In late 2012 it appeared Shinji Ono’s fabulous football career was well and truly winding down.
The prodigiously talented attacking midfielder with 56 national team caps had returned to play in his home province in Japan in order to be with his family.
Into his second year with Shimizu S-Pulse, Ono had not found the net all season and was no longer even making the match day squad.
His whole career had been blighted by injuries — who knows what heights he could have reached if his body had held together — but now it all seemed to be catching up with him.
Then came a call from a club in Australia that had only just sprung into existence. The club had been attempting to sign veteran Michael Ballack as their Marquee player, but negotiations fell through due to his hefty wage demands.
Ono was a more accessible option, however, and the 33-year-old signed a two-year contract with the Western Sydney Wanderers at the end of September. It was a decision that would revitalise his flagging career.
The fledgling club may have been taking something of a risk by recruiting a player on the wrong side of 30 with a history of injuries and a lack of recent game time, but the mitigating factor was they knew they type of footballer they were getting; one of immense class.
A star for Japan at youth level, Ono began his professional career with the Urawa Red Diamonds in 1998, and was already so highly regarded that he made the Blue Samurai squad for the World Cup that year as an 18-year-old.
Known for his visionary passing, supreme ball control, trickery and ability to score wonderful goals, the 175cm playmaker would move to Dutch club Feyenoord in 2001, where he played over 100 games and won the UEFA Cup.
In 2002, he was the linchpin of Japan’s run to the Round of 16 at the World Cup and was named Asian Footballer of the Year.
Another stint with the Red Diamonds followed, plus another World Cup appearance in 2006, before Ono spent a season in the Bundesliga with VfL Bochum.
His move back to Shimju came in 2010, and by his second season with S-Pulse his footballing life did not seem to have much of a pulse left.
But that all changed when Ono joined the A-League.
We are all familiar with the Western Sydney Wanderers fairytale last season, as they rode a wave of fanatical support to the Premiership Plate and a Grand Final appearance in their first year in the competition.
And nobody personified the joyous enthusiasm surrounding the side as it gathered momentum throughout the campaign better than their Japanese marquee man.
Ono seemed to feed off the general positivity and started playing the kind of unfettered, expressive, beautiful football that he had produced at the peak of his career.
The rest of the Wanderers outfit, in turn, fed off Ono’s pure talent. In those moments when the performance on the pitch was failing to live up to the expectations of the boisterous crowd, it was inevitably Shinji who would pull off something truly astonishing to send Parramatta Stadium into delirium.
As the red and black phenomenon proved itself to be a lasting force of nature rather than a temporary fad, so too did Ono, demonstrating a longevity that some back in Japan had perhaps believed he wasn’t capable of.
With each new goal added to the highlights reel, new rumours of interest in Ono from clubs back in Japan would emerge.
Finally, it appears the little genius has succumbed to homesickness once more and, according to Fairfax, will accept an offer to join Consadole Sapporo in Japan’s second division at the end of the current campaign.
He will return to Japan two years deeper into his thirties, but rejuvenated and with his shining reputation even further enhanced.
For any other aging superstars around the world considering a late-career stint in the A-League, Ono’s story should serve as an example of how such a move can turn out just about perfectly.