop at Sapporo likely to be his last in a spectacular career.
“I have a 2½-year contract, which for me is very good deal,” he says, hinting it will secure his financial future. “But I’m not thinking about leaving this club. To be honest, I still love playing for the Wanderers and I want to give 100 per cent for this club.
“For them, I’ll never cheat. I’ll never be lazy. And when I’m gone, I will never forget about the Wanderers.”
Source : The Sydney Morning Herald