After a poor start to the 2020 Thai League (T1) season, Samut Prakan City’s return to action last September featured a home match against bottom side Rayong.
Despite the appointment of J.League winning head coach Masatada Ishii, Samut Prakan had taken just one point from the first four matches pre-lockdown and the pressure was on.
With almost 70 frustrating and goalless minutes on the clock, Yuto Ono seized upon the ball on edge of the Rayong penalty area, made space for a shot and found the top corner with his weaker right foot.
The wild celebrations that followed were as much out of relief as joy and the goal was enough for a vital three points. The Sea Fang went on a five-match unbeaten run as Ono’s strike proved a turning point of sorts.
Despite a couple of wobbles afterwards, Samut Prakan City have now surged into sixth place in the T1 table on the back of a four-match winning streak, with 17 goals scored in the process – one more than they had struck in the previous 12 matches.
The most recent victory – a swashbuckling performance in a 6-3 triumph over second-placed Port FC – highlighted how much the team had improved since those early and uncertain days of the campaign
The likes of Jaroensak Wonggorn and Barros Tardelli may have made more of the headlines but Ono’s role in the heart of midfield – alongside Thai international Peeradol Chamratsamee – has made him a vital cog in what has become a free scoring machine.
The 29-year-old credits fellow Japanese Ishii for the turnaround which has them aiming even higher. Ishii was a J.League champion as player and manager with Kashima Antlers and Ono feels that he is trying to pass on the winning habits to his new club.
“He came from Kashima Antlers, and has the mentality of a winner,” said Ono. “The mentality is infiltrating our team. That’s why we are now in a good position.
“As a team, we are aiming for the Top 3. And I think I have to do my best for our team to be there.”
Ono arrived in Thailand after a five-year spell at FC Gifu in Japan’s second tier. The move to Southeast Asia was something he had been considering for a while and he is in the perfect position to compare Thailand’s top division with J2.
“I thought I would come to Thailand when the chance arose because I had been interested in the Thai league for some time,” said Ono.
“It is difficult to compare the leagues because each country and culture has its own style of soccer. However, I have two points of view. First, the level of Thai players is very high. There is no difference in individual levels between Thai and Japanese players. But, second, the tactical level of J2 is higher than that of the Thai League.”
As a permanent fixture in the Samut Prakan first team, Ono has clearly settled into the Thai football style. His social media activity indicates that he has also enjoyed getting to know his new city of residence.
Ono regularly posts pictures of various places in his new city of residence and it is one that he has quickly taken to his heart.
“Bangkok is a very nice place and it has everything I want,” he added. “The only thing I don’t like is traffic jams. I am very happy to live in Bangkok.”
While it might not be unusual to see Japanese players in Thailand, Ono’s football journey was far from conventional as he spent his early years in Mexico. The only regret from his time there is that it didn’t serve as a stepping stone for a dream move to Europe.
“I liked football around the world in my childhood and I dreamed of playing particularly in Europe,” said Ono. “At the age of 18, I got the chance to play in Mexico. I knew football in Mexico was popular and its level was high, so I decided to go to Mexico. And I also thought I could have played in Europe if I did well, though unfortunately I couldn’t.”
Nevertheless, the experience in Mexico was a valuable one and it was there he played alongside the man he rates as his most talented ever teammate – a player tasked with marking Neymar when Mexico held Brazil to a 0-0 draw at the 2014 World Cup.
“The best player I have played with is José Juan Vázquez,” said Ono. “I played with him at Celaya in Mexico. He played in the World Cup in 2014 as a member of the Mexican national side. His performance when he stopped Neymar was so impressive.”
While Vazquez stands out as the best player he has played alongside, Ono’s footballing hero is Manchester City legend David Silva – a fellow left-footed midfielder.
While Thai football takes another pandemic-enforced break, Yuto Ono can reflect with satisfaction on his contribution to Samut Prakan City’s impressive campaign so far.
If Ishii’s winning mentality can keep the momentum going when the T1 season resumes, a Top Three finish is certainly not out of the question.