In 2000 I was living in Japan, teaching kids there to speak proper like what I do. I was playing for an ex-pats team called the Kanto Celts, part of a super-hero defensive unit that also featured Duncan Castles, who was then researching animal behaviour (away from the football pitch). We would both end up writing about football for a living, and Duncan would even prove to be very good at it, but back then we were the bad-asses of the greater Tokyo amateur football scene. Well, that’s how I remember it.
I got to see some great football, too. The best of it was a trip to Urawa Red Diamonds, with Steve King, a friend and, then, a colleague. Steve had been in Japan for a while and told me on the drive that Urawa were like Manchester City, back when the current champions of England found themselves in the third tier. They had been relegated, but retained a huge support and were the biggest club outside the top division.
I can’t recall the opposition or the score, but I remember, almost from the kick-off, finding my attention split between the incredible antics of the home Ultras, a flag-waving, hand-clapping, megaphone-hollering lunatic fringe, and Shinji Ono.
Never before had I seen a player so far above the level he was playing at (this was before Falkirk signed Russell Latapy). Ono played in his timezone, always in space and two moves ahead of everybody else. He scored the last goal, I remember that, a long-range shot that started outside the post and ended up kissing it on the way in. He owned the game and how that crowd loved him.
Ono would move to Feyenoord, then back to Urawa. He’s with S-Pulse in Japan now, aged 32. Steve King is in Boston most of the time, but he gets around, let me tell you. Duncan Castles reports on the best football from all over the world. I’m writing this as the rain falls outside a Starbucks in Glasgow, thinking about Tokyo in the summer of 2000.